A few weeks ago, 25Serve to Learn volunteers from five different countries came together in Egypt for three weeks to serve, teach, and play with the world’s greatest kids! A lot of things happened during those three weeks… including an epic water fight in a village called El Barsha… but I’d rather let Jessica Ayob — one of the volunteers — tell you what happened that day and what she ended up learning.
Who’s in this photo?
Volunteers from Serve to Learn, some people from the Coptic Orphans office, and a bunch of my kids.
Where was it taken?
This was taken right in front of our classrooms.
What’s happening in the photo?
We had just finished a massive water fight. The kids had no mercy on us and we were completely drenched, water bottles, hoses, and buckets all came out! Kids were running around everywhere pouring tons of water on each other. Never had I seen such a chaotic scene of all the kids smiling and laughing so hard because water was poured on them. After we finally got them to stop, we went upstairs because there was no possible way “Teta” Mina (the local coordinator) was going to let us walk back home drenched. The kids followed and as the picture was taken we all yelled out “Jamoooosaaa” (cow). I think they make fun of me because of how I pronounce it, but whatever makes them happy :)
How did you feel when it was taken?
For some reason, I felt so proud of them. No matter what happens to them or what they’re going through, God’s light shines so brightly through them.
Why do you want to remember this moment?
I need to remember this picture because I have to remind myself of the simple little things that make the world go round.
If you could help people understand one thing with this photo, what would it be?
We don’t need fancy shoes or phones. We just need a couple of crazy kids yelling out “cow” to be happy.
Interested in learning more about Serve to Learn? Check out our page and our new video, which gives a snapshot of the program!
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.
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.
I’m writing to update you on Coptic Orphans’ support for the children of the 21 martyrs in Libya.
This story actually begins 16 years ago, when we met with H.G. Bishop Pevnotios. Most of the Libya martyrs’ children weren’t even alive then. But today, you will find nearly all of them in His Grace’s diocese in Samalout.
That day 16 years ago, by God’s grace and with your partnership, a seed was planted. His Grace agreed that we would work in his diocese, and he recommended Church-based volunteers to serve as Coptic Orphans Reps.
The Reps worked hard and enrolled more kids. And so, over these past 16 years, we’ve served 1,095 children in Samalout.
Which brings us to today. We have 23 Reps in His Grace’s diocese. Each has relationships of love and mentorship with the orphans who are “their” kids. In regular face-to-face visits, they nurture the kids’ character and talents — and above all, their education.
These Reps know Samalout, they’re trained as a team, and they know that people like you are behind them with support and prayers. Their 16 years of service are just the beginning.
In other words, the seed that was planted 16 years ago, with God’s help, has grown into a tree with branches strong enough to support the Libya martyrs’ children.
With this strong structure in place, we were able to begin investigating the kids’ needs immediately after the massacre. We learned that 10 of the martyrs had left behind a total of 19 children. Of the 19, two live in Mattay and 17 in Samalout. We decided to focus our energies on Samalout, where our strengths and nearly all the kids are.
We spent a lot of time carefully looking at the children and their situations. And because we’re committed to accountability and transparency, I’m reporting what we’ve learned to you.
We discovered that all of the families, by God’s grace, are benefitting from great generosity. Churches, businesspeople, individuals, and other services have supplemented strong support from the Egyptian government. These families now actually have a lot of resources, especially in the short term, even divided among many family members, that will help meet their day-to-day needs. Much of what has been donated from these sources must be shared among the deceased’s wife, his children, his parents, and his unmarried siblings.
We’re grateful that God touched the hearts of so many people and made this outpouring possible. We also know that these children’s needs will continue — and even grow — in the 4, 8, even 10 or more years before they reach adulthood.
That knowledge forced us to do some soul-searching. You, the Coptic Orphans family, decided to sustain the martyrs’ children by donating US$91,902. For a child who is in our program for a normal amount of time, for example, about 8 years, that’s US$676 a year — not a huge amount, but very significant, for Egypt. And clearly these kids are a special case. We couldn’t have anticipated it, but now they’re not “low income” — a prerequisite for being in our program.
We’d committed to standing with these children. But what did they need us for now, with all this money? We studied, discussed, argued, and decided on enrolling them in our program anyway.
To explain why, I need to tell you about a rich woman who approached us, years ago. She was taking care of her two orphaned nephews. She gave them everything, but something was wrong. Compared to other orphans in her area — kids in our program — her nephews were troubled and undisciplined.
She came to us and said, “I want you to enroll my nephews in your program. You don’t have to spend anything on them; I’ll pay for everything. I just want them to have what the other kids in your program are getting. I want them to have the love, the guidance, so they grow up to be healthy people.”
We’ve heard this before, and it echoes what we believe the Coptic Orphans family is really about. Meeting basic needs should be a given. With your partnership, we do that.
But what’s really valuable — and transforming — is the Reps’ work to mentor the child, promote their self-discipline and resilience, instill a strong work ethic, and support their education. That’s real long-term development, not charity.
Therefore, there is a long road ahead with the martyrs’ children in Samalout. Our Reps will give each one the love and mentoring they need. Their families will also receive the wider support we offer to all of the program’s families, such as workshops to help widows manage their finances, and to empower them to support their children. But in terms of your donations, we’ll focus on what we do best: Education.
How that looks will depend on each child. But all of them will need the tutoring that Egypt’s decaying school system has made indispensable. All will need constant guidance that education, not a pension, is the road to independence. Some will advance to university, and we’ll support them by paying tuition and fees.
We’ll only know the final results of these efforts when these children grow up. The seed planted 16 years ago, in the meeting with H.G. Bishop Pevnotios, is still growing.
But however this turns out, the Coptic Orphans family will have done everything possible to make sure that the children of the Libya martyrs are loved, supported, mentored, and educated. Thank you for partnering with us, with God at the center.