Fighting Drug Use in Egypt

text and photos by Dale McGeehon

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Gamal shuffles into a Cairo office in jerks. His face is expressionless. He slurs his words and constantly wrings his hands.

Gamal’s behavior is typical of people whose bodies are reacting to withdrawal from drugs. Many addicts like him are seeking help from the Best Life Program, which is run by Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church.

Like Gamal, most drug users are young men who, until recently, could receive treatment only in mental hospitals. There they would stay for several days until they were detoxified and released. But most, perhaps more than 85 percent, relapsed quickly.

In Egypt, drug use is spreading. The Egyptian government reports that in 1990 the courts tried 13,507 people on drug related charges. In the first eight months of 1992 alone, the courts tried 12,951.

Traditionally, hashish has been Egypt’s drug of choice, but opium and heroin are growing in popularity. The government estimates that it seizes only one-ninth the amount that flows into the country.

While engaged in their diverse pastoral activities, Coptic church leaders heard repeated whispers of drug abuse. They became alarmed and moved to combat this growing threat. The church formed a plan for the Best Life Program in 1988 and sought funding from outside sources. In 1990, Catholic Near East Welfare Association was the first to commit financial aid. The next year, the European Community agreed to fund 75 percent of the programs budget. With solid financial backing, the church launched the program in 1991.

Offering more than what Egypt’s mental hospitals can provide, Best Life takes a comprehensive approach to solving drug addiction.

Best Life is modeled on the methods of New York’s Daytop Village, a Catholic organization that trains people to take a community-based approach in fighting drug abuse. Best Life’s workers give lectures on drug awareness throughout Cairo, run an outpatient and educational center at its headquarters in the city and operate a 10-bed residential drug treatment center on a farm 70 miles northwest of the capital. The program is the only one of its kind in Egypt.

In three years, Best Life has conducted more than 300 awareness sessions within Cairo, informing youth, teachers and others about the dangers of drug abuse. Through November 1993, 62 addicts visited the outpatient center. Before they could receive further treatment from the program, first they had to be detoxified at a hospital.

Light drug users participate in group therapy and social activities at the outpatient center. The more serious cases go to the farm.

Located on 40 acres, the farm is a quiet oasis far from the bustle of Cairo. Irrigation trenches transform the desert into fertile soil suitable for cultivation. Eucalyptus and evergreen trees shade older buildings that serve as a kitchen, a dining room, workshops and bedrooms. Because officials know the program will grow, they are constructing new buildings: a 24-bed dormitory, a kitchen and dining hall, a rabbit house and chicken and duck coops, complete with a small pond and fountain.

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Tags: Egypt Coptic Orthodox Church Socioreligious programs Substance Abuse