Ola Ghabbour, the Woman Who Changed Egypt for Children

Ola Ghabbour (right) with Coptic Orphans executive director Nermien Riad at the 2008 Coptic Orphans Gala in New York.
Ola Ghabbour (right), trailblazing humanitarian and recipient of the Coptic Orphans Leading by Example Award, with Nermien Riad at the 2008 Coptic Orphans Gala.

Dear Friends,
Today, my family and I are celebrating a special time of remembrance for God’s blessings — Thanksgiving Day. It’s a pause for reflection and gratitude for people we’ve known and experiences we’ve shared. For that reason, I’d like to share an article our staff wrote about a great humanitarian, our friend Ola Ghabbour. Although she passed away last year, to the sorrow of all who knew her, we continue to give thanks for her work for the children of Egypt.
— Nermien

Ola Ghabbour, who passed away last year, was not a person to waste time. The first week after her honeymoon, recalls her husband Raouf, she asked him for buses.

“Buses?” asked Raouf, one of Egypt’s leading businessmen. “What do you need buses for?”

To Ola, it was very clear. At only 19, she was already caring for children with special needs through a foundation set up by one of her best friends, Magda Moussa.

“These kids are locked in the house all week,” Ola told her new husband. “At least on the weekend I could take them to the zoo or the aquatic gardens. It would make them happy.”

And so Ghabbour company buses began spending weekends on the road, pressed into service for Egypt’s children.

That was Ola’s approach: She had her work cut out for her, and so did anything or anyone who could help a child. That is how she created — out of thin air — Egypt’s largest and most advanced hospital for children, 57357, which treats 12,000 active patients annually and has saved countless lives.

It was an approach that won her respect and recognition both in Egypt and abroad. Someone once asked Sir Magdi Yacoub, the pioneering Egyptian heart surgeon, “Who are the two people who’ve influenced you most in life?” After some thought, came his reply: “Nelson Mandela and Ola Ghabbour.”

That recognition continues to today.

“I’ve never seen anyone work the way Ola worked for the children of Egypt,” said Nermien Riad, founder and executive director of the Christian development organization Coptic Orphans.

Riad’s organization presented Ghabbour with its Leading by Example Award in 2008. Other recipients of the award include businessman Naguib Sawiris, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs Liz Cheney, and in 2014, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II.

“It’s important that the world continues to learn from Ola’s leadership and incredible spirit of volunteerism, so we honored her at our 25th anniversary gala in Washington, D.C. this October,” said Riad.

But awards and recognition were not what drove Ghabbour, and her work exacted a price.

“When I’d see Ola in the hospital with the children with cancer, I would see her treating them as if they were her own children,” said Raouf Ghabbour. “The baby would be looking at her while she carried him around, but she wouldn’t show anything. But every day when she came home, she would cry — the moment she came back.”

“Most people who do charity do it in addition to other things,” Ghabbour said. “Ola dedicated her whole life to it. Charity, for her, was not just about supporting people in the physical sense. She believed in supporting people who had no one else to support them in both the body and the soul.”

The story of Ola Ghabbour’s transformation into the champion of Egypt’s children begins around 1995, when, according to her husband, she learned about the “blue babies” — children born near death because of perforated hearts.

“In the 80s, they used to die,” said Ghabbour. “Someone told her this, and she found a doctor in Europe and convinced him to come every month and do a week of free surgeries. With the Cairo University faculty of medicine, she put in a team of teachers. And in no time, children stopped dying.”

This success gave Ola even bigger ideas, including one that was the genesis of Hospital 57357.

“The same thing happened with lots of children in the 1980s who had cancer,” said Ghabbour. “The moment they had cancer in one of their limbs, they’d amputate it. She brought in a French doctor. We used to pay his airfare and hotel. He’d come one a month for a week or 10 days, do lots of surgeries, but no amputations. And again, this stopped being a problem.”

According to Ghabbour, his wife’s next stop was the Cancer Institute.

“She came back very depressed,” he recalled. “‘What’s wrong, Ola?’ I asked. She told me: ‘There are very good doctors and nurses, but they don’t have the money for medicines, so people are dying.’ I told her, ‘OK, look into it, then give me the names of the people who need support.’ She came back and said that the monthly amount is x,  to buy medicines, to buy beds.”

Ola Ghabbour’s fundraising for the institute was a success, and changed the lives of countless patients. But she still perceived greater needs of children with cancer, and she was only getting started.

“She came back after that, saying, ‘I want to do a cancer hospital for children,'” Ghabbour remembered. “And although everything Ola did was great, this was the greatest.”

Networking through her friends and family, Ola Ghabbour raised hundreds of millions of pounds and convinced the government to donate the necessary plot of land.

At one point, when many donations had come in, there was a pause as the building campaign caught its breath. But once the foundations had been poured, the campaign picked up speed once again, and by July 7, 2007, Children’s Cancer Hospital 57375 (so named for the number of the bank account receiving donations) opened its doors.

“It all started like this. This is how Egyptians are — they’ve been tricked so many times, they need to see something real,” Raouf Ghabbour said of the tangible foundation that spurred the campaign onward. “But the moment they see, their hearts are huge, and they begin giving.”

The results of Ola’s efforts are visible today. Children’s Cancer Hospital 57375 is a gleaming beacon of glass and steel in Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood. With 250 doctors and 1,332 nurses for inpatients, an advanced computer system for record-keeping, and 35 outpatient clinics, the hospital is amply prepared to treat thousands of patients each day.

The doors of the hospital are open to sick children aged up to 18, who, in keeping with Ola Ghabbour’s vision of “giving back” to the community, are treated for free.

“This is an astonishing legacy for one person,” said Riad. “If you take even the rough numbers of children treated through her work over the years, you have to be looking at an enormous number of Egyptian kids who owe their life, in some fashion, to Ola Ghabbour’s efforts.”

And though the fame of Hospital 57375 brought her honors and accolades, they never went to her head. Humility and stubborn resistance to high living remained her hallmark traits until she passed away in 2013.

“She always refused to get anything for herself, to the extent that I used to take her out and buy things for her,” said Raouf Ghabbour. “If something was expensive, she would say ‘no’ to it. On our wedding anniversary or her birthday, I would bring her jewelry. She used to make a big fuss, saying, ‘Take these things back to the guy. Give me the cash, and I’ll give it to charity x, y, z.'”

And though she fought and lost to cancer — the foe she’d beaten so many times for the children — to the very end, she retained another of her traits: humor.

“Ola was the funniest person on Earth. She used to love laughing, and she made us all laugh. She was jadda3,” said Raouf Ghabbour. “She was someone you could rely on in all situations — she never lost her lucidity or judgment, even in the most difficult circumstances.”

In Egypt, where an estimated 8,400 children develop cancer each year, countless families lean on the the strength and the vision of Ola Ghabbour.

“Ola Ghabbour changed Egypt for the children, making it a more humane, more advanced, more caring place,” said Riad. “All of us who work for the children owe her a huge debt, because she changed Egypt for them, and for everyone who loves them.”

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.

4 thoughts on “Ola Ghabbour, the Woman Who Changed Egypt for Children

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Mohga. I’m glad that you feel touched by Ola’s life and work. So many children (and grown-ups) still feel her presence in their lives, too. Peace and grace to you and your loved ones.

  1. she certainly is the most admirable person i have known beautiful inside and out she is fondly remembered by all those who loved her
    gone too soon

    1. Thank you, Mona, for sharing your kind words. We feel the same way. Let’s take inspiration from Ola’s work, going forward. Peace and grace to you and your loved ones.

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