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Building a Brighter Future

Congregation serves Egypt’s least privileged children

text by Christopher Walker
photographs by Mohammed El-Dakhakhny


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Amira still does not talk much, except with her eyes. A year after the sisters took her in, the 3-year-old is still recovering from the hell that was her home. Now her brown eyes are full of life and her expressive eyebrows, lifting and furrowing, say what she cannot: that she has been rescued, that she is lucky and that somehow she knows it.

Amira is from the dusty Egyptian town of Dekhela, near the coastal city of Alexandria. Here, the sisters of the Verbo Encarnado (Incarnate Word) Congregation, who hail from South America, have set up two homes for girls who used to live on the streets.

Some of the girls, like Amira, have escaped abusive families. Others seek an education, while some just want regular meals and a warm bed.

While the congregation’s Egyptian community is based in Cairo, “the smaller towns are where people really need help,” says Father Maurizio, one of the founders.

Father Maurizio helped set up the mission in eight years ago and was the first priest from the congregation to live permanently in the country.

“We wanted to learn more about this part of the world,” he says. “We recognize the value of Islam, but we also wanted to help support the Christian community.”

Approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, mostly Coptic Orthodox. Coptic and other Eastern Catholics number about 300,000 persons. Other Christians include Greek Orthodox and evangelical Protestants.

Whatever their faith community, most Egyptians live difficult lives far from the modern bustle of Cairo or the colonial grandeur of Alexandria.

The national average daily income is just over $10 a day. About 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Due to overpopulation, a weak economy and high unemployment, the challenges facing Egypt’s youth are daunting.

Sister María Guadalupe, the superior of the community in Egypt, says the situation in Dekhela is especially bad. The town is poor; there are few social services.

“These girls were living with their families in one room,” she says. “No bathroom, no kitchen, just one room. Sometimes there would be a bed and that’s all. So the girls were spending all their time in the street.”

Many families consider education for girls a luxury rather than a necessity, she says. While some girls complete grade school, many are kept at home where their mothers teach them household duties. Such traditional attitudes prevail in both Muslim and Christian communities.

But in the past 10 years, Muslim Egyptian society has become more conservative – the urbane, liberal Egypt that thrived after World War II is being replaced by a stricter, less tolerant society that draws inspiration from the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia.

With that shift, religious minorities increasingly express concern that tolerance for their faiths is waning, despite the Egyptian government’s assurance that freedom of religion is enshrined in law.

Christians are free to practice their faith, but they are forbidden to convert Muslims. Those perceived to be proselytizing are usually swiftly deported.

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Tags: Egypt Children Sisters Poor/Poverty