Bringing Learning to Life

Near Alexandria, the cradle of great learning, a Franciscan school carries on the tradition.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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“It’s as if dried fish were turned into sherbet!”

That’s the enthusiastic assessment offered by Mr. Sobhi Amin as he described the changes that have taken place at the school where he has been a teacher for 22 years.

Founded in 1978 by a community of Franciscan friars, the school in Abou Kir had been deteriorating, physically as well as in the quality of education. But that changed dramatically about five years ago when the priests entrusted the school’s operation to a Lebanese women’s congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross.

A trio of sisters was brought on board to troubleshoot and improve conditions at the school, today known as the Franciscan School in Abou Kir.

“It was in a sorry state when we arrived,” says the school’s dynamic director, Sister Zeina Dagher. “There had been many complaints from the local authorities about the pits and holes in the playground and the garbage everywhere.”

Sister Zeina applied to CNEWA for a $300,000 grant to construct a new school, which had been open just a few months when I visited it one sunny day in February. In addition, a CNEWA engineer reviewed every stage of construction, including the renovation of the old building.

Abou Kir is a suburb of Alexandria, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. A fishing village that today numbers about 300,000 people, it has a mixed religious population – about 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, the latter mostly Coptic Orthodox. This proportion of Christians is relatively high for Egypt, where the average Christian presence is less than 10 percent. Abou Kir’s Catholic school welcomes children of all faiths; here peaceful coexistence is understood as being part of the curriculum – and also of life. Of the student population, 55 percent of the children are Muslim and 45 percent are Christian. Of the school’s 34 teachers, 10 are Muslim and 24 are Christian.

“The continuation of a Christian presence here is very important,” Sister Zeina says.

“We offer a service to the local community by teaching Christians and Muslims to love one another.”

In a land where sectarian violence and mutual suspicion between the two religions are, sadly, not unusual, Sister Zeina holds firm to the belief that Christian and Muslim children need to be educated and grow up in a climate that fosters mutual respect.

“It is my conviction that they must be raised together,” she says.

The hustle and bustle in the muddy streets outside, with their horse carts, piles of garbage and pollution-belching, thundering trucks, was in marked contrast to the cleanliness and order of the school. I stepped across its threshold into a bright sanctuary for learning.

A spotless playground was bounded on two sides by the gleaming new four-story building. A third side was occupied by the old building, which had recently received a fresh coat of paint. Apartments overlook the fourth side. On the day of my visit, some curious women sat on their balconies, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the all-school assembly in the courtyard.

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Tags: Egypt CNEWA Children Education Franciscan Sisters of the Cross