Helping Cairo’s Handicapped

text by Jessica Jones
photographs by Mohammed El-Dakhakhny

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Fourteen years ago, Bernadette Labbad began attending a weekly support group for families of the mentally handicapped in Egypt’s capital city of Cairo, but she doubted it would make any difference in her life.

“In the beginning, I just didn’t know if it would help me at all. I came just to bring my children here, and then I would sit silently in the corner,” she remembers.

Like so many members of the group called Faith and Light, Bernadette shouldered heavy responsibilities at home and at work. She was a professional teacher, doubly exhausted by the demands of her students at school and two mentally handicapped daughters at home.

But she found new energy within the group and found herself again. Today, Bernadette is responsible for her neighborhood branch of Faith and Light, a group founded according to principles set forth by Jean Vanier, a former philosophy professor in Canada who has founded interfaith communities for the mentally and physically handicapped throughout the world. Members, who include the handicapped, their family and friends, meet weekly, pray together, exchange information and enjoy each other’s company.

“We provide people with psychological and spiritual strength. The handicapped discover God’s love for them here,” says Jenny Khouri, who likens the group to an extension of her own family.

“They see how precious they are in his eyes and they make so much progress.”

For family members, the group provides encouragement and ideas for putting constructive compassion for the handicapped into practice. Bernadette, for instance, was responsible for the group nationally until her official term ended several years ago. Since then, she has started educational programs for mentally handicapped children and a parents’ association. Bernadette has also trained teachers to deal with the particular needs of individual students.

At a recent meeting of Faith and Light in one of Cairo’s central neighborhoods, the spirit of joy and goodwill that inspires its members to act was positively infectious. Parents and friends mingled with handicapped men and women in a simple, whitewashed room, chatting, laughing and praising the accomplishments of their sons and daughters.

Clothed in a gray cassock, a priest sat near the center of several mentally handicapped men and women, each of whom wanted to gain his undivided attention. Now responsible for the Faith and Light movement in Egypt, Father Antoun Kabes likes to explain how his life was changed irrevocably by the group.

Soon after finishing his studies at the Coptic Catholic Seminary of St. Leo the Great in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, Father Antoun was asked to celebrate the Divine Liturgy for a group of mentally handicapped young men and women. Because they had never been taught to read and write, they could not understand the liturgy in Coptic or in classical Arabic. To address their needs, he celebrated the liturgy in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. “The response was overwhelming and they kept asking me to come back and participate in activities with them.”

“I was so touched,” the priest continues, “and I then decided that my true vocation was to work with the handicapped.”

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Tags: Egypt Education Disabilities Coptic Catholic Church