“I Am Not Going to Wait For Death”

“I Am Not Going to Wait For Death”

It was a Saturday afternoon, I was next to the Nile, and I was feeling very relaxed. But reality has a habit of intruding when we least expect it, and as I idly checked the BBC News on my phone, I was immediately caught by a headline: ‘Coptic Christians flee Sinai after deadly attack’.

The British government does not recommend travel to most of the Sinai Peninsula, but the Northern part of Sinai is particularly troubled, and there have been constant reports of terrorist attacks, especially on the security forces. In the middle of February, however, the local affiliate of ISIS brought out a video threatening to carry out attacks on Christians and cleanse Egypt of them.

Sinai Christians
Photo: BBC

Since the release of the video, several Christians have been killed. In one case, a father was shot dead, while his 35 year old son was taken away and burned alive. There was apparently no attempt to negotiate or convert them to Islam. Horrific acts such as this have hit the Christian community hard, and many of the Christians living in the El Arish area (the biggest town in the Northern Sinai) have now fled to the relative safety of Ismailia on the Suez Canal. “I am not going to wait for death”, a restaurant owner said. “These people are ruthless” and he shut up his business and joined the exodus away from the Sinai. In all, well over 100 families have fled.

In Ismailia, the Presbyterian Church has opened its doors to the refugees, working alongside the Orthodox Church to make sure that everyone is accommodated and provided with food, blankets and medical supplies, as well as being offered counselling support. Kasr El Dobara, which is the largest of the Presbyterian churches in the country and is situated in Downtown Cairo, has also mobilized itself to help, offering support to Ismailia, but also providing assistance to those who have come to Cairo. It is good that all the churches have responded, but Christians are asking ‘What is next?’ They are also puzzled by what they perceive as the silence from the Western governments.

Most of Egypt is very safe, but this is a reminder of the difficulties facing Christians in certain parts of the country. February also saw the anniversary of the execution of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya in 2015.

Here is the link to a video made by Anne Zaki (See a previous post: Cracking the Glass Ceiling). It is well worth watching and gives a powerful insight into how strong Egyptian Christians’ faith is:  https://vimeo.com/125161160

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Mokattam Revisited: Environmental Progress in the ‘Garbage City’

Mokattam Revisited: Environmental Progress in the ‘Garbage City’

In one of my earlier posts I described a visit to Mokattam with its awesome cave churches. I had always wanted to go back to visit one of the projects there, and when I heard that Nazli Rizek, one of the members at St Andrew’s, was taking a few people, I just had to tag along.

Nazli had taught English at the APE Project in the past, so was an ideal person to show us round. Mokattam’s other name is the ‘Garbage City’, because it is where President Nasser moved the rubbish collectors, the Zabaleen, in the 1950s. The Zabaleen are primarily Christian, and everywhere you see signs of their faith.

Mokattam has grown and is now a densely populated township with almost every available piece of land swallowed up in building constructions. In most of the blocks of flats, the ground floor is used for bringing in bags of rubbish, which the families sort through, extracting anything which is able to be recycled. After this process, the rest of the rubbish is taken away to a land fill site.

APE, the Association for the Protection of the Environment, has operated in Mokattam since 1984 and occupies an area in the centre of the township. It is one of the only spaces where there is a sense of space and even greenery. It aims to encourage the garbage collectors, and especially the women and children, to become ‘agents of change for a better environment’, and seeks to improve their lives in healthcare, education and also through income generation projects (involving recycling). They also seek to protect the environment by improving waste management systems and indeed have started an eco-garden at Mokattam, planting indigenous trees which produce fruit, thus promoting the concept of sustainability.

On entering the APE compound, we immediately came upon the school, which was made up of a number of brightly-decorated classrooms and enthusiastic teachers. There was a Nursery, where parents (many of them working on APE projects) could leave their babies and toddlers in a safe environment. Then there were several classrooms for children between the ages of 4 and 8, I would say, where they are taught basic reading and writing and generally are given a head start before being integrated in to the government school system.

However, the main part of the APE centre comprises of the buildings where recycling takes place, and where, primarily young women, are taught how to weave and sew and how to manufacture the wonderful rugs and patchwork quilts and bags, for which they are renowned.  The rags they use come from industrial waste (and not out of the garbage, as I had naively thought). Once they learn how to weave, they often have looms set up in their homes to continue to earn a living. They also learn how to recycle paper, which is handmade without any glues and chemicals, and so environmentally friendly. The paper is used to make cards with dried flowers or embroidery.

The healthcare service was unfortunately closed the day we were there, but they run awareness programmes in the community, especially concerning issues such as early marriage and female circumcision. There is also a project dealing with the transmission of Hepatitis B and C and providing both testing and treatment if necessary.

APE certainly makes a tremendous contribution to the well-being of the community, and everywhere we went we were met by helpful people who were obviously enjoying what they were doing.

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The Cairo Book Fair

The Cairo Book Fair

The metro trains on my Abbasiyya line have been crowded recently, because everyone has been going to the Book Fair! The Cairo Book Fair is the biggest and oldest in the Middle East (and apparently the second biggest in the world after Frankfurt!). It happens every year and lasts for two weeks, during which the Showground becomes a hive of activity.

Problems with the economy have had an effect on the Fair this year, as publishers have been hit hard.  Prices of paper and ink have doubled in price due to the Flotation of the Egyptian Pound in November, and this has led to a subsequent rise in the price of books. There were 100 fewer publishers at the Fair than in 2016.

BUT, despite it all, I was amazed at how many stalls and tents there actually were, and the size of the area they covered. I even managed to lose my bearings at one point, and had to be given directions back to the Metro! It was gratifying to see so many people at a Book Fair – it was crowded! (Admittedly there are 26 million people living in Greater Cairo, so perhaps I should not be surprised…)

Many people were there for a day out, and no doubt the refreshments stalls would make a lot of money. But there were some really good discounts on books, and I did see many people buying books. As usual in Book Fairs, there were various talks (almost exclusively in Arabic) and cultural events. Most of the books on sale were naturally in Arabic, but there were enough in English for me to spend a good few hours browsing – and buying!

Indeed I have visited the Fair three times already, and each time I returned with an empty wallet. We are very fortunate to have the American University in Cairo Press, which publishes excellent books, often with first-rate illustrations or photographs. They too were offering very good discounts, so inevitably I came out of their marquee laden with books.

There were quite a number of Christian publishers (though they tended to be all in the same big tent), including the Bible Society who had a couple of stands and who offered Bibles for the equivalent of 10p (to give them away free could be seen as proselytizing, which is against the law). There was also super material for children and teenagers, but again these were affected by the price rise in imported materials, so have had to raise their prices, though never by enough to cover costs.

I have always loved books, but when I left both Zambia and the Galilee, I left so many books behind. I thought that in Egypt I would have to use Kindle. However, the Cairo Book Fair has certainly helped to break that resolve.

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The Inspirational Story of John Samuel

The Inspirational Story of John Samuel

In Scottish terms, John is a ‘son of the manse’. His father is a pastor of a congregation in the ever-expanding suburbs in the north of Cairo.

Despite studying to be an engineer (he has a Masters in Civil Engineering), John found himself working for the Church in the Synod of the Nile’s 80/800 Programme, which aims to develop 80 congregations as the first phase of a plan to create 800 Presbyterian congregations. There are currently just over 300.

John targeted 21 congregations over the length of Egypt, from Alexandria in the North to Aswan in the South, organising training courses in capacity building for church workers, elders and members. He sought to develop discipleship among the members, especially the youth, but also challenged the congregations to look outwards in community service, in education, health and agriculture.

john1John spent two years on the project. However, along with 90,000 other young people (which seems an incredibly high number, but this is Egypt!), he applied for selection to a training programme for youths initiated by President Sisi. He was successful, being one of only 33 Christians out of the 500 chosen. He has now completed the training and is waiting to be assigned to a position, perhaps in one of the ministries or even in the company setting up Egypt’s new capital, which is being established in between Cairo and Suez.

John seemingly collects degrees, and he is also in his third year of the MAOL programme (Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership) at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. As its title suggests, the degree focuses on specific needs and issues surrounding Christian Leadership. The students take 12 modules over a three year period, and subjects include modules such as Strategic Thinking, Integrity & Finance, Spiritual Formation, Mentoring &Coaching and Conflict Management & Resolution. The students come to the Seminary for a week of intensive classes twice a year. They then continue their studies through distance learning, reading and writing assignments at home.

He has been enormously impressed by the modules he has taken so far, and especially enjoys their practical nature. He values the strengthening of leadership in the church and only hopes that the course, which has been taught in English so far, can be translated into Arabic so that it reaches a wider audience. John hopes to be used by God through what he learns in the course, and to be able to bring about transformation in Egypt.img_0292

A Visit to Sadat City

A Visit to Sadat City

Sadat City is named after the former President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, who started to build it 40 years ago and hoped that it would become the capital city of Egypt. It never did, but it is one of a ring of new towns situated around Cairo, whose aim was to decongest Cairo.

About 80,000 people live in Sadat, and it is situated 95km north of Cairo on the Desert Road to Alexandria. The government offered ground to the Presbyterians to build a church, and they are in the process of doing so. However, at present they use a villa which was donated by a church member in Cairo, which has a flat for the pastor as well as meeting space downstairs.

There has, however, been no resident Pastor there for some time. The current Pastor is Medhat Fawzy, who graduated from the Seminary in May 2016, but he is resident in Giza, as his wife works near Cairo. Medhat is also my Arabic teacher, and I was delighted when he asked me to preach one Sunday evening in Sadat.

The Congregation in Sadat

Although I have preached several times at St Andrew’s, both at the English-speaking congregation and two of the Sudanese, this was my first invitation to preach in a Synod of the Nile congregation. I had to make my way to Giza (near the pyramids) by metro, and then use a tuktuk and a bus before catching the minibus for Sadat City.

The service started at 7.30 pm, as Sunday is a working day, and most members work. As the church is not central, a minibus picks up most of the people. That particular Sunday there were 15 adults and several children at the church, which I think was more than usual. The space reminded me of St Andrew’s Galilee, where I spent my previous 6 years, and it was very informal and relaxed worship. It was a very enjoyable experience, though when we returned to the bus stop at 9.45pm we had just missed a bus and so had to sit in an empty minibus, waiting patiently for it to fill up before it left.

By 11pm, there were still only three of us, and we decided to pay more just to get back to Cairo. It was 1am when we got back to the Seminary, but fortunately the guard at the gate was awake. Working as a Mission Partner in Cairo certainly provides opportunity for adventure

I Was in Prison, You Visited Me

I Was in Prison, You Visited Me

Qanater is a town on the Nile, north of Cairo, at the point where the river starts to divide, forming the Delta.  A barrage was constructed there in the 1850s (later improved by a Scottish engineer in the 1880s!) to control the flow of the Nile and improve irrigation. It was a popular place for people to travel from Cairo to enjoy the river, and there were a number of parks and gardens. By now they are sadly overgrown.

qanater-3Qanater is now the site of a complex of prisons, one for women and two for men. One of the male prisons is specifically for international people – men from different countries who for one reason or another find themselves in prison.

I had travelled there with a group from All Saints Anglican Cathedral, which has had a prison ministry for a number of years. There were 12 of us in the minibus, including Father Samuel, who had worked for many years in churches in Libya, but who had to leave because of the worsening situation there. They go every week and visit the women one week and the men the next. Mostly it is the international prisoners who are visited, as they don’t have family in Egypt and so have fewer visitors.

The group brings groceries for the prisoners – rice, pasta, cooking oil and some hygiene items, which the prisoners are able to use. There would be about 60 international prisoners on the visiting schedule, but the group would only see about 10 each week. Some of the prisoners are jailed for crimes, but others are refugees or migrants who were found without the proper papers and have been imprisoned.

I spoke with someone from Ethiopia, who was in the latter category and who just wants to return home to Addis, where he worked as a ‘wedding decorator’. Like most of the prisoners we visit, he was Christian and was able to wear a big cross round his neck. His English wasn’t very good, but was better than his Arabic. We chatted for perhaps 20 minutes in a visiting room, after which we all stood in a circle and said a prayer. It was good to have the chance to visit, and I look forward to going back again.

StARS Part 2: Now I can Dream

StARS Part 2: Now I can Dream

Whenever I go through the gates at St Andrew’s, there are always people there. Many are waiting – waiting to see a counselor or a lawyer, eager to get some advice.  Children are inevitably playing football, and it is always good to see the mixture of ages and nationalities. Football seems to unite.

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One little Syrian girl was content to swing on a tyre hanging by a rope from a tree, while her parents looked on, glad to find a moment’s peace, compared with the horrors they have doubtless experienced. All the people gathered at St Andrew’s have their own stories to tell, many of them heartbreaking. But at St Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) we offer them a safe space and assistance.

 

Education
StARS has several main areas in which it works. The first is education, and that is where it all began. The refugee communities have difficulty gaining access to the Egyptian school system, and the few who do often encounter discrimination, and so there are a number of private schools for refugee children. At StARS there is now:

  • A recently established Montessori Pre-School with 20 pupils between the ages of 2 and 6, mostly vulnerable children from the different refugee communities, and this is taught in English and Arabic.
  • A school (primary/ secondary) with 253 pupils, which follows the Sudanese curriculum, with lessons taught in English. The school is very well regarded, and indeed there are 30 applications for each place. Breakfast and a hot lunch are provided, and pupils are also helped with transport. Most importantly, children from different countries are able to sit together and play together at the break.

StARS also has a big Adult Education programme, with about 2,500 people involved. The courses are primarily English language courses, but there are also vocational courses such as hairdressing and IT. Other courses taught include interview skills and C.V. writing – very practical! Since last year there has also been an emphasis on Educational Access and Capacity Building. This is especially aimed at training teachers from the Syrian community, who often come from a non-teaching background. They are highly educated, but are unable to find jobs in their own areas and so become teachers – StARS steps in to help provide them with basic classroom skills.

Psycho-Social
Another area which is expanding is Psycho-Social, which works to improve the situation a client might find themselves in, encouraging within them a resilience to cope. In 2013 there were 8 people in this department, but now there are 60, mostly from the refugee community. It is within this department that you find one-to-one counselling over a whole range of issues, though housing features high, as it is often problematic to find decent housing, and refugees are often exploited by landlords and charged higher rents. Sexual violence is another big area that Psycho -Social deals with. It also organises various groups such as sport, music and self-defence, and peer-support groups. There is also a medical officer and a network of doctors and pharmacists offering low cost treatment to refugees.

Unaccompanied Children and Youth
Psycho-Social also deals with Unaccompanied Children and Youth (UYC). These are young people under the age of 18 who arrive in Egypt without parents and who are at great risk of exploitation. StARS have been able to support 580, though there are another 400 on the waiting list. Many of the unaccompanied youth come from countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea, and because they are not Arabic speakers, the risk of exploitation is even higher. However, StARS runs a super Bridging Programme for UYC, which runs for two semesters of 5 months and which teaches  subjects like English, Arabic, maths and IT, and life skills. 179 are enrolled in this programme, and in it they are allowed to be normal teenagers.

One of them said; ‘Before I didn’t have hope, but now I can dream’. This programme has recently been shortlisted for a big international prize, so watch this space…!