Egypt’s Good Samaritans

How Christian initiatives in Egypt change children’s lives

by Amal Morcos

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Under a bright sun, the laughter of children echoes in a grassy playground bordered by lush palm trees. Located in the desert oasis of El Faiyum in central Egypt, the Good Samaritan Home has become an oasis for children, Christian and Muslim, whose families live in the impoverished farming villages that border the Nile.

Three children gather around a Little Sister of Jesus, Nirmeen Naseen, playing peek-a-boo and pulling at her habit. She patiently speaks to each child by name; Madonna, 8, has developmental deficiencies; Marseille, 12, has autism; and Kyrillos, 9, has Down syndrome.

“Some people in our society feel we are wasting our time with such children,” says 27-year-old Sister Nirmeen, who has worked with the children at Good Samaritan for four years. “But I accept the children no matter where they are, and I show them respect for who they are.”

They are among the fortunate few. In Egypt, a country beset by extreme poverty and illiteracy, strong support in rearing and educating children is not assured to all, let alone those with special needs.

The difficulties do not end there. Egyptian public institutions have had little to offer children with special needs, even relatively speaking. Educational authorities have often “resisted or refused access” to disabled children, a 2004 World Bank study noted, and UNICEF cites childhood disability as one of the leading causes of dropout or failure to enroll. Moreover, any disability carries a cultural stigma in Egypt, which further marginalizes this segment of the population. As a result, Egypt faces a lack of specialists, teachers and child care workers with the proper training to assist children with special needs.

While it may be a challenge for any child merely to be a child in Egypt, the challenges are much greater among children who are orphaned, poor or disabled. Exacerbating these difficulties are questions of religious identity among Egypt’s Christian minority. Though Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians form the largest church in the Middle East — which includes some 9 million people, about a tenth of Egypt’s burgeoning population of 87 million — Sunni Muslims dominate the nation.

Against this backdrop, a number of Catholic priests and sisters are dedicating their lives to giving Egypt’s children with special needs an opportunity to have not only a childhood, but a future. At the same time, they are building bridges — between Islam and Christianity, between those with and without impairments, and perhaps most poignantly, between parents and their own children.

The Good Samaritan Home was founded in 1996 by a Coptic Catholic priest, the Rev. Andreas Yusef, as a free dispensary and literacy training center for local villagers. An orphanage for children with special needs and a kindergarten were added in 2005. After Father Yusef died, the Rev. Estafanos Ishaq was asked to take on the apostolate. After serving for several years as a teacher in Barcelona, Spain, he had wished to return to his home region of El Faiyum to serve the poor.

Today, Good Samaritan provides a school for 13 children with special needs, a kindergarten for about 110 children, and monthly financial support to widows and fatherless children.

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