My first published articles! Be sure to check out the January/February issue of Good News Magazine for the pretty version. ;-)
We were told not to open the windows. Secretly, I was glad because I could practically see the smell.
For two days already I had toured Egypt. While I was enthralled by the sheer size of the Pyramids, amazed at the artistry of the Sphinx, and baffled by the detail of the statue of Ramses, the trash heaped up on the fringes of nearly every street appalled me. Refuse lined the Nile River Bed. Layers of plastic bags, cans, and paper bordered the canals and our guide told us that it wasn’t unusual to find dead animals floating in it. Worse still, he said, the water was used for cleaning, bathing, and drinking and the government’s only solution is to bury the tainted water, to hide away the filth.
Still, this in no way prepared us for Garbage City. As we entered the Zabaleen Village, located at the bottom of the Mokattam cliffs, our guide rolled up the windows of our car. The buildings cast shadows over our small group, over the narrow, trash lined streets. Droves of people waded through the piles. Many sorted through it, some carried it upon their backs, others drove trucks or wagons pulled by donkeys; everyone was smudged by dirt and grime of their work. I’d seen poverty in the U.S. and South America. I’d seen squalor. I’d never seen anything like this.
Driven to the area by a bad harvest in the 1940’s, these individuals quickly learned how to use Egypt’s waste problem for their advantage. While other portions of the country simply cover up the excess, the people of Garbage City, 96% of whom are Coptic Christians, recycle and reuse what they collect.
My parents, who are currently living in Egypt for an extended time, describe the men’s journey into the city. “They load up trash on trucks, if they have them, or on wagons with donkeys. These animals journey from the City to Maadi and other surrounding towns, taking freeways, as well as small roads into the towns. It is amazing to see these little donkeys hauling huge loads that look like they'll topple over at any moment-right in front of traffic!”
Residents are encouraged to package up their trash separately from the garbage so that the people can recycle plastics and glass to make things. Both young and old can be seen transporting huge loads of rubbish through Maadi and Cairo, even amidst thick rush hour traffic.
I’d longed to visit this part of Egypt since a friend had informed me of its existence a few months before. While the pyramids and museums and food all held their allure, none intrigued me more than this particular group of people. How did they survive such deplorable circumstances? How did they hold on to hope? I wanted to see and to understand. I wanted to learn.
We drove through Garbage City, through mountains of trash, piles of discarded and broken things and on the other side, carved into the side of Mokattam, the Cave church rose up against a clear blue sky. The afternoon sun warmed the sandstone, a sharp contrast to the shadow within the city. No trash here. No darkness. No smell. Children played and laughed, tourists took pictures, people smiled.
Founded in 1974 by Father Abouna Samaan Ibrahim, the Cave church, also known as the church of Saint Samaan the Tanner, ministers to an average of 5,000 people per worship service. What began as nothing more than an open space for people to hear the gospel grew by the grace of God into the lofty one now seen covering an area of about 1,000 square meters.
Discrimination and hardship mark their lives as the religious minority. Many have fled the attacks of Islamic extremists. Yet the 4% of Muslims living among them know they are safe to build their Mosques without fear of violence from the Christians that surround them. Stories of God’s power, of healing, of miracles, are on the tongues of those who live in Garbage City, a people who live daily in the discomfort and dirt but who are also fully convinced of the reality of the God of the Bible. They look beyond their everyday struggles to the promise set before them, symbolized in the church carved into the heart of the mountain.
Though they are afflicted, they are not crushed, though they are perplexed, they do not despair, though they are persecuted, they are not forsaken, though they are struck down, they are not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Their perseverance and faithfulness are a witness to the world, one that God uses to bring many into His Kingdom.
How do the Coptic Christians of Garbage City live and work and praise God in such poverty and squalor? As Eric Liddell’s missionary father once told him: “You can praise the Lord by peeling a spud, if you peel it to perfection.”
Book Review: Mama Maggie
She is known as the Mother Teresa of Egypt, but it’s unlikely you have heard of her. A once successful Marketing Executive, recognized for her fashionable clothing and wit, Maggie Groban gave up glamour and comfort to serve the poor in Egypt. The book Mama Maggie, written by Marty Makary and Ellen Vaughn, seeks to tell her story and the stories of those whose lives she touched.
Born to a privileged Coptic Christian family, Maggie Groban had every opportunity to live a life of ease. Ambitious and smart, she excelled in both school and business and eventually went on to teach computer science at American University in Cairo. In this venue she worked with the brightest of students, encouraging them to reach their goals, challenging them to consider what they were doing with their lives. All the while, she contemplated she path she had chosen.
The death of her Aunt Teda, a woman who had spent her life ministering to the poor, served as a turning point. “I had the best students, the smartest in the whole country,” Maggie said. But in the wake of Teda’s passing, she sensed that “God wanted to promote me. He said, ‘Leave the best, the smartest, and go to the poorest of the poor.’” Though she already volunteered occasionally in the slums, Groban felt the tug to do something more significant, something that would require great sacrifice on her part. So Maggie exchanged her fancy clothes and finery for a simple white skirt, shawl, and t-shirt, and with the support of her husband, Ibrahim, formed Stephen’s Children. In spite of government resistance – it takes a year to get approval to start a Non-Government Organization if things go well – their ministry to the children of Garbage City received generous support from friends, family, and churches the Grobans had supported in the past.
Their first task was to tackle education. According to the book, one study reveals “the base illiteracy rate in Egypt is 24 percent for non-poor families and 41 percent in poor families.” Moreover, women receive even less education than men, often not being sent to school at all. They are expected to grow up, get married, and have children. The ability to read is not considered important for them, as they do not see it as something that will make them valuable or socially acceptable. Stephen’s Children works to combat these attitudes that often perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
Using a Montessori school model, Mama Maggie established schools for children as young as preschool age. Here they are given a basic education and taught about hygiene, as well as their religious heritage, whether Christian or Muslim. Families who attend the schools are also given access to free medical clinics. Many of her students eventually go on to her vocational schools, where they learn to work on looms or make shoes. “In these settings,” the book says. “They could begin a new way of thinking and living, a bit of empowerment rather than shame and dysfunction.”
The next step Stephen’s Children takes with its students is the bi-annual summer camp in which the children can escape from their difficult home environments for a few days. As Mama Maggie’s assistant Youssef says, “We can harvest what we’ve been doing all year.” Stories of repentance and healing mark these events. Children are given the opportunity to learn, to discuss their struggles, to sleep in a bed. They are taught to dream big dreams. Many are rescued from abusive home lives. Some are convicted of the abuse they have wreaked on others.
After twenty years of daily working in the poor cities of Cairo, raising awareness all over the world, and being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Mama Maggie has started to draw back and allow others to take over. Those she has poured into are now stepping up to take the reigns and continue the mission to the poor, to carry out Maggie Groban’s God-given vision. “I want to go on with our work for the poor more and more,” she says. “Until it spreads all over Egypt, the Middle East, and the whole world, to make a better future for humanity-especially the children. This is the real love story, the one that lasts forever. How many love stories on earth end or change within just a few years? As we set our minds on God, who loved us, and gave himself for us, we are filled up. In the poor areas, we provide simple work, but with great love. We draw a smile in the heart and spirit of every deprived child. I hope this goes on from generation to generation to generation.”