Tag Archives: Copts

A Woman Who’s Not Waiting for Handouts — And Proud of It

150812_Bedaya Mother GG FB
Susan, who knows the pride of self-sufficiency through hard work, and her daughter.

A giant drawing of St. George looms over visitors to Susan’s home, but she’s not waiting for heroes on horseback to save her family. She’s taking her fate into her own hands — she’s had to, since the artist, her husband, passed away two years ago.

When I first met Susan this August, she was still grieving for her husband. But, as she says, the time came when she had to decide how to support her 8-year-old daughter.

It wasn’t going to be easy, there in her marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of Minya in Upper Egypt. From an already hardscrabble existence, her husband’s death dropped her down even farther on the economic ladder. For Susan’s family, some necessities quickly became luxuries.

Added to the economic blow of widowhood came the restrictions imposed on her by Egypt’s male-dominated society. Expectations are that widows will stick to the home and rely on charity to survive.

Certainly, the last thing anyone in Egypt expects a widow to do is to go into business. Better, the thinking goes, that they live on handouts. Yet, says Susan, “I knew I had to do something productive.”

It was an uphill battle to scrape together what remained of her savings, borrow bits and pieces here and there from family and friends, and turn a room of her house into a dry goods store. But Susan did it.

Today, people from the neighborhood pop in for their bags of detergent and other household needs. Their small purchases earn a thin margin of profit that helps put bread on the table for Susan’s daughter.

Talking to Susan, I came to understand the pride she takes in this achievement, and the depth of her drive to succeed despite huge, huge obstacles.

It’s for people like Susan that B’edaya, Coptic Orphans’ microfinance project, exists. I’m proud that we’ve begun the process of selecting a new group of 50 mothers to receive B’edaya loans of up to 7,000 Egyptian pounds (around US$1,000).

For those who have already started a business, the money may foot the bill for improvements that offer a competitive advantage in the market. For others, the loan may be the first step towards financial self-sufficiency, and fund the foundation of the enterprise they’re envisioning.

B’edaya mothers — all of them the widowed mothers of orphans in our Not Alone program — have successfully run everything from feed stores to photography studios to home furnishings outlets.

This next round of B’edaya builds on the achievements of 30 mothers in Sohag, Minya, Alexandria, Monofiyya, and Cairo who received the most recent round of loans in 2014. So thanks to generous support from all over the world, we’re getting closer to our goal of empowering Egypt’s women through microfinance!

The next round will begin in March 2016, and the widows selected to participate will receive ongoing coaching and skills-building to ensure that they can use their loans to best effect.

We hope that all of the Susans of Egypt will apply for B’edaya’s next round, and we’re encouraging them to do so. Because as she can tell you, there’s a difference between waiting for a handout and being your own boss.

The difference is pride.

 

*Names and personal details changed to protect the privacy and dignity of the family.

‘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.

Education, Education, Education — That’s the Key

STL with VGP
The girls and young women of the Valuable Girl Project site in Matay meet volunteers with the Serve to Learn program.

It’s a muggy day in Matay, but no one hesitates to hug and crowd together for a photo. Here in Middle Egypt, girls and young women are used to the heat. It’s just another challenge for these participants in the Valuable Girl Project, like coping with run-down schools, making ends meet in a tough economy, and making their voices heard in a male-run society.

Only a few of these challenges are familiar to today‘s visitors to this Valuable Girl site they’re volunteers from abroad, here in Egypt to take part in Coptic Orphans’ Serve to Learn program. They‘re spending three weeks teaching English to kids in Matay, and they may have gotten used to sweltering heat. But because they’re from places where the schools are more functional, the economy more developed, and patriarchy less pronounced, it’s harder to familiarize them with what it’s like to be a girl in Egypt.

Nevertheless, the two project coordinators, Sawsan and Doaa, do their best. There are smiles on both sides as their description unfolds of the Valuable Girl Project. In Port Said, Matay, Armant, Sohag and Luxor, the volunteers learn, 142 Little Sisters and 142 Big Sisters meet twice a week. The older sister mentors the younger one in schoolwork and life skills; the coordinators teach them the value of teamwork, creativity, planning, and accepting others. Many times, the Big-Little Sister relationships are Christian-Muslim, offering an important bridge between people whose paths might not otherwise cross.

The Valuable Girl Project participants, in turn, find out what brings this gaggle of foreigners to Egypt. They hear how the volunteers are lured from around the world by the chance to see the real Egypt, form close relationships with Egyptian children, and be transformed by their love. They learn how the volunteers are inspired by the kids, even as they teach a love of learning with fun educational activities.

The most interesting thing about today’s encounter is how it reflects the fruition of three projects. The Serve to Learn volunteers have also been meeting the mothers of the fatherless children served by Coptic Orphans. It’s precisely because of those mothers that the Valuable Girl Project exists.

The story is this: The more Coptic Orphans staff got engaged with the orphans’ families, the more they began to see a really striking trend. Mothers were dying — denying themselves medical care — because they felt valueless and were using what little money they had to meet their children’s needs. But of course, a healthy child requires a healthy mother. Stopping this destructive cycle seemed desperately important, so a decade ago the Valuable Girl Project was founded.

Since that time, the Valuable Girl Project has been working with girls to ensure they stay in school, believe in themselves, and become healthy mothers.

So now the Serve to Learn volunteers have the full story: from the fatherless children they’ve met, to their mothers, to the young women that the Valuable Girl Project aspires to put on a different path. It’s a path that’s heavy on studying, and soon the girls head back inside to continue learning together. Meanwhile, the volunteers are back on the road to the school where they teach their kids. Education, education, education — that’s the key.