From ONE Magazine

Egypt’s Good Samaritans

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.

The staff carefully evaluates a child’s ability before determining the best course of care. Four full-time teachers instruct the children in tasks for everyday living, such as personal hygiene and how to dress themselves. The children are also given a basic education in math and Arabic. Specialists are brought in to provide one-on-one sessions for physical, speech and occupational therapy.

Activities change every half hour, with an emphasis on performing simple tasks that will give a child a sense of success and acceptance.

“Mariam had been very withdrawn because she didn’t feel that her parents accepted her, nor did she accept herself,” says Sister Nirmeen of a developmentally delayed girl who loves to make beaded necklaces and bracelets. “But when she discovered that she likes to make jewelry, it was as if she found her place in the world.”

Sister Nirmeen then points to Madonna, a pretty girl with a mischievous smile, who enjoys nothing better than running around in the playground with the other children. Madonna was only able to attend Good Samaritan after her mother could finally accept and admit her daughter’s disability.

Because the stigma of disability can extend to an entire family, it is not uncommon for a child to be hidden in the home out of fear of the community’s reaction. Some parents may believe their child’s disability is a sign of God’s judgment against them. Such concerns may also lead parents to believe nothing can be done to better their child’s life.

“A key way that we have been able to help the children is to teach the parents,” says Sister Nirmeen. This includes encouraging constructive interactions, limiting or eliminating the use of corporal or verbal punishment, which can have long-term negative effects.

“In their homes, there is no system,” Sister Nirmeen says, “so we show them how to keep their child busy with a variety of activities so that they don’t get into trouble.”

Being able to bring their child to Good Samaritan for the half day of schooling can also lessen the stress on parents, helping them to be more relaxed at home.

While Christian instruction is not a part of the curriculum, the spirit of Good Samaritan Home is rooted in St. Luke’s Gospel account of the parable about loving one’s neighbor.

“Muslims in this region are known to be strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Father Ishaq, referring to Egypt’s largest Islamist political party, which came to power in 2012 but was toppled by the Egyptian military in 2013.

“If parents thought we were giving Christian instruction,” adds one teacher, “they would not send their children here. And in many ways, Muslims need our services even more than the Christians.”

Egypt’s orphaned children face many of the same difficulties that impact the country’s special needs children: poverty, neglect and, especially, social stigma. However, because Egyptian law bans the adoption of children — irrespective of religion — orphans are fated to spend their entire childhood living in an institution, without ever knowing the security of family life.

But in Cairo — some 62 miles from the desert oasis of El Faiyum — another Good Samaritan is trying to change that. The men and women at the Good Samaritan Orphanage, another home for children sponsored by the Coptic Catholic Church, want to satisfy much more than a child’s need for food, shelter and clothing. They are pouring their hearts out so these children may experience the love and guidance of a true mother or father figure.

The Rev. Kamil William, 62, takes a few visitors on a tour of the three-story building located in the middle-class El Massaken Cheraton neighborhood that provides a home for 37 orphans. Small children and teenagers alike step out of their bedrooms into the main hallway. Some offer to shake hands with visitors while others start plying the priest, who runs the orphanage, with requests. As he makes his way down the stairs, he addresses each one personally, teasing the older ones with affectionate nicknames while patting the face of a small girl clinging to his robes.

Father Hanna “felt that a child who lost a parent had a gap in his or her life, and he wanted to fill that gap,” says Father William, referring to the priest who founded Good Samaritan. Father Bishoi Ragheb Hanna, who had studied theology in Rome before serving as a parish priest for the Coptic Catholic community in New York City, always dreamed of starting an orphanage in his native Egypt. In 2004, financed in part with support from New York’s Copts, and with the blessing of his church’s head, the late Coptic Catholic Patriarch Stephanos II, Father Hanna converted a section of a center for disabled people into a home.

Cairo’s Good Samaritan is unique among Egyptian orphanages. Unlike other Christian institutions that are staffed by either priests or sisters, Good Samaritan includes both. “Father Hanna wanted children to have a father and a mother figure,” explains Father William. The orphanage’s mix of boys and girls living in the same facility is also highly unusual for a country with conservative attitudes toward gender such as Egypt, but Father Hanna believed the children would greatly benefit from having both brothers and sisters.

Each day begins with morning prayer, and then the children leave to attend Cairo’s free public schools. When they are ready to go to college or vocational school, Good Samaritan allows them to continue to live at the orphanage and pays their full tuition. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated twice weekly. Father William teaches the catechism to the children — who are all Christian — and a priest from outside the orphanage comes to hear confessions.

Most of the children have at least one living parent, but are placed at Good Samaritan because that parent cannot financially support them. Eight of the children have had a parent convert to Islam. Egyptian law considers children Muslim if a parent converts to Islam, and grants that parent sole custody. A Christian spouse who wishes his or her children to remain Christian in the eyes of the law has no choice but to place them in a Christian orphanage.

Children whose parents convert to Islam are deeply affected by it. “You can be a thief or a murderer, but within the Christian community in Egypt you cannot have a parent who has converted to Islam,” says Sister Terese Dorias, 52, one of the three Elizabethan Franciscan sisters on staff. “This could interfere with your ability to find a suitable marriage partner.”

Consider, for example, the case of 15-year-old Yousef. Yousef’s mother converted to Islam and left his father, a construction worker in a small village in Upper Egypt. His father then placed Yousef and his younger sister Demiana at Good Samaritan, where they have been living for the last six years. He found a job as a security guard in Cairo and lives near the orphanage so he can see Yousef and Demiana regularly. However, when Yousef first came to Good Samaritan, he was severely withdrawn.

Three years ago, Sister Terese was brought to Good Samaritan specifically to work alongside children such as Yousef and to help them emotionally adjust to their life circumstances.

“I sensed Yousef was missing the love of his mother,” says Sister Terese. Her presence has made a world of difference for him.

“I wash his clothes. I iron them. If he is sad and I notice it, I ask him about it and he opens up to me.”

“She treats me like a son,” Yousef says. “I found someone I can confide in and someone who cares for me. I sense that she is there for me.”

Over the last few years, Yousef has excelled in math, science and soccer, and is particularly gifted at drawing. When Father William offered to arrange for him to receive private drawing lessons, Yousef replied that he would prefer to be a doctor.

“I told him that was fine,” says the priest. “You can be a doctor who is also a great artist.”

Amal Morcos is a freelance writer who covers the Middle East. She last wrote about Syrian refugees in the autumn 2014 edition of ONE.