City of Charity

Children find home and hope in an Egyptian oasis

by Liam Stack with photographs by Sean Sprague

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An old tractor grumbles down a quiet country road in the sleepy oasis village of King Mariut, about 20 miles west of the Egyptian city of Alexandria. It rolls past an empty gas station, where an attendant listens to the radio in the warm sunshine, and a rundown pet shop, where two puppies pace back and forth in the picture window.

Not much happens in King Mariut. Residents eke out a living from farming their small plots or running small businesses. Wealthy Egyptians spend lazy summer days in their villas amid the lush fields.

But as the tractor makes its way and the roar of its engine fades, the laughter and shouts of children can be heard from behind a formidable gate, which faces the road and secures St. Aloysius Gonzaga School.

Classes are about to begin; some 140 schoolchildren can barely contain their excitement. Outside the schoolhouse, they line up anxiously in rows, fidgeting and fussing with one another’s hair, yet always mindful of the young women pacing among them pleading for calm.

“I love this school!” shouts 8-year-old Rojina, pulling her rainbow-colored knit cap tightly around her face as she jumps up and down. According to her teacher, she is one of the school’s brightest students. “I love learning and sports and praying and the nuns!”

Just three days earlier, the school had moved to the spacious, converted country home from a more traditional institutional-style facility. Father Luis Montes, provincial superior of the Fathers of the Incarnate Word and the school’s director, believes the move has been positive for his students. For him, creating a sense of family at the school is a high priority.

“They have a big garden to play in now, which is better than having recess on a paved schoolyard,” he says. A tall man with a warm smile, he has become a larger than life presence at the school, and in the lives of the students.

”The kids are very happy with the new school because it is more like a family house,” he adds. “That is good for the kids in a lot of ways.”

The students come from poor Christian families from all over the country. The majority, however, are girls from the towns of Assiut and Minya in Upper Egypt.

“Many of these children come to us because their families ask us to take them in,” says Incarnate Word Sister Maria Laudis Gloriae.

“They have problems at home, sometimes very serious problems. Many of our children have been abused ... some are sexually abused by members of their family, such as their fathers or their uncles.”

About a quarter of the children, Father Luis estimates, come from homes where there was serious abuse. Some of the children lived on the streets. Others were forced by their parents to beg for their bread.

But in King Mariut, the children have a chance for a happier, healthier childhood. During the day, they attend St. Aloysius. After classes end, they go home to one of 10 nearby houses run by the priests and sisters of the Institute of the Incarnate Word.

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