Category Archives: Diaspora

4 Biggest Myths About Coptic Orphans

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We love the kids we serve, and their families, so it’s important that everyone knows what we actually do.

People get a lot of ideas about Coptic Orphans, some of them reasonable, some of them nutty. Here are the four most common things I hear about Coptic Orphans that make me want to explain, or point to things in our annual report, or tear out my hair.

1. Coptic Orphans runs orphanages.

There’s a microscopic grain of truth to this myth, but you’d have to go back decades to find it. The grain is that I founded Coptic Orphans to support 45 girls in a Cairo orphanage. But that was back in the 1980s, and it didn’t take me long to discover that orphanages aren’t the best solution.

Today, what Coptic Orphans actually does is make sure that a child who’s lost a parent can stay with a family member. In Coptic Orphans, that usually means staying with their mother. That’s the situation we’ve managed to sustain for most of the nearly 10,000 kids we currently serve.

Lately, I’ve been relieved to read the latest research on what’s really beneficial to children. The studies confirm what I could feel in my gut. Everyone from Save the Children to Lumos now agrees that putting kids in institutions, except in extreme cases, is actually harmful. In fact, we’ve seen horrible examples that confirm the damage that institutionalization can do to a child, including a high-profile case in Egypt.

So there are no Coptic Orphans orphanages, for one simple reason: Keeping a child with his or her family is, as a rule, far more healthy than placing them in an institution.

2. Coptic Orphans only benefits Copts.

It’s true that all the children in our flagship program, Not Alone, are Copts. We’re constrained by a lot of factors in who we can enroll in Not Alone, not least by the need to be sure we’re never perceived as proselytizing. Egyptian law strictly forbids that, and believe me, we don’t want to tangle with that law.

Since each child in Not Alone is visited at home by a Church-based volunteer “Rep,” we clearly have a limited pool of children we can serve without risking misplaced accusations that get us in trouble. On that basis alone, we’ve never considered expanding Not Alone to non-Copts.

But there are important ways in which Not Alone benefits not only Copts, but also the wider Egyptian society. It’s hard to contain the positive effects of a program like Not Alone, because the kids we serve grow up to be more productive citizens. No society can function without well-educated, civic-minded adults, and it’s exactly those people that Not Alone aims to nurture and support.

Just as importantly, we also directly serve both Christian and Muslim girls and young women ages 7-22 through our Valuable Girl Project. While the project serves many Not Alone kids, it functions independently and is funded by a different pool of donors. It’s been running for over 12 years, focusing on academic retention, education, and literacy, and it peaked at 15 sites around Egypt. Through it, young women in secondary school, the “Big Sisters,” mentor girls in primary school, the “Little Sisters.” Local coordinators based in partner organizations oversee these mentorship programs.

The project offers a bridge to understanding between Christian and Muslim community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. In this way, we do more than simply stand with disadvantaged girls as they work to break the cycle of poverty. We also increase the overall level of Christian-Muslim understanding and mutual respect in Egyptian society.

So it’s a myth that our work benefits only Copts. In both direct and indirect ways, we serve the wider Egyptian community — and we’re proud of it.

3. Coptic Orphans is a charity.

It’s easy to mistake Coptic Orphans for a charity. After all, like a charity, people give money for a good cause and expect results. What makes Coptic Orphans different, however, is the results we expect and deliver. These results come from taking a “transformational,” rather than a “charity,” approach.

The “charity” approach relates to people as victims who depend on handouts. The “transformational” approach is proactive and defines people as equal partners in transforming their lives and developing their communities. We who are blessed to walk with them on this journey are also transformed, as part of One Body in Christ. When we talk about Coptic Orphans as a “development” organization, it’s largely in terms of this transformation.

What makes our approach “transformational” is acknowledging that God is at the center. All true change comes from the Holy Spirit, and flows from and points to the Kingdom of God.

I’ve seen the transformational approach make huge changes in people’s lives. One example is our B’edaya initiative, which provides the widowed mothers of our Not Alone children with loans and skills to start businesses.

In B’edaya, income generation for the widow’s family is important, but it’s just the beginning. The big picture — and what’s transformational — is each widow’s change from passivity and hopelessness to feeling fulfilled, valuable to herself and others, and in control of her own destiny. This contrasts with the charity approach, which would involve simply giving the widows money or material goods.

So with Coptic Orphans, there are no hand-outs. We work so that people’s lives are transformed, by God’s grace, and they can stand on their own two feet.

4. Coptic Orphans has insane overhead costs.

This is both a good laugh and my least favorite myth.

Here’s a related story: Once, I heard that a particular individual was telling people that Coptic Orphans spends some ridiculous sum on things that don’t directly benefit the kids, like administrative costs, fundraising, and so on. I got so ticked off, I went to his house and knocked on his door to tell him what I’m about to tell you (but here, I’m going to sound a great deal calmer).

The truth is, in 2014, the last year for which we were audited (and we’re independently audited every year) 90% of what we spent went directly to program expenses for the children. Only 7% went for fundraising, and only 3% for management and general expenses.

For the nonprofit field, this is excellent. Research on nonprofit overhead finds that 20% is considered the norm. And as for ordinary people’s perceptions of what’s normal — “the average American believes that a charity should spend no more than 23 percent on overhead.”

In other words, Coptic Orphans spends far, far less on overhead than what is considered normal by the experts, or by the average person. That’s a key reason why Charity Navigator, North America’s largest independent evaluator of nonprofit financial effectiveness and accountability, has given us their highest 4-star rating for two years in a row.

I’m proud of that. We accomplish this low overhead by all kinds of cost-saving measures. The main one is that there are no luxuries associated with working at Coptic Orphans. People who work here believe passionately in spending everything on the kids, so they go through all kinds of contortions to save money. So, for example, when we travel to make a presentation at a church or partner organization, if there’s any way possible, we stay at the home of a supporter rather than at a hotel. Over time, these savings add up to a large sum of money that goes for the kids.

So that’s the myth about our overhead. The bottom line is, don’t apply for a job here expecting to ride around in a limo, fly around in the company blimp, or stay at the Cairo Sheraton. The biggest perk anyone gets from working at Coptic Orphans is an occasional bowl of my shorbet el ads.

Those are the four biggest myths about what Coptic Orphans does. Thanks for reading.

Would You Call Yourself a Copt?

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Two Copts take a break during Serve to Learn 2014 in Egypt.

Not long ago, many of the staff here at Coptic Orphans sat down to talk about what it means to be a Copt. We also tried to figure out how Copts and our identity are intertwined with Egypt. As you can imagine, we talked a lot about molokhia.

We started from the premise that we weren’t trying to define a Coptic identity, because that’s for theologians and other people far more knowledgeable than we are. We ended with a deeper appreciation for the rich religious and cultural heritage that we have, as Christians rooted in a land where Jesus walked.

One thing we learned is that, without a doubt, “Lots of people have lots of opinions.” In fact, as often as we tried to throw something into the basket of things labeled “Copt,” someone would try to grab it and throw it out. That was true, for example, with the idea of Coptic language. Some saw knowing Coptic as a critical aspect of being a Copt. Others found that idea mysterious.

Actually, the more we looked at the word “Copt,” the more we realized that there were people using it in multiple ways. There was certainly the religious meaning — that was indispensable. But there were also cultural meanings. And even if we managed to group all these elements in an orderly way, who were we to decide who was a Copt and who was not?

In fact, the more we talked, the more we realized that we weren’t even sure how many people saw themselves. In a few cases, we wondered if the simplest thing wasn’t simply to ask people, “Would you call yourself a Copt?”

For we who are not theologians, this makes all kinds of sense. First, because it’s not up to us to judge. And second, because the unfolding of the Coptic diaspora has created people whose complex backgrounds don’t fit neat definitions.

It’s no longer that you’re simply a Copt from Minya or Sohag or wherever. An Ethiopian Copt living in the United States considers themselves just as Coptic as the Copt from Shobra. Another person may be Australian born and bred, without the faintest conception of Egypt, yet they come to the word “Copt” by way of conversion. And then there are people who see themselves as Christians within One Body in Christ, whose Coptic roots come with their Egyptian heritage.

In short, we have a lot of thinking to do, together. It’s not an abstract conversation, though, because it has real-world consequences. We discovered this the other day when we posted the rules to an essay contest connected with Serve to Learn. Probably with much less thinking than was merited, we wrote: “To apply for one of these two free trips you must be of Coptic ancestry.”

“Coptic ancestry.”


So we’re going to have to revisit those two words, or at least better define what we were not talking about. With apologies to anyone who might have felt excluded. In using the words “Coptic ancestry, ” here’s what we, non-theologians and non-social scientists that we are, were trying to convey:

Would you call yourself a Copt?

If so, please take part in the essay contest. We’d love to have you enter.

That leaves the question of why we’d limit the contest to people who think of themselves as Copts. There are a few reasons.

The first is that the contest prizes — essentially, scholarships to take part in Serve to Learn for free — were donated by supporters who asked that they be designated as such, as tools to help tie future generations to Egypt.

The second is that we’re trying to make these scholarships accessible to young people whose families arrived not long ago from Egypt, and who may be facing the same financial challenges that most new immigrant families face.

And third, we’re looking to make the scholarships more accessible to people who already have a cultural or religious tie to Egypt that they’re trying to strengthen — because, let’s face it, there aren’t any other resources out there to help them connect with that heritage.

So, with that in mind, and in good faith that we’ve done a better job communicating this time, we’re looking forward to some amazing essays.

Win a Free Trip to Egypt!

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Serve to Learn is a chance to build personal relationships of love with children in Egypt!

I’ve just received great news: Through the grace of God, two generous donors are offering to send a pair of volunteers on our Serve to Learn trip to Egypt — for free!

These donors have agreed to cover the program fee and airfare for two volunteers to take part in the July 3-25 session of Serve to Learn, our unique initiative to connect volunteers from around the world to Egypt.

To qualify for this opportunity, you’ll need to do two things. First, submit an application for Serve to Learn by the April 15 deadline. Second, enter our essay contest about strengthening and preserving our Coptic identity (details below)!

Free trip or no free trip, if you take part in Serve to Learn, you can count on having a life-changing experience serving God’s children! Here’s how your three weeks in Egypt will look:

  • First, you’ll see the real Egypt, because you’ll stay in a village along the Nile — Manfalout, Matay, Gerga, Abnoub, Tema, or Barsha — and live among the people.
  • Second, you’ll have the area’s bishop on your side — he’ll provide you with hospitality and watch out for your safety.
  • Third, you’ll make a difference in the lives of kids in the diocese by teaching them basic English skills through fun, interactive games and activities.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, you’ll visit the children at home, learn about their lives, and build deep, loving relationships with them.

Serve to Learn is also an opportunity to connect more deeply with the Church. Last year, the volunteers were also blessed to be called to a special meeting with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, and they received a spiritual orientation from Abouna Dawood Lamey.

Are you ready for this life-changing experience in Egypt? Returning volunteers say Serve to Learn really transforms the way they look at the world. Join Serve to Learn, and you’ll come home changed in ways you could never predict.

But remember, the April 15 deadline is coming fast, so apply now, because spots are limited!

Essay Contest Rules:

To qualify to win one of these two free trips you must:

  • Be of Coptic ancestry
  • Apply for the July 2015 Serve to Learn trip by April 15
  • Submit the essay on Coptic heritage to by May 1, 2015

Please write a 1,500-2,000 word essay answering the following:

The Coptic identity developed in an environment of persecution which nurtured a unique and tenacious Christian faith. For millennia, Copts have been able to maintain their identity and faith in spite of those hardships. Why is preserving our Coptic heritage so important? Where do you see your role in preserving that unique identity?

PS: Want to hear more from people who’ve been part of Serve to Learn? Check out the reflections of two people who served this January, Peter Wassef and Mary Loka:


You can hear His Holiness speak on the importance of serving in Egypt in this video, which gives a snapshot of the whole Serve to Learn experience: