Category Archives: Approaches to Charity and Development

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.”

22 Young People + The Cairo Opera House. Could This Be Love?

Dressed to impress on the evening of the concert!
Dressed to impress on the evening of the concert!

Something really spectacular took place on the night of Oct. 23 at the Greater Theater of the Cairo Opera House!

Now that I’ve caught my breath from our 25th Anniversary Galas, I wanted to share what happened that evening, when 22 young people in our Not Alone program mingled with other music lovers at a concert.

I say “other music lovers” because I believe we all have an inborn, God-given love of music from an early age. That’s why we work to expose our programs’ participants to the arts — to nurture this love, and their talents.

The excitement all started when Dr. Mona Zaki, CEO of Global Strategic Consultants, arranged for 22 Not Alone participants, all university students, to attend a concert at the opera house along with their seven volunteer Reps.

Dr. Zaki, a professor at the American University in Cairo and sister of celebrated philanthropist and humanitarian Ola Ghabbour, made sure all the arrangements were in place for what promised to be a night of firsts.

For their part, the Reps took it upon themselves to go shopping with their “kids” for the proper attire for the event, and to educate them on what to expect.

The big night arrived, and as you can see from the photo above, the concert-goers were prepared!

That evening, they heard works by Mendelssohn and Mozart. The music was — well, I wasn’t there, so I’ll let those who went tell you how it was!

“The best part of the night was when the violinist stood up to play her solo. I felt like standing up and clapping for her, but I couldn’t do that because it wasn’t proper etiquette,” said Mariam Milad, from Imbaba.

“I was really taken by the level of organization, and the elegance of the place and the people,” she added.

“It was a dream come true,” said Marina Zakarey, a music-lover from Warraq.

“I grew up thinking that music — especially ‘foreign music’ — was a waste of time,” said Marina Mounir, from Ma’sarah. “But after this concert, I’m completely hooked on classical music.”

Responses like this reaffirm our commitment to reaching one of the Not Alone program’s fundamental goals — to encourage the development of a well-rounded personality in each young person. This focus on the child’s personal transformation is what sets Coptic Orphans apart from traditional charity work.

It’s a well-established fact that exposure to the fine arts is integral to achieving a balanced, healthy personality. Research shows that the arts engage young people in a creative way that regular schools and tests don’t provide. Moreover, studies consistently show that the arts play an important role in human development, enhancing the growth of cognitive, emotional, and psychomotor pathways.

If what the young concert-goers reported is any guide, being at the opera that night certainly pushed their boundaries and took them into a wealth of new experiences.

Best of all, the evening may only be a catalyst for greater personal development. For example, Dr. Zaki could see Marina’s excitement about the concert, and afterwards agreed to teach her how to read music!

Who knows where that will take Marina, and in what creative ways each concert-goer will choose to live out their new-found appreciation for classical music? That’s the beauty of the arts. Each new discovery opens doors to an entire universe.

We’ll have to see. For now, we’re incredibly grateful to Dr. Zaki for arranging this remarkable night at the Cairo Opera House!

Ambition vs. Tradition: How Egypt’s Widows Are Claiming Their Future, 1 Business at a Time

Small Business
In Egypt, starting a small business is no small undertaking.

Every day in Egypt, smart women — aspiring entrepreneurs — face challenges that would shred most people like a dry leaf in a wood chipper. For starters, most women there contend with crushing sexism and soaring inflation.

But Egypt’s widows face even huger challenges. Traditions restrict how they dress, who they speak to, where they go. Often, they can’t leave the house to work and put bread on the table. That’s even if their children are malnourished.

B’edaya is a microfinance initiative designed to handle exactly these hostile conditions — the everyday life of a widow in Egypt. It tailors small loans to the needs of the mothers of orphans. The aim is to give them an income, more ability to feed their children, and more control of their lives.

Of the 30 women now taking part in B’edaya, from mid-January to October 2014, only one (because of severe illness) was unable to make her monthly loan repayments. In the harsh climate I just described, how is that possible?

In answer, I want to share the story of one of these women. Some details of her life are unique among the B’edaya widows. But her fighting spirit and will to secure a better future for her children are not.

Warda is a 30-year-old who lives outside the city of Sohag. In this region, where the searing-hot desert is split by the Nile’s waters, her husband died on the roads while transporting stone.

Since 2012, she’s run a grocery out of her house — since tradition dictates that she can’t leave it. She feeds her two children with the profits she makes selling sugar, rice, cheese, oil, and some canned goods to her neighbors.

Warda started her grocery with a loan of 1,700 Egyptian pounds that predated B’edaya. It came through Coptic Orphans, with the encouragement of the volunteer representative who mentors her children.

So far, the income she sought is arriving — not all she hopes for, yet, but enough to put food on the table. Today, she’s part of B’edaya, and makes regular payments on her loan through the program.

Why has her business succeeded so far? Warda attributes it to her own:

  • Courage and lack of fear of the situation surrounding her
  • Ability to take into consideration the culture of the people and their needs
  • Selection of a project that fits the nature of the restrictions imposed on widows in her region
  • High ambitions and desire that the project become her main source of income
  • Basic knowledge about reading and writing
  • High level of organization and awareness of her business environment

Michael, the B’edaya staff member who works with Warda, says her success is a function of her:

  • Drive to secure a sustainable monthly income
  • Courage and determination to change her status as a widow
  • Ambition to use her personal abilities to become self-reliant
  • Flexibility in the face of shifting conditions
  • Ability to search out alternatives and solutions
  • Awareness of how to properly manage her project

To these factors, Michael adds the encouragement Warda has received from both him and the Coptic Orphans “rep” who helps meet her children’s education, health, and other needs.

Lastly, mixed into Michael’s list, among many other factors, is the B’edaya loan. In other words, this is so much more than “take one entrepreneur, add loan, watch the results.” The widow herself must bring positive qualities to the table.

At the end of the day, this last aspect of B’edaya is what sets it apart from so many other approaches to charity and development.

Unquestionably, the loan and the income it generates are good things. But the loan is only a catalyst — a means for Warda to harness her inner drive and latent abilities, and in the process, be transformed.

This aimed-for transformation from helpless, house-bound widow to self-sufficient businesswoman is the opposite of traditional charity, which (even if well-intentioned) creates a dependency on handouts.

Which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning of this report: “How is it possible that 29 out of 30 widows made their B’edaya loan payments over almost a year?”

I would say the critical answer is this: The loan program does not focus on these women’s weaknesses — instead, it harnesses their strengths. It unlocks what’s within them. And that’s the key to success.

*Image and names changed to protect the privacy and dignity of B’edaya participants