‘Tema Has No School for the Blind’ — And Why That’s Not Enough to Stop One of Our Kids

Speaking at the Compassion Global Advocacy Forum in South Africa, June 24, 2015.
Speaking at the Compassion Global Advocacy Forum in South Africa, June 24, 2015.

Dear Friends,
To help build a worldwide network of advocates for the children, I visited South Africa June 24-26 to speak at the Annual Global Advocacy Forum of Compassion International. Below is my presentation. It was a great chance to explain our work in 55 dioceses with our amazing Church-based volunteer Reps. Best of all, I got to talk about the courage of the kids themselves, especially Marina, whose story I shared.
— Nermien

I’m grateful to Compassion for all of their work for the children, and for inviting me here today. It is really energizing to share the room with so many inspiring people and stories.

Coptic Orphans is an international NGO serving over 10,000 children all over Egypt. We focus on providing high-quality education to break the cycle of poverty, and we support the children in staying with family members and out of institutions. In 25 years, we’ve been able to touch the lives of over 30,000 kids.

But that’s too dry of a description. Before I go further, I’d like you to meet Marina, my friend.

Marina lives in the governorate of Sohag in the small town of Tema; in the South of Egypt — historically neglected by the centralized government in Cairo — the last to get roads, the last to get electricity, and so on. Poverty is highest in the South, with up to 40% living below the poverty line.

Marina faces a corrupt educational system where teachers are underpaid, and they make it up by forcing students to take private lessons from them. These lessons can eat up half of a family’s income. It’s become so bad that the poor can no longer afford the “free” educational system.

Marina is also a Christian. She faces discrimination. It’s only been in modern times that the jizya tax has been abolished. It’s a special tax on Christians not only meant to be a financial burden, but also one of humiliation. So you ask, “But if I don’t say I’m Christian, no one will know to be able to discriminate against me.” Well, the government has made it easy. Right on the government-issued ID, it states my religion. So at every traffic stop, and every occasion where I’m enrolling my kid in school, at paying my phone bill — it’s known what I am.

Marina is also a girl, which means she faces FGM, which has a prevalence rate of 92% in Egypt.

As if that’s not enough, her father, the only breadwinner, passes away. Her mother is left with no income, young children, and having to navigate for the first time on her own in a very male-dominated society.

Of course it can’t possibly get worse — but it does. While in the 2nd grade, Marina comes down with spinal meningitis. It takes two months for her family to take her to the doctor; by then, it has affected her eyesight. Marina will never be able to see again.

For two years, Marina sits at home in the dark. In comes Coptic Orphans. Tharwat, our staff member, knows that to enroll a child, they have to be enrolled in school. He asks her, “Do you want to continue your education?” Marina cries. “I can’t see, how can I continue my education?”

They were determined. Tema has no school for the blind. So Sister Madeline, the Coptic Orphans volunteer based in the Church, arranged to have her enrolled in a school in Sohag — which meant she would take her every week, and bring her back every weekend. Marina was terrified. She hadn’t been outside her home in two years, and now she was going to live far away, by herself. With words of encouragement and some prodding, Sister Madeline got her to go.

Sister Madeline even arranged for a Braille teacher for her over the summer. Marina is now 18, she has completed the 7th grade, and is at the top of her class.

When the church saw this, they asked her, “Marina, we need your help, can you teach Braille to the other kids who can’t see?”

Isn’t this where we want to be? To be needing our children to help us?

I remember Marina telling me, “I’m so lucky to have someone love me as much as Sister Madeline does.” And I truly felt that love — I was almost jealous.

It was the relationships — not money, not knowledge, that caused such a transformation.
Bottom line, the more in Christ and in His likeness we are, the more effective we become and see such remarkable transformations to literally move from darkness — to metaphorical light.

Powerful transformations can only happen in Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of the Father.

So who are these volunteers?

They are servants of the church, and it’s imperative to work with the Church. When I speak of the Church, I mean the Coptic Orthodox Church with adherents of over 95% of the Christian population in Egypt. The bishops in the 55 dioceses where we work know that we emphasize bringing children and their families out of isolation and back to the liturgy, back to Church activities, back to serving the Church. We also help achieve their mission to serve the poor. The more we support the Church’s mission of tending to the flock, the more we find local Church leaders welcoming and embracing our work.

We give extensive training to our volunteers , who are also Sunday school teachers and youth ministers, so the training finds its way back to the Church. Some of the volunteers even become priests — our way of giving back to the Church.

God has blessed us with tremendous growth and success over the last 25 years. By the grace of God, today, if you walk into almost any Egyptian community from Assiut to Alexandria, the odds are good that you’ll meet families who’ve benefited from Coptic Orphans’ work.

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.