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Rebuilding a School in the Heart of Cairo

by Joyce M. Davis

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You must go deep into the narrow, dusty streets of Cairo to get to the Christian Brothers’ school in Khoronfish.

Keep walking past the leather shops, spice markets and gold souks of the bustling Khan El-Khalili bazaar…

Past the rows of ramshackled tenements on the verge of collapse…

Past scrawny dogs with mangy skin and sad, liquid eyes cowering under parked cars…

Past the alleys littered with rotting garbage and flies…

And past the dark hovels where children spend the day hammering out furniture, weaving carpets, or pounding flour into soft mounds of pits to sell in sidewalk stalls.

But by the time you reach the School of St. Joseph in the predominantly Christian quarter of Khoronfish, you’ll understand why the French brothers who run the school believe that they are needed in Egypt.

For the brothers, who are mandated to serve the poor, there could be few places in the world more beckoning than Egypt. It is the most populous country in the Arab world. Egyptian officials estimate that half their people live below the poverty level, while the government struggles to control a foreign debt of more than $44 billion. Egypt is one of the United States’ main allies in the Middle East, and it receives an estimated $2.3 billion a year in U.S. government aid of which little impacts the quality of life for Christians.

At last count, Egypt had 54 million people, but every nine months there are about a million more Egyptians. The country is so overcrowded people are forced to live anywhere they can – in teeming inner-city slums, in mud huts on the outskirts of towns, even in the crypts of ancient cemeteries.

There are so many children the government cannot build schools fast enough. Teachers are sorely needed in the country to offer children a way out of their families’ poverty.

The Christian Brothers have been serving the children of Egypt for 136 years. In Cairo they now operate two schools – St. Joseph’s, for the neediest children in Khoronfish, and the College de la Salle, only blocks away from Cairo’s bustling train station.

In a cool, cavernous room of the spacious College de la Salle, Brother Clause Robbe, the college’s director, recalled the history of his order in Egypt.

“The first brothers arrived in Cairo and chose Khoronfish as the site of their first school,” said Brother Robbe, who has worked in Egypt for more than 15 years. For seven of those years he was in charge of St. Joseph’s. Brother Michel Raimondi now runs the school.

“When the brothers set out as missionaries and settled in Egypt, they dedicated themselves to helping the children of Khoronfish by educating them,” Brother Robbe said.

The original school in Khoronfish attracted wealthier students who paid tuition, he continued. Soon, however, the brothers opened two primary schools nearby to serve the children of families which could not afford to pay.

“So we had a main school for children from well-off families, which helped support the two schools for children from poorer families,” Brother Robbe said.

“This system continued from 1854 to 1954. In these schools there were Muslims, Christians and Jews. And among the Copts, or Egyptian Christians, there were the Catholic and Orthodox, but mostly Orthodox.

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Tags: Egypt Children Education Christianity Poor/Poverty