‘An Unbelievable Blessing’ — Mirelle Botros Reflects on Serve to Learn

Mirelle Botros and one of her Serve to Learn classes, summer of 2014.
Mirelle Botros and her Serve to Learn participants, summer of 2014.

I wanted to let you know that the last day to apply for the Jan. 16-Feb. 7 Serve to Learn session is Nov. 15!

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, I’m glad you found this post. Keep reading to hear about Serve to Learn in an interview with Mirelle Botros. She was a volunteer this summer, and can tell you what it’s like first-hand. You can also check out earlier interviews with Ben, Kirollos, Mariam, and Alex.

But first, in a nutshell: Serve to Learn is a life-changing,  three-week trip that brings youth from all over the world to Egypt. There, these volunteers teach children basic English skills through fun activities. Arabic and a background in teaching are useful but not critical — just be ready for some hard work, lots of love, and to be forever changed!

Mirelle had these experiences to share:

Is there anything that you learned while in Egypt that you tried to replicate back home? What was that?

I feel like I’ve learned from the children more than I gave them. I realized in them that, even though they are lacking so much on this earthly world, the children have so much more in the heavenly world than we do. I learned not only how to serve the children and to love them, but I saw in them the deep appreciation of God. I learned from them how to thank Him in everything, to hold on to Him and to always maintain a strong and faithful relationship with Him in everything I do. I learned that you gain so much more by leading an extremely simple life and not taking things for granted.

Did anything you see while you were in Egypt help you better understand yourself or someone you know?

First thing I noticed while teaching in the classrooms was that EVERY one of my students had not only a cross tattooed on their wrists but also pictures of St. Mary, St. George, and many other saints. When one of my 7th graders asked why I didn’t have a cross on my wrist, I immediately looked down and questioned why I really didn’t have one, especially after talking to my students.

Likewise, I asked them why they all carried the symbol of the cross on their wrists and what it really meant to them. A few answers stood out to me. A student mentioned that it was a representation of their faith in Christ and that it was a symbol of unity among them.

I realized how much stronger these students were than myself and how they all had much more of a relationship with God than I did. A week later, we were at a monastery in Cairo and we saw a tattoo artist as soon as we walked in. I jumped on the opportunity and, despite all the limitations and risks, I made the decision to get one myself. As soon as I got back to school the following week, all my students noticed that I had gotten it.

Serve to Learn participants and Mirelle Botros display their tattoos of the cross.
Serve to Learn participants and Mirelle Botros display their tattoos of the cross.

The questions continued when I got back to the States. Many of my friends, shocked that I out of all people had gotten a tattoo, questioned me about the meaning behind this cross on my wrist. I explained to them what the word “Coptic” meant and about the meaning behind my faith. It became a source of evangelizing in a sense. The best part was when I walked into a Mediterranean restaurant on campus and immediately the cashier asked if I was Coptic. I nodded my head and he raised his arm out and showed me the cross on his wrist. He told me that he had just arrived in Austin a few weeks ago and that he was looking for a Coptic church around the area. As president of the Coptic organization on campus, and we reached out to him and welcomed him to our church. Just like my student said… a symbol of UNITY! All through the cross tattooed on my wrist!

When you tell your friends about your summer, what stories do you tell most? Can you tell us that story? 

What intrigued me most about the program was the home visits. Most of my stories revolve around the different experiences I had at the many houses I visited. My second and second to last home visits left a great impact on me.

During my second visit, I was out with Veronika Tadross and we visited eight-year-old twins. After playing some games with them, we asked them about their talents and George told us that he enjoyed writing poems. He decided to dedicate a poem to “Miss Veronika” who had also visited him in previous years. On the spot, he narrated the poem to us and I was immediately in tears. He basically said that every time Veronika comes back to Egypt, their hearts are filled with joy and every time she leaves, their hearts are vacant again. He ended the poem saying “benhebek ya Mama Veronika.” In fact, when I was asked to talk to Pope Tawadros about my experience at Serve to Learn so far, I couldn’t help but tell him that story.

My second to last visit was the most difficult. It was a 30-year old-woman who had lost her husband seven years ago. When I asked how she was doing, she said nothing more than that she was constantly ill and that she had spent the past seven years grieving over her husband, doing nothing but crying and sleeping. She gave her children absolutely no attention. After listening to her story, I felt like I just wanted to give her a hug and let her cry on my shoulders. Toni, another volunteer, knelt down on the ground and sat by her to comfort her. Struggling to let out words, her crying caused us all to cry as well. At the end of the visit, I asked her if we could all stand up and pray together for her well-being and for God to “look out for her children and to provide them with success”… her only request.

Another one of my stories is when I got sick and was forced to leave class one day. One of the children at school realized that I was gone and asked another volunteer to deliver a note to me. It said “Hope you feel better Miss Mirelle. I am going to miss you a lot when you leave. Never forget me and remember to look at the pictures we took on your phone. I want you to come back next year. Nabil.” I was so happy to see the impact we had on the children.

What advice do you have for us while we plan next year’s Serve to Learn trip? 

I absolutely loved everything about the program. I loved the hospitality of the representatives, the communal living, and the fact that we were all working towards one and the same goal… to love the children and learn how to serve them. The one thing I would say ya’ll could improve on is that the instructions we were given for the gifts and supplies we needed to bring were vague. I feel like the email was not very helpful and I had to figure everything out for myself when I got there.

What is the most powerful thing you would say to someone to convince them to sign up for Serve To Learn 2015?

I’ve been talking about Serve to Learn ever since I got back. Many of my friends who I talk to about my experience are like “Wow, now I really want to go.”

I would tell people that serving these children and touching their hearts is an unbelievable blessing. The joy that you realize you are bringing to the lives of so many people, who lead extremely simple lives, is amazing! Spending time with your students and just getting to know them and learning their names means the world to them. The relationships I’ve built with some of them is something that I would carry with me forever. The hardest thing we had to do while on the trip was say “bye” to the children on the last day. It was very emotional letting go. I would do anything to go back just for these children!

You can apply now for Serve to Learn; the November 15 deadline is practically here! Don’t forget that applications for the July 3-25 session are also out! If you still have questions, you can learn more by reading the Serve to Learn FAQ, or by writing to us directly at info@copticorphans.org.

Also, you can watch His Holiness encourage young people to serve the children in Egypt in this video made at one of Coptic Orphans’ recent 25th Anniversary Galas. (Don’t forget to go to the one in Australia on Nov. 9 — here’s your video invitation!) Lastly, you can check out  the “Top 5 Myths Why You Can’t Take Part in Serve to Learn Debunked.” 

PS  Please go to the top of this post and hit the “Like” button, then share the post, tweet it, email it to everyone you know, print it out and pass it out to 5 of your friends, and finally, stand in the middle of a busy intersection with a megaphone and shout it out!  

About Nermien Riad

Nermien Riad founded Coptic Orphans in 1988 after volunteering for an orphanage in Cairo. When she saw that most of the children had living widowed mothers who simply couldn't afford to feed them, she gathered family and friends to sponsor children in Egypt. Today Coptic Orphans works through a network of 400+ church-based volunteers in Egypt, who visit fatherless families in their homes and make sure they get everything they need to unlock their full potential. That way, they don't have to get married off as child brides, work as 10-year old family breadwinners, or go to live at an institutional orphanage.