The Wadi

Wadi Natroun: Literally it means the valley of salt, and for you arabic speakers who don't recognize the word 'natroun,' its because its not arabic:> its from the old coptic language that predated arabic in Egypt, and which also happens to be the language used in the mass liturgies of the Egyptian Coptic Churches. Take a pinch of the wadi's sand to your tongue and the first point about the name becomes clear, and in looking accross the Wadi valley at the four Coptic Monasteries the other point becomes clear. Stronghold may be a gross overstatement, but Wadi Natroun is one of the locational centers for the Coptic Christianity religious minority since the 4th century when Egyptian Christians fled to the desert to escape Roman persecution. It is surely the monastic center of Coptic Christianity, as even the Coptic Pope Shenuda himself comes from Deir Bishoi, the largest of the Coptic monasteries there.

I've been to the Wadi several times during my stay here in Egypt since the Iskander family (from Dr. Magda Iskander, the director of Care with Love and my volunteer facilitator) owns several pieces of land in the area being used by Care With Love in two ways: 1) During the 3-month home health care provider training, every class spends a 3-day spiritual retreat on the farm, and 2) a sister organization to CWL, Friends of Children With Cancer, is building on part of the farm the Health and Hope Oasis--a massive project creating a facility for kids with cancer to come between treatments to heal in the beautifully health-condusive environment of Wadi Natroun, including also a hospice. At the end of January I went on one of the CWL retreats, and yesterday I documented a volunteer workday at the H+HO.

CWL Retreat
The departure time was 9 AM at the Ezbetinakhl office, which meant we left promptly at 9:30 (even I didn't arrive until 9:15). I had prepared a bag with a blanket and lots of reading material based on the fact that it was January in the northern desert of Egypt, and that I was going to be completely surrounded by Arabic for three days. It wasn't the arabic itself that bothered me so much as the mass of seminars and lectures for the students that were sure to give me some free time in the quiet of Wadi Natroun. But in staying true to my experience here in Egypt, nothing is ever as ou expect: neither was it quiet or free:>

I really underestimated what a trip this was for these trainees born and raised in Cairo, some never having travelled outside the city. It was really a time of celebration, and the initial bus-ride manifest this as I witnessed and necessarily partook in an impromptu and completely accapella time of singing, clapping, and even dancing (yes, its possible on a moving bus as long as you're on a straight highway). The excitement translated to pure energy upon arrival, as clean air and open spaces brought forth a flurry of activity, including games and races. It seemed that my idea of a vacation on a farm differed wildly from theirs, and I was glad because of it. Those three days I was reminded what it means to really live--to wake up early and go to bed late, to laugh and cry together, to cook and clean and play, to share and learn. I didn't open a single book, but boy was I glad I brought that blanket. A few highlights from the weekend...

--We Cairenes met the other class from Alexandria when we arrived--and surprise surprise!! 15 Muslims from Cairo and 6 Christians from Alexandria. Accordingly, the first meal saw 6 Alexandrians on one side of the table, and 15 Cairenes on the other. Thankfully, the trainers immediately displaced the unions and I didn't have to choose which side to sit on. And from that time forth, the groups began to mingle, though with some reserve, but mingling nonetheless.

--After a night of mosquito hell (where not only wrapping from head to foot in two blankets or my neighbor's flagrant snoring could keep them away), we all awoke to an early morning of riveting exercises. As I waited outside with the other guy trainees talking of the coming day's schedule, I began to notice some women I hadn't seen present the day before. Or wait, was that samah, and wafi, and seham without the higab (the traditional head-covering)?? Really, I almost didn't recognize them without the higab, as evidently the remote location away from parents, peers, and general society created an environment where the higab was unnecessary. In fact, many of the Muslim girls didn't wear it for three days, but as soon as we got on the bus to go home, guess what reappeared?? Sidenote about the higab--you know for quite some time before the 1980's, the higab was hard to find in Egypt?? Its only been a recent movement in which the higab has reappeared on the streets of Cairo. I've heard that the older generation of Islamic women has retired quite a liberal wardrobe replaced by more conservative coverings (ironically, though not an ounce of skin be showing, loose-fitting clothing is definitely not in style). The reasons for the resurgence in the higab vary depending on who you talk to/read. "The Koran says to," say some; for others its a matter of identity; other's talk of peer pressure; still other's talk of parent's orders. Regardless, it is a major islamic cultural element here in Egypt, as the rarer sight of a non-veiled woman generally means one of two things: 1) she comes from a wealthy Muslim family, or 2) she is Christian (which by no means rules out being rich).

--It surprised me when they told me we were going to the monestaries--all of us 20 or so Christians and Muslims in the lone pickup truck outside. Expert strategy made it work and we were on our way, any temporary discomfort absorbed by the latest round of songs and clapping. The weekend was certainly a 'spiritual retreat,' but outside of the institutionalized religion that divides people. It was a time to listen and think and share about the travels on life's road. And as potential caregivers, it was a time to meditate on making the "decision to love," both in the workplace and in the home. But after two days of solid relationship building, did we have to bring institutionalized religion back into the mix so soon?? The atmosphere was charged as we entered the first monestary--all were excited for our little tourist outing. After a short lecture on the history of Deyr Bishoi, a monk tour guide took us around the monastery, sharing some of the traditional stories associated with certain places, like the place where one of the monk's staff grew into a huge tree inside a building. After the tour, for the free time I followed all of the students back to the church, where together--Muslim and Chrisian--they prayed to St. Bishoi--a past monk who long ago, on an evening in which the monks were traveling to meet Christ in the desert, stopped to help an old and crippled man, sacrificing his chance to meet Christ. Or so they all thought, for the old man revealed himself as the Christ to St. Bishoi. As a man of such great spiritual discipline and example, the beloved Christian Egyptian monk (and others like him) are respected not only by Christians, but Muslims also as one in a long line of holy men seeking God. So for ten minutes the distinctions disappeared as all payed their respects, said a prayer, and even visited the giftshop for some of the famous Bishoi candles and holy oil.

So all in all, an incredible trip--so much learned about ourselves and each other. And as if the trip wasn't already good enough, I returned home with a basketful of fresh oranges and mandarins straight from the tree!!

Volunteer Day
The pre-understanding: 150 kids from a school in the rich part of Cairo aged 12-16 performing a day's worth of service on project in progress called the Health and Hope Oasis.
The translation: 4 buses full of 200 girls, aged 10-16 performing a half-day of service.
The finished product: Two half-mile lengths of road manually cleared and 200 bushes planted on the sides in six hours.

I've worked the landscaping business the last two summers, and I'm not sure 200 professional landscapers could have finished what those girls did in that time. For what its worth, I came to find out that the group was the equivalent of what we call "Girl Scouts," and I was witness to impecable organization and maximum efficiency, which I must say was actually incredibly therapeutic after seven months here. Gloved with water at the waist, these girls expertly worked with shovels, axes, and hoes with such amazing enthusiasm--and though they didn't commit to just build the rest of the project, we did talk them into coming back in June for another day of service!!


Finding Passports

In my time here I've met many Africans trying to get to what is called the "1st world." Finding the means to do so is impossibly difficult. Here are a couple of stories from people trying...

I arrived back to Cairo from Jerusalem late on the night of December 30th, about four hours before Egyptian security forces were ordered to disperse the ongoing four-month Sudanese demonstration. The news broke early on the 31st, as BBC and other local correspondents had recently begun following the story and were on hand when the events transpired (perhaps in anticipation of the looming crisis that had become all but inevitable). Now two months after the tragedy, the following has been established (courtesy of research by Sakkakini Catholic Church):

On September 29th, a group of 20 Sudanese began a sit-in demonstration outside the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office premises in Mohandiseen that lasted until December 30th, when Egyptian police violently brought the demonstration to an end. On peak days during the four months, as many as 2500 crowded in a small fenced in public garden about 50 by 30m, with around 1000 permanently living under makeshift tents. The main demand of the protesters was resettlement on grounds that Sudanese in Egypt are "faced daily with discrimination, violence, and violations of their human rights." Offered voluntary repatriation was rejected by the demonstration leadership. UNHCR officials met with the leaders of the demonstration several times, but as the demands were outside of the UNHCR's mandate, negotiations came to an end in the middle of December.

Early in the morning of December 31st, with around 2,000 demonstrators present in the garden, Egyptian police intervened to disperse the protest. With fire hoses the demonstrators were sprayed alternately with hot and cold water, and when the demonstrators persevered in remaining, the police moved into the garden with force despite the presence of many young children. The combination of police brutality and a panic-caused stampede resulted in the death of at least 27 people, many of them children below the age of 10. Hundreds were injured and many belongings and important documents were lost.

After taken to police centers for identification, many demonstrators were released the following day, but over 600 were imprisoned on threat of deportation. The UNHCR intervened on behalf of the demonstrators providing new documentation, and all but 180 Sudanese have yet to be released.

Who were these protesters?
These couple thousand of disgruntled Sudanese were a mix of the impossibly difficult distinction of 'refugees' and 'economic migrants'--regardless, all were jobless, school-less, mostly homeless (many forewent their Cairo housing in an all effort to leave), moneyless, passport-less, and hopeful that the demonstration was to be the end of time in Egypt. The Sudanese are people trapped in Cairo, unable to leave and either unable (due to safety concerns) or un-willing (due to the perceived abhorrent quality of life) to return to Sudan. As migrants from Sudan, all of them had registered with the office of the United Nations Headquarters for Refugees (UNHCR) here in Cairo, thus commencing the individual process of potential resettlement--an incredibly anxious, tiresome, and long process (years) for which only a very limited percentage have been successful.

Much of the permanent sector of the demonstration was composed of family units camping in the garden. Thousands of others visited daily bringing supplies. As the demonstration gained momentum, protest leaders circulated word to remove Sudanese children from the refugee schools by posting signs inside. Fathers quit jobs and mothers moved out of apartments on the rumored promise of sure resettlement for all living in the garden. Reports exist of volunteer doctors from local NGOs being denied access to the garden by the leaders in a bid to pressure the UNHCR by squalid conditions in the camp.

Why were they protesting and what were there demands?
Since the last quarter of the 1900's when the Sudanese civil war swept the country, Cairo has continually received a steady flow of refugees thanks to Egypt's open-border policy with Sudan. Yet, as undebatably financially and logistically impossible for the UNHCR to send every potential refugee to another country, and further impounded by the effect of 'successful' word reaching and enticing networks of family and friends yet in Sudan to come to Cairo, the rate of entrance has been much greater than that of the exit. The UNHCR's process became highly selective, accepting a chosen few (often with some degree of uncommon education) for settlement based on a series of intensive interviews. Therefore, a great number of Sudanese have assembled here in Cairo over the years in a country which, for as open as the border policy is, has internal refugee regulations which are incredibly restricting. Work, school, social security, and health care are all not permitted, thus the only protection a refugee has is the registration with the UNHCR, and the only hope is with the resettlement process.

It was approximately one year ago that this process was shut down, throwing a thick shadow on what was an already dark future for Sudanese in Egypt. A small group of Sudanese decided to take matters into their own hands, forcing confrontation on the issue through a sit-in protest in front of the UNHCR premises in Mohandiseen. As the demonstration gained momentum through growing Sudanese involvement and press coverage, the leaders' demands grew bolder, eventually arriving at 'resettlement or bust.'

Why was no agreement reached?
The protest leaders were offered comprehensive aid for voluntary repatriation, but the offer was rejected on grounds of absolute resettlement--sadly and obviously unrealistic demand for the following reasons: The UNHCR has operated under both tight regulations and a limited budget for years. Resettlement was granted to those few for whom it was judged that returning home was impossible due to personal safety concerns resulting from political unrest during the civil war. As of 2005, a peace agreement has been signed between the north and the south, which surely doesn't guarantee safety in Sudan, but is a step on the road to safety. Thus, in the eyes of the UNHCR, finding living and working accommodations in the West for 2500 Sudanese is not only nearly impossible due to the closed doors of the first world and the ever-slimming budget of the UNHCR, but is actually a step in the wrong direction from creating a stable Sudan. Can you imagine what kind of statement would the UNHCR be making if it resettled 2500 demonstrating Sudanese? The next week would surely see a protest twice that size, for which the UNHCR would accordingly be responsible to resettle.

Why were the Egyptian police sent to disperse the protest?
It was in early December that I first saw an article on BBC about the Sudanese sit-in. This article and several following began to explore the issues behind the demonstration, illumining the largely unknown marginalized world of the Sudanese in Cairo along with the Egyptian government's dehumanizing regulations. It wasn't long after the appearance of these stories that the demonstration was dispersed by Egyptian police.

And the other side of the story: As the protest (which was largely by Southern Christian Sudanese) in front of the UNHCR grew in size, it began to block entrance to the adjacent local mosque. For several months the mosque operated under restricted access, even during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. In reflecting now, its remarkable that for four months Egypt and its citizens had patience considering the already tense relations between Egyptians and visiting Sudanese. Within their own country many Egyptians cannot find work, their hospitals cannot handle the patient-load, and the schools are over-crowded. In the opinions of some educated Egyptians, the swamped Egyptian economy simply cannot handle an influx of 35,000 laborers looking for work, inadequate health care will always seek to aid Egyptians first, and over-crowded Egyptian schools cannot increase its class sizes over the 50-60 that exist now. In a developing country unable to yet accommodate its own citizens, 70,000 refugees is a large burden (It is for this reason then that government of Egypt should agree to abide by the laws of the United Nations that Egypt signed regarding the treatment of refugees, which allows the UN access to build permanent camps containing schools and clinics for refugees--but that’s another topic for another time...).

Thus, the issue with dispersal of the protest does not question the essence of the action, but the way in which it was carried out. On the January 1st I went out to the sight of the abandoned protest and found a second protest--this time by Egyptians against the government's methodology in handling the dispersal. It was solely due to the lack of organized strategy that the dispersal rapidly descended into chaos, at which point police began to use extreme brutality to regain control.

Fast forward six weeks: My Cameroonian friend Simplice had his passport and wallet stolen at one of the African Cup matches. Simplice arrived here by land from Cameroon about the same time I did last August on his way to Europe, Canada, America, Australia--anywhere he can get a quality education with the goal of returning to Cameroon to establish a health NGO in Cameroon. Since august we've been trying for visas: the guy's got a fully valid passport and Egyptian residence visa, has two years of collegiate credit, and speaks both French and English fluently, but the discovered frustrating (can I say infuriating??) reality is that the doors are shut. I've discovered through this process that my hands are tied as well--evidently I'm free to help myself and my countrymen, but unless I've got lots of money, there's nothing i can do to help someone get into my country. So he's stuck here like so many others, recently having decided to study for the TOEFL to enter a university back in South Africa.

Anyhow--Simplice had his passport stolen which was bad news for a guy jobless, moneyless, and now document-less in Cairo. Despite filing a report with the Egyptian police, a month passed without any word. Sometimes mysterious things happen (seem to happen a lot here): on the night before we were going to inquire as to the cost of all new documentations from the Cameroon embassy, I received a strange call from an American in Maadi asking for Simplice Tse. I told him that the number he called was mine, but that Simplice was a good friend. The American then relayed that the previous night he had received a call from someone speaking Arabic, and all that he could gather was that this individual possessed something of Simplice's. As Simplice lives in a group flat with 6-10 other Africans and has no money to buy a cell phone, he has no phone #. The man with Simplice's passport also had a list of Simplice's contact numbers, of which the man was calling randomly to try and make contact with Simplice. He randomly reached the American who in turn called the contact number Simplice had given him, and my phone rang on Saturday night. Simplice routinely calls me 2 or 3 times a week, and on Sunday morning, he called: we met, we called the American who gave us the number of the man with Simplice's passport, and we then arranged with this man a place to meet to get Simplice's "belongings." 10 hours and fifty Egyptian pounds later, Simplice's passport and wallet were in hand.

Besides being a crazy passport story with a happy ending, we had a chance to talk to what turned out to be a Sudanese man as we walked the hour-long journey across Cairo to his home where the passport was. He said he was leaving the stadium when an Egyptian man asked him if he knew the man whom the passport and wallet belonged to. Thinking on his feet from a heart of good will, he replied that the man was his brother and that he would return the passport to him (it seems that upon finding the passport and wallet without any money or credit cards, the thief was uninterested in his spoils).

Now, there are two amazing points about this story: 1--As the black market for passports is thriving in Cairo, we asked this him why he didn't sell the passport. He said that he'd honestly checked into it, and could have for as much as 5,000 Egyptian pounds. Yet, when it came down to it, he decided that whoever the passport belonged to was his African brother, and that to return it was the right thing to do. Simplice and I were in shock--in a place where Egyptians make on average 250-500 L.E. per month, the man and his family could have lived off the money from the passport for years! 2--We came to find out that this guy had been at the demonstration in Mohandiseen on the night in which the police came six weeks earlier--and he had the scar to prove it. We observed a recent six inch long, thick scar on the lower abdomen of the man, who had evidently been stabbed in the stomach during the chaos. He was taken to a hospital where he underwent immediate surgery by an Italian doctor from the UN. He had lost everything amidst the chaos that fateful night, and thus it was with incredible surprise and relief that, upon discharge after having recuperated for a month, the man discovered that his bill had been comped by the mysterious doctor.

The fifty pounds we gave this man was nothing more than a token of inexpressible appreciation. I'm meeting and speaking with many people this year who live under the oppressive powers of a variety of so many different systems, from political to economical to even cultural or religious. Whether they are escaping to safety like the Sudanese man or ambitious to help their country like Simplice, these people are just trying to live the "normal (and consequentially happy) life" that our globalization presents to them, a way of life that's so often cutthroat to get the edge on someone else. But what a movement by this Sudanese man in the face of what could have been viewed as divine opportunity, and what a movement by Simplice to get on that lorry heading to Chad, to Sudan, to Egypt: these are movements amidst the pressures of this world to abide in humanity. These are the actions that move others to stop, to unwrap from the world, to listen, to be moved to share, and to live henceforth in love. Can't 'one person at a time' infectiously grow to bring conflicted countries to peace, that all may reside in the place they call home? And can't 'one person at a time' infectiously grow to bring developed nations to share with those in need??

Break the Blog Silence

Ouch--December 21st was a long time ago. So I got really busy. I know, bad excuse, but its the truth. And now that I'm logged on I do feel terrible, and as a matter of fact, I want to say here that I'm going to finish strong this year on the blog front (some of you may have heard this before??). Whats different about this commitment is that its in writing for all to see. Yani... I suppose one should break a big blog silence in a big way--sorry so long, but so much to say!! As for the experiences in Israel/Palestine, you'll have to either 1)read the newsletters at www.sths-elca.org/reinking_mission.asp and/or 2)wait a couple months and let me tell you about it in person:>


An Advent Reflection

Thought I might share this with all of you--kind of goes hand in hand with my latest newsletter on the STHS website. I'm off to Palestine tomorrow. Will surely write more when I return. A Merry Merry Christmas to all of you...

"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." Isaiah 9:2

Peace to you all in the this season of waiting, this season of darkness, this season of cold, this season of hustle and bustle, this season of sales, this season of good cheer, this season of the faces of anticipation. Yes, even in Egypt, it was on the 17th of November that I first observed the first Santa in the window of a shop nearby. I remember thinking what a blessing Thanksgiving really is for America--without this landmark Holiday, those visions of sugarplums lollipops would be dancing through our heads after the fourth of July. As each year the hype surrounding this beautiful holiday grows ever larger, we, ironically, learn more and more what it really means to wait until the 25th of December (or the night of the 24th for some of you cheaters:>).

And these days are trully filled with good cheer. I recall it to be an annually contagious feeling of great excitement as the the decorations don the walls, the staircase, the tables, the christmas tree sends it warm glow through the living room, and those beautiful familiar Christmas tunes that nobody sings like Amy Grant greet my ears. As I look back on it now, you were right mom to save those presents to the last week before Christmas despite our bitter protests.
These traditions clothe our darkness with a character of joy as our hope is fulfilled with the coming of the 25th every year. Yet, perhaps a strange question, but what if Christmas never arrived--what if the warmth of spring never eclipsed the cold of winter, what if the food you ordered last night at the Macaroni grill never came, what if tonight's stoplight never turned green? I've been thinking this advent of the character of our 'American' waiting in the context of a much different world here in Cairo, where true uncertainty of the future fosters a deeply rooted hope for a better life--a hope that literally yearns for the Christ child day in and day out in a world of utter darkness for many here. In this season of reflection I want to share with you a glimpse of this different character of waiting, to bring you with me through the backstreets and alleys of this ancient, chaotic, exciting, and often unforgiving city.

Hadayak Maadi is one of the densest areas of Cairo. Its your basic working class neighborhood consisting of ranks of old, cheap, and dilapidated 6-story apartment building. The streets are just wide enough to fit two single file lines of people next to the walls while a truck full of fresh vegetables from the countryside slowly makes it way to the market. He's driving slowly so you can watch your toes as he passes. No matter the time of day here the streets are full. To stand in one place and watch the world pass by can be dizzying--What are these people's names, where do all these people live, what do all these people do? But a swift knock from an elbow as someone tries to pass by reminds us that now is not the time for such ponderings. Off the flow of the main street is a dark and narrow and comparatively mellow alley where Dan and his family live. Up the unlit cement stairway to the fourth floor. Careful to watch your step. Darkness and spiraling cracked uneven stairs are not a good combination. But the door opens before we can even knock, and the light of a well-lit room spills into the corridor. It illumines little John who, just as any 6-year old in anticipation, heard the steps of expected strangers on the stairs and couldn't resist but see who was coming. Not far behind is big sister Marium, who, like any 9-year old big sister, is checking to see what mischief John is up to now. As she peeks around the door, a big smile envelops her face as the prospect of visitors transforms an ordinary Tuesday night in Cairo. Momma Tina yells something in the Nu'er language from the kitchen, probably something like "let them in the door already!" After managing to get inside with John latched on your leg, its all warm greetings for the next five minutes. Meet John's partner in crime, 5 year-old Marcos, and his mother Rania. Sleeping soundly in Momma Tina's arms is the precious little Akok, only 18 months old. And finally, meet Dan, the man of the household. Dan is the brother of Momma Tina's husband, who 17 months ago suddenly and mysteriously disappeared in Khartoum. Having been politically involved and fighting for change in the government, it is no secret that he was taken by sudan's internal security forces. Today we can only pray and hope that he is alive somewhere in a prison in Sudan. And so Dan took his brother's family and fled to Egypt for their safety, as it is well known that after one arrest, the family of the prisoner will be next. It was here that they met Rania and her son Marcos who had also fled sudan but were homeless on the streets of Cairo. Together, the seven of them live in this 2 bedroom apartment.

Compared to most Sudanese here, Dan and is his family are quite blessed as a year ago Dan landed a teaching job at St. Andrews where he earns close to 500 Egyptian pounds per month (roughly $90). Together with money from the cleaning job that Rania has recently found, they have enough to afford an aparment to themselves, albeit a meager living here. As the Egyptian government as made work illegal for Sudanese refugees, the only real jobs for the Sudanese are the employment opportunities the churches provide here. Considering that there are only really 4 churches with solid refugee ministry programs employing maybe 200 Sudanese at most, and considering that with perhaps as many as 75,000 Sudanese in Egypt, Dan is truly blessed monetarily in Egypt. And, in addition, as a teacher Dan can send the children to school at St. Andrews where they receive an American-style education in English. Otherwise, since Sudanese children are forbidden to attend Egyptian schools, the education would be up to the parent in the home.

But despite all this, Dan's family is in transit, waiting here in Cairo to move to another country where their will be real opportunity for the children when they grow, where the family doesn't have to live from pay-check to paycheck, where as Africans they can feel safe from physical attacks on the street, where there is available health care and baby formula for an infant. Sure, life is an improvement from Khartoum where at any time they could have been abducted, imprisoned, and perhaps even killed, but by no means is life good for Dan and his family in Cairo. And so I have brought with me my Camera today. The children love it and are entranced by images of themselves. Unsure of what to do in front of the camera, it is the flash that brings the smiles and giggles. This doesn't help the photographer's vision, but we are not photographers today. Dan is applying through the 2007 US Diversity Lottery program for immigrant visas to the United States. And the most recent change in the application is the necessity of a digital pictures of all applicants. A bit difficult for many applicants and just another hoop set up by the western governments for refugees to jump through.
For the United Nations Headquarters for the Committee on Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo has recently ceased all operations sending refugees from Cairo to the west. So people like Dan are scrambling for other ways of getting to the west, such as the Diversity lottery, which randomly grants 50,000 immigrant visas to an open pool of applicants from around the world. "Of course its a long shot," says Dan as I take a picture straight on so 'both ears can be seen' against a 'neutral' background. "But it is better to die trying..." It is a sober reminder during this merry time of the plight of these people.

Despite the tight budget, Momma Tina has prepared a real feast for us tonight. A little taste of Sudan she says as we share the meal together. The children eye the table with delight as meat is a rare and special occasion. It is a humbling experience to come here during advent where there is no Christmas tree, where baby formula and warm clothes are the presents, where Christmastime is not in the air. It is truly a world of darkness here, where December 25th will come and go like any other day. But as we pray around the table, it is clear that Dan and his family hold fast to the promise: "Father, we thank you for this food and for all that you have given us... Continue to guide us, protect, and take us to the promised land..." May we all hold fast to the promise, living through the darkness in the spirit of Christ this advent.


Finally, El Harumatt!!

"Whats your opinion of Egypt?? How about those pyramids!!" Egyptians are always curious as to my thoughts of Egypt--its cities, its foods, its people, its monuments. And for the first three I've of course responded of my love for 'everything Egypt,' but of the last I have had to shamefully disclose that I had yet to visit its magnificent and world-renown monuments, the Harumatt. Yes, we really hit the ground running here. That, and the desert during a summer day isn't exactly pleasant. So I waited nearly three months and though it was still blazing saddles on November 26, my visit to the pyramids ect. today was truly an incredible experience. It is certainly true that there are some things that can never be captured in books and photos...

We started in Memphis, the original capital of Egypt and in fact one of the earliest settlements of humanity. Today it lies about 40 minutes south of Cairo by bus, and is nothing more than an agrarian community. Our bus took us on dirt roads past donkeys carrying loads of sugar cane, horse-drawn carts filled with tomatoes, and women gracefully (and amazingly) carrying today's water on their heads. Since the capital moved north closer to Cairo when the Roman's came around the turn of the millenium, Memphis gradually disappeared until all that remained were buried monuments of a time long past. When in the middle and late 1800's the Europeans began their Egyptology expeditions, they unearthed in Memphis a plethora of large sculptures, tablets, and sarcofaguses of ancient Egypt. The most notable were hauled away (and put in trophy cases in the British Museum and the Louvre), but many were left behind where they can be found in a small fenced in area about the size of a football field at the end of a dusty road 30 miles south of Cairo. We truly had a wonderful tour guide today who enlightened us naive westerners as to ancient Egypt.

As very similar to the concept of the emperor in China, the pharaoh in Egypt was the absolute link between God ('Rah' in hieroglyphics) and the people as his subjects. The famous pharaonic name of 'Ramses' actually comes from a combination of 'Rah' and 'masis,' which in hieroglyphics meant 'beloved son.' Therefore, the pharaoh was revered not simply as the iron-fisted ruler of the people, but as one who was the intermediary between heaven and earth. And so many monuments discovered and unearthed in the last one hundred years bear the images of rulers, along with the numerous dieties of ancient Egypt. Ongoing excavations will surely reveal many more artifacts like the ones on display in the Memphis.

From Memphis we made our way to the pyramid park. It is true that on a rare day of little pollution, one can see the pyramids from many spots in Cairo. I had seen them a couple of times from bus and taxi windows, and remember feeling as if I had greatly underestimated the magnitude of these famous structures. They are really huge. And they are even bigger when you stand at the bottom of them. Its like looking up at a magnificent and perfectly symmetrical mountain. How could humans have built this 137m tall mass of square blocks--precise to even the millimeter--and 5000 years ago?? Originally, a limestone casting coated the bulk of blocks that provided the structure of the pyramids making a smooth, tidy, and sheen covering to the pyramids. The top of the pyramid of Khafre still contains a little of this to convey the original completed project. As funerary complexes visible from great distances away, the pyramids allowed the pharaohs to be worshiped long after their death, reminding his subjects both of the eternal power of the gods and the absolute power of the pharoah. And I can truly say that even amongst the scores of tourists and hawkers peddling their wares and camel men begging you to take a ride, you really feel small at the foot of something so enormous and beautiful, even 5000 years later. Both the pyramids themselves and the work of those so long ago that struggled for 20 years to build these pyramids (fyi-new research is showing that it was probably not slaves that built the pyramids, but a highly organized class of Egyptian farmers working in the 4-month flood season for which they were idle) demands respect, necessarily drawing one into that ancient world of spirituality, honour, and remarkable achievement in the name of something much greater than human-kind.


"Fraternity Day"

I met a group of people in October who have established what they call the “Dialogue Forum,” a grassroots organization here in Cairo that organizes events to stimulate inter-group dialogue. So it was in this group that I met Janique, a Swiss Christian, and Nagy, an Egyptian Christian, and Sharin, an Egyptian Muslim, and David, a Sudanese Christian, and Essam, a Muslim Egyptian, and Sarah, an American Christian, examples of the incredible diversity within the group. And what a joy its been to meet with open-minded people with such eagerness to live for and learn from the ‘other.’ As I understand the origins of the ‘Dialogue Forum,’ two years ago a group of people working in the same office decided it would be good to organize events to bring diverse groups together for the simple purpose of breaking down the walls that commonly divide people here in Egypt. A number of events are generally planned each month for all ages. For example, just last week the group took a tour together of Islamic Cairo, an area dense in the Islamic beginnings here in Cairo. And next week we will take a tour to Coptic Cairo to learn about the origins of Christianity here. From time to time the members also work together to provide “Fraternity Days” for children of diverse backgrounds here in Cairo. As it was still three weeks before the first fraternity when I first met these people, I was able to step right into the planning process for October’s Fraternity Day.

Originally, it seemed that as the children aged 7-12 only spoke Arabic, my ability to be of any great service was extremely limited. Basically, I thought that what the group was doing was incredibly cool and I wanted to be around to see it happen. I soon learned that there are no bystanders in this group. After the first meeting, somehow my interest in photography won me the position of ‘video man’ though I’d never in my life really handled a video camera. When word got out in the second meeting that I will be studying medicine (emphasis on future tense), I quickly became the ‘first aid man’ for the day. And when in the third meeting the group realized that the song session they had planned had no leader, I became the ‘song man’ for music in a language I can’t speak:> When all was said and done after the last meeting, we pretended we were ready and agreed to see each other on Friday, the day of the event.

This was the first Fraternity day of many planned (insha’allah—‘God-willing’). Something like 2.5 kids to every adult—on paper the ratio looked great but when bus loads of Sudanese kids and Garbage Collector kids and British International school kids started to unload, the realization of the incredible nature of the day began to sink in. Even the original plan of games in a giant circle was a challenge as kids kept exclusively to the groups with they arrived. And as finally a loose semblance of a fragmented circle was formed, and I began to realize that this was truly the first time for many that they had ever been in the common presence of ‘others.’ We had planned for three times of video interviews throughout the day—arrival, afternoon, and departure. “Are you happy to be here?” we asked. “Yes,” “Of course,” “Sure,” were the typical elementary school kid replies, mixed with a few “No—I don’t know anybody here” replies. They were young kids—so young I wondered if they saw black or white, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian so much as people they didn’t know. Yet, through mid-morning, it was clear that despite the laughter, fun, and joy had in just a few hours, there existed some deep-seated stereotypes, as one answered “These people aren’t like my friends at home.” During the morning there were some who outright refused to cooperate with the program, choosing to watch from the side.

For the children who chose to participate, they were learned quickly about the ‘other.’ Soon after arrival random groups of equal ratios of Sudanese, Egyptians, Christians, Muslims, rich, and poor were formed and activities arranged for each ‘team’ to engage in. As in any group, the individuals must learn to work together to find any success whether it was in a game of football or basketball or pictionary. Songs and artwork and inter-group discussion introduced real people with various talents, humor, and even frustrations. ‘Teams’ adapted creative names and anthems as they each fought, ironically enough, for the distinction of “Most Cooperative”—the ideology being that the team who best cooperated was the team to be the most successful (very true, but we are currently working on developing replacement games like low-ropes and group-building activities to replace games pitting one team against the other where there is always a loser). Since it was during Ramadan, in the evening was an iftar for everyone. After the meal was the last surprise of a show by the local Sudanese dance troupe. For me, the success of the day was most vivid as I watched the chairs cleared for the stage as hand-in-hand all danced together with the Sudanese. “Yes, I’d like to come back for I have made many friends today,” said one before leaving. Regardless of what each child thought about the ‘other’ before they left, they learned much of their similarities throughout the day. It was truly a delight to watch, with much due thanks to the incredible staff who worked with the kids—I was amazed at their ability to jump in and move amongst the kids in amazing ways that created a wonderful environment of safety, freedom, and friendship. And no one got hurt!! I think its definitely a sign we should have another. I want to leave with giving the words of the theme song that circled throughout the day, words that were on the lips of children as they left, words that will stick in all of our minds until next time, words that give us hope and direction for the future:

Ihna Kollena Marba
Hannayen Hagat Kibeera

All of Us Together
Will Do Great Things


Hitting home

So I got word from a friend of mine who is the director of the children's education program at the local refugee program that there was an artice written of the much ignored refugee situation here in Egypt. It appeared in Minneapolis's Star Tribune last week and contains a couple of photos of Isaac Thoks, a friend of mine I have met at St. Andrew's where he goes to school and church with me. His is a story of great hardship here in Cairo, a society generally unwelcoming to the Christian Africans of Sudan seeking the hope of a better life. He is a good man making incredible progress in his English in only a year of studying. He often shows up for tutoring on Tuesday afternoons with me, and through these sessions I have observed his determination and incredible drive to learn English. For these refugees, this is the one thing they can do here in Egypt to prepare for a potential future in another country. Their chance of obtaining asylum sharply increases with their level of English. And as I attempt to behold the story of Isaac alone, I am continually floored by the reality that beyond Isaac are at least 40,000 others like him. I encourage you to read the article--it presents some of the major problems for refugees here in Cairo from the perspective of a place and a people I encounter daily, like Isaac at St. Andrews.



Care With Love: The Overview

Finally the much anticipated answer to the most asked question since last April: What are you gonna do in Egypt?? Well--for the last month I've been working on a power point presentation for the NGO I work for here in Cairo, Care With Love (El-Raiyeh Bilmahaba). In two weeks the organization will be celebrating its 10th anniversary for which they would like show a presentation marking its work here in Egypt. Its the lone pragmatic task assigned to me for this month, besides teaching English to the staff, for since the end September my work facilitator, Dr. Magda Iskander, has been out of town. As she left, she said to me, "Let this be a month of orientation for you, for when I return we can better discuss your role..." So this month I've been that strange foreigner lurking about in the backs of classrooms and around hospitals, attempting to communicate about CWL, taking pictures, and asking--sometimes two and three times--the Arabic names of many an object. I realized very quickly that I was to be granted my wish for cultural immersion: Dr. Magda is the lone English speaker in the organization. So I was to form a presentation about the history, the present work, and the forecast of an organization I knew very little about from a group of people who speak a different language:> Yet, believe it or not, it has been a wonderful month of much laughter and learning as the inner workings of a wonderful organization have slowly become evident to me. So, for this entry I thought I thought you all might like to hear a little about the place I work.

It all started when Dr. Magda's mother took a fall. She was taken to the hospital and treated for a broken hip, and after a couple weeks it was apparent that she no longer needed the a hospital's level of care, as others could use the bed much more than she could. Instead, a program of rehab and home health care was needed given her state of mobility and general lack of ability to perform everyday tasks in the home. Having studied and lived in America, Dr. Magda was well aware of the potential for HHC systems, which were then non-existent in Egypt, and in 1996 the vision for a caretaker's training program became a reality with the launching of CWL. Though intended primarily for the service of a growing elderly population in need of HHC (as the changing economics of Egypt in the 80's and 90's meant that economically families could no longer care for their elderly as members were working multiple jobs to make ends meet), CWL also provides such benefits as the opening of a new job market for young adults in a suffering economy, turning around the lives of unemployed and marginalized young adults sought by CWL to be trained (working with churches and other NGO's, CWL specifically seeks out those individuals in drastic need of opportunity), crossing the bridges between the many groups of people here in Egypt by opening dialogue during the training sessions (CWL trains both Sudanese and Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, and men and women), and re-asserting the critical worth of nurturing care rooted in love in Egyptian society (hospitals are grossly understaffed with nurses due to a general lack of respect for the caretaker and nursing professions).

It is these very cultural attitudes toward professions of care that necessitates the program to reach deeply into the minds and hearts of trainees. Beyond the 90-day curriculum of pragmatic skills and information, Dr. Magda has introduced into the program the concept of the "decision for love." Beyond the graduation requirements of proficiency in skills and knowledge of relevant information, each trainee must profess a dedication to a career of service grounded in love for fellow humanity regardless of potential classifications of those individuals. As we are now at the training center in the later stages of the three-month curriculum, its been amazing to watch as embarrassment and even anger at the necessity of particular procedures (like catheter cleansing and bedpan placement) has been transformed to joy in service for many trainees. It is the extremely conservative character of Egyptian society that has shrouded many bodily processes not so much in secrecy, but in general taboo against the recognition of their reality. CWL is breaking down these walls, which in the future could also lead to the much needed institution of sex education and the prohibition of FGM (sadly near 98% in Egypt alone).

One the first days in Egypt here I was able to attend a graduation for a class (#39 I think, making the number of graduates now well over 500). It was a time of sincere celebration as for the first time in many of the graduates' lives, they had a real future full of hope due to the acquisition of marketable skills. The network of CWL has greatly expanded in ten years offering multiple placement opportunities, from private in-home contracting, to the governmental pediatric cancer ward (grossly understaffed and overcapacitated 'subsidized' health care environment in which CWL is supplementing staff) to the geriatric floor at the Evangelical Presbyterian Hospital. As most of the trainees come from extremely poor neighborhoods of Cairo and the generally poor areas of upper Egypt, they have often not even completed secondary school, thus extremely limiting their employment opportunities. And consequently, their joy at the essence of opportunity is really something to behold, as I contemplate the normality of not just high school but college graduation of the middle and upper classes of America. I am truly one of a comparably small numer in this world with the ability to enjoy the stability of prospective livelihood. As I watch these transformed individuals beam with great pride in their achievement, I'm reminded of how much I take for granted the ample opportunities presented to me by the numerous systems of support that hold me in my life at home--from my immediate family to my extended family to my church to my friends to my university. And in my gratitude to those who have gone before to pave a way for me (thanks mom and dad, grandparents) and to those who continually support me, I, like the caretakers from CWL, am propelled to a life of love and service, for certainly "to whom much is given, much is expected."