Reclaiming Lives

A religious school helps Cairo’s poorest quarter

by Magdy Samaan

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As the car turns onto the main street, the overwhelming stench of garbage is one’s first introduction to the Zabbaleen quarter in Manshiyat Naser, a district in the sprawling Egyptian capital of Cairo.

Garbage is everywhere. Collected from other Cairo neighborhoods and carried to the area, piles of trash block the entrances of houses as residents carry out the process of sorting and recycling to make ends meet. To enter this world is to enter the lives of some of Egypt’s poorest people, and certainly among the nation’s most marginalized of peoples.

The Zabbaleen (an Arabic word meaning, “garbage people”) quarter is a settlement that sprang up at the far southern end of Manshiyat Naser at the base of the Mokattam hills, east of Cairo. It is an entire neighborhood of garbage collectors, who are mostly Coptic Christians. The streets, up to the hill, are unpaved and bumpy, and living conditions are poor. The district is subject to frequent landslides due to a lack of infrastructure, such as running water, waste treatment and electricity. In 2008, a huge rockslide buried a neighborhood, killing hundreds of people.

The inhabitants of the area are mainly farmers from Upper Egypt who relocated to Cairo to escape the poverty and religious discrimination plaguing the nation’s largely rural south. The people of the Zabbaleen quarter still retain their Upper Egyptian accent and other customs. Their Christian identity is clear; crosses and pictures of saints are visible everywhere. At the highest point of the settlement is the cave Church of St. Simon the Tanner, the largest church in the Middle East. Carved out of the cliff face, the site is like a fortress for the people there — a spiritual shelter amid tiring working days.

Walking through all this is Martina Isaac, 18, dressed in her school uniform. Each day, she takes public transportation to the Abbassiya neighborhood, about four miles away, where she attends St. Vincent de Paul School — a French-language school for girls run by the Daughters of Charity. It is one of the few private schools in Egypt that accepts poor students and does not set conditions with regard to parents’ education level.

The school is having a profound impact on some of the poorest of the Zabbaleen — nurturing hope and possibility among lives that began, literally, in a world of refuse and trash. The school is helping to salvage what could have been thrown away.

The story of Martina and her family — and of so many others in their position — is really a story of lives reclaimed.

Soon after finishing one of her end-of-year exams, Martina welcomes visitors to her house in Manshiyat Naser. Joining her is Sister Naglaa from the school.

Martina’s mother, Fayza Nos’hy, welcomes her visitors to her home. Martina has four siblings — Mary, who recently graduated from Commercial Secondary School; Marina, 23, an art teacher who studied also at St. Vincent School; Madonna, 15, an eighth grader at Good Shepherd School; and a younger brother, Mina, 13, in the seventh grade at a governmental school.

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