Garbage Everywhere

What’s that smell, I wondered, as we drove in our customary van with the Duke Engage bunch happily moving on to another tourist site in Coptic Cairo. I just assumed it was like one of the many pungent smells wafting out of the Cairene streets, such as falafel, sweet pastries, automobile exhaust, and the occasional hint of rotten food mixed with garbage.

We had just finished visiting the biggest church in the Middle East, the Mokkatam, a Coptic Church dug into rock cliffs that can seat 20,000 to 30,000 people. It had carvings and bible verses etched into the rock by generations of Coptic Christians dating back hundreds of years to the 3rd or 4th Century AD.

Exiting the church area and entering the local village, we expected to find a typical Cairene village. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s to never make assumptions about Cairo.

The smell filled our van and we suspected its origins came from the horse-drawn watermelon carriage, one of our bodies, or a skinned, bloody cow, but this time it was pure garbage. We were in what is called, “Garbage City.”

Coptic Christians in this area are Cairo’s garbage collectors. Collecting, gathering, sorting, organizing, reorganizing, packaging, and recycling trash is the economic lifeblood of this city. There is literally garbage everywhere; massive garbage bags line the streets and rooms are piled so high that the ground consists of 2 feet of waste. To deal with the non-recyclables and compost, this foul slop is given to pigs as food. During the swine flu epidemic 2 years ago, a state-wide scare led this village to kill all of their pigs and thus eliminated the only outlet by which the trash buildup is reduced.

Predictably, there are tremendous health implications for the women sorting recyclables, the men breathing in fumes, and the children playing in the heaps of litter. But what solutions exist for improving this town? Destroying the source of health problems destroys the only source of income and economic sustainability. And it doesn’t help that the inhabitants are a minority religious group that make up a mere 10% of the Egyptian population.

City wide recycling programs and preliminary trash sorting initiatives could allow for better trash management in Garbage City and reduce exposure to various types of harmful waste. However, this would require mandates from people in high government positions. In the midst of the restructuring of the Egyptian government and the political experiment known as democracy, it is doubtful that the focus is on improving one small, minority-held town of trash in the outskirts of the city.

There are a few social initiatives in the Caribbean that were started by American students that involve transforming recyclables into art, jewelry, and purses. These could be instrumental in gaining enough capital to only focus on recyclables, thereby limiting other rubbish from entering the city. Garbage City already has something very similar in a paper-recycling factory. Women craft brilliant paper products, refashioning envelopes, greeting cards, gift bags, stationary, and other beautiful objects with hand-drawn pictures and colorful dyes. Until politicians sort out the major government problems though, places like these that need aid might go unnoticed for too long.

Plastic Adhesive

The past week and a half, the pungent smell of plastic adhesive glue, strong enough to mend furniture and lay down tiles, filled the nursery room. Amber and I had cut out what seemed like hundreds of paper fawanees, the traditional lanterns hung around the city during Ramadan, and decorated them with as many designs as we could think of. We then took colorful pieces of string, and dipped our fingers in the glue to stick the lanterns onto the string. We hung the strings of lanterns from every ceiling possible, covering the entire complex with fawanees. It was an incredible sight, seeing the designs and colors brighten the dusty, cold walls of Ana-El Masry, and as I walked away my last day of work, I couldn’t help but think of how this project was a beautiful metaphor for my entire experience in Cairo.

When I came to Egypt, I knew I was going to fall in love with kids we worked with. But I also had anxiety about abandoning them at the end of the summer, just like Amanda. Most of the kids have never had healthy relationships; they didn’t have families that taught them about love. I felt like I was going to form amazing connections with them, and then leave, sadly contributing to the hardships in their lives. The only way I knew how to cope with this problem was to shower them with more love and affection, and cherish my time with them. I have to believe that I changed the kids’ lives, just like they changed mine. The plastic adhesive glue, meant to stick things much stronger than just paper and string together, didn’t always work. The paper lanterns would fall off; there wasn’t always enough glue; someone would accidently step on them and mess everything up. But just like my solution with the children to give them more love, no matter how frustrating it was to glue lantern after lantern, I picked the string back up, slathered more glue on my finger, the lantern, and the string, and welded the two together again.

I would come in every morning the last week to see stacks and stacks of construction paper, scissors, glue, markers, and string, just waiting to be molded into the fawanees. By the end of that week, I was so sick of them, I didn’t want to make another one. At times, I felt the same way with Ana-El Masry. I got frustrated, upset, confused, angry, and felt helpless at points on the trip. Day after day trying to discipline, keep order, and work through disorganization can really wear on a person. But when I saw all the fawanees hanging, with the kids admiring them and smiling chanting: “Ramadan Kareem!” the frustration in making them seemed so small. On the last day of work, the kids all shared memories about the last two months and told us how much they loved us. Just like seeing the fawanees, seeing the kids appreciate and remember even the smallest things we did for them erased all the hardships, at least for that moment, and I couldn’t help but cry from sadness and happiness.

When the glue is applied, it’s a white, thick paste that is not aesthetically pleasing in the least. It looks sloppy at best, and does not look suitable to display. But when it dries, it dries clear, seamlessly suspending the paper lanterns in the air. They may be crooked, flopping around in the wind, or hanging upside down. But what matters was they were there, they were part of the string, on display for the kids to see. At work, there were days when things were sloppy. There was no order; the kids would run wild through the compound, wreaking havoc, beating us up, spitting on us, and kicking us. But today, at the end of 8 weeks, the glue has dried, and all I can see are their smiling faces. They all have their issues, hardships, and some were undoubtedly better than others, but they are all forever imprinted in my mind as beautiful little memories.

One of the lanterns we made!

Naturally, smearing the glue with my fingers, I was bound to get a little dirty. Some days my hands would be covered with the white substance. The glue would dry as a thick, clear film on my hands. At first, I was relieved I could peel the glue right off when it was dry. But now that’s my biggest worry. Will the kids, the staff, and the Egyptians I have connected so deeply with the last 8 weeks just peel me right off their hands? Will I ever get to see their faces again? Will they even remember me if I come back? These questions are now haunting me, and I only anticipate that fear growing when I am back on American soil.

I know one thing for sure. I have to come back to Cairo; even just for a day. I have to see the kids who have changed my life again. I have to reconnect with the Egyptians who offered so much to me, who welcomed me into their homes and shared their thoughts, memories, and feelings with me. It simply wouldn’t be right to never come back. When I get back home, I have a feeling that there is going to be a hole in my heart. A hole where those kids live, where they laughed, cried, sang, and learned. I pray one day I can fill that hole. But until then I’ll be using the plastic adhesive glue to hold my heart together.


Precious Life Changers

When I signed up for DukeEngage I was expecting to change the world, or at least my assigned corner of Cairo. I expected to go to Ana El-Masry and teach art to the next Van Gough or Kahlo. While I have no doubt that we have had an impact on these kids this summer, my expectations were not reality.  I love these kids, and I hope that I taught them some life skills, but I doubt they learned a lot about art except perhaps how to better express creativity. However, I have learned so very much from these kids and instead of changing their lives, they have changed mine.

In America we expect the right to pursue happiness, but we abuse that promise everyday by pursuing things that we think will make us happy eventually but make us miserable in the meantime. On the other hand, the future of all these children is uncertain beyond the fact that they will someday rejoin society as contributing members, but their pasts are heartbreaking realities. In spite of the uncertainty of their futures and the terrible realities of their pasts, they are happy. They are fun-loving, energetic, and always smiling and laughing.  In their faces I am reminded that thankfulness is a key in happiness. While Amanda mentioned that some kids miss the freedom of the streets and run away, others are thankful for the shelter, food, clothing, and love they receive at Ana El-Masry which was unattainable on the streets.

Adham and Anur, two of the newer students

Generosity is a virtue. Even in a land of abundance like America, generosity gives way to suspicion and greed, but these children give so much.  When we arrive in the mornings they are eating breakfast, and even though we have all eaten already and a croissant is all they will receive for this meal, they all insist on sharing some with us. The children rip of pieces and hold them to our faces until we take them and eat them. Today, our last day, they gave us all hand-made bags that they sewed for us in their sewing class. Their selfless generosity is truly inspiring!

Brilliance can be born out of any situation.  At Duke everyone is expected to brilliant, and many have had an environment which nurtures this brilliance. In contrast, these kids have literally been living on the streets, and yet many of them are incredibly smart.  Many of them have come out of seemingly hopeless situations like rape, families with addiction, abuse, death of their parents, but they thirst for knowledge. They love to learn and so eager for knowledge in ways that I can never remember being as a nine or ten-year-old.

Abdullah and Manar, bright students, brother and sister, and born of a mother suffering from addiction and mental illness

Sometimes words just aren’t enough. For someone who is an aspiring linguist, it is hard for me to admit that words aren’t always necessary for communication. The tone of a person’s voice matters so much more than the actual words. Also gestures, body language, and hugs are just as competent modes of communication. While I have taken some Arabic, it was still very difficult to communicate with the children in the Egyptian dialect. In spite of this language barrier, I have connected with the children in truly meaningful ways created relationships that I value so very much.

Me with Yusef, a truly special young man

Today, as we drove away from those precious smiling faces for the last time, I thought of how much they have truly changed my life in the way that I value things and the way I look at the world and life.  While I may be sad now to leave them, I am so happy to have this opportunity and I know that I can always find a way to see the bright side of life like these kids have. The founder of Ana el-Masry said to me “These kids have something special which other kids don’t have because they have seen the worst. But they are still children and because of that they are precious and they are happy and smart in ways we cannot imagine.”

Coming to Terms with Abandonment

They ran away. Last Sunday, I found out that Sayid and Alaa, two of my favorite boys at Ana El Masri, snuck out during the night and never came back. Marianna, one of the coordinators at Ana El Masri, explained to me that some of the boys miss the freedom on the streets of being able to do whatever they want. I understood, but at the same time, I was baffled. They get free food, free shelter, free education, and most importantly, love, at Ana El Masri: would the children really sacrifice all of this just for the “freedom” of the streets?

I kept asking Marianna whether Ana El Masri had people looking for the children, and she said that they did, but had no luck. Over the past week, I’ve been crossing my fingers that our DukeEngage bus will pull into Ana El Masri and I’ll see Alaa running up to the bus with open arms, greeting me with a big hug, and that I’ll see Sayid come into English class with his slightly spiked hair and smile that instantly curbs all of my frustrations. Instead, I am haunted by images of Sayid starving in the middle of the desert and boys beating up Alaa on the streets. I know that Ana El Masri does not have any legal rights to force the children to come back, and I know that I can’t do anything. But how can I just accept that these children are probably gone forever, and that they might not survive on the streets, let alone ever lead a stable life?

Ahmed, me and Alaa (on the right). I wish that I'd taken more photos with him.

It’s taken me a few days to figure out what I am feeling. Is it anger at Ana El Masri for not stopping the boys? Is it frustration that the boys didn’t realize that Ana El Masri was giving them an opportunity for a better future that they wouldn’t find by living on the streets? Or is it betrayal because they didn’t even say goodbye to me? I keep thinking back to all of the moments that could have warned me: all of the times that Alaa picked fights with other children or refuse to talk to anyone, and all of the times that Sayid would leave English class or not pay attention to the material. Could I have persuaded them to stay?

I am upset because this incident makes me feel helpless. I feel abandoned. But what most upsets me is that this Thursday, I will abandon all of the children at Ana El Masri. I will abandon talented Mohammed, who always eagerly recites, “My name is Mohammed and I am from Egypt.” I will abandon sweet Yusef, who always asks how many more days we have left. I will abandon adorable Mustafa, who asked me to take him back home with me. I will soon betray all of them when I leave and go back to the comforts of America: the comforts of having a family, food, shelter, and quality education.

I feel abandoned, and I also feel replaceable. Five children, including Sayid and Alaa, ran away but Ana El Masri received six new boys to comprise their new class of “reception” children, the children who just came from the streets. Yes, Ana El Masri can’t take care of the five that are gone, but the staff have to move past that fact and focus on the children still in the organization. The children seem replaceable and I, as well as this DukeEngage group, are replaceable. Every year a different group comes back, and every year, the kids form new friendships with the Duke students. The kids do not need us. The kids have the staff, who dedicate their lives to them. They have the Egyptian college students who volunteer to play with the children, and who can actually speak their language and see them regularly. They have each other.

Our English class with Youth 2. Sayid is on the far right in the red stripes, copying down the alphabet.

This past week, I’ve harbored mixed, confusing emotions. But now, as we have three days left with the children, I think that I’m ready to move past these negative feelings and realize that despite the hardships and heartaches, I wouldn’t give up this experience at Ana El Masri for anything. My first blog post divulged my worries that this program would not help the kids substantially, and that Duke students would be the primary beneficiaries of this program. But now, I have to have faith that I, and this group, have had an impact: that our English lessons teaching “please” and “thank you” taught them good manners that will last a lifetime, that some of the kids felt inspired by us to stay in school, that they will remember us and this summer. These kids have inspired me to continue pursuing my passion for teaching and education, and I must have faith that we changed their lives just as much as they changed mine.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Truths

“Tonight we attended a lecture at Cairo University with Ustaaz Lo as the key note speaker. The topic was Arab- African relations in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and from what I saw on the sign-in sheet the majority of the Cairo students sitting in the room were from other African countries. I didn’t gather much since it was all in Arabic, but from what I did gather the conversation seemed to turn into a somewhat heated debate about nationality and identity; the use of the word “America” was a frequent occurrence. Oh what I would have done to be fluent in Arabic at that lecture, but the opportunity we were given afterwards was just as rewarding for me. Afterwards, we had a mini-forum between the Duke and Cairo students with Ustaaz as our translator. They asked us many questions in relation to US politics, culture and our perspective on Islam. However, the one that stood out to me the most was also the one I wanted to answer least. Through translation, it sounded something like this: “Taking into account the response that the US had to Obama’s presidential campaign and his possible Islamic faith, would you say that America is ready for a Muslim president anytime soon?”

I wasn’t the one to answer this question (Ryan and Desmond did), but I most certainly had a passionate opinion about the subject. As we felt obliged to represent America with honesty, you probably already know the answer we had to give to them: an immediate no. We had to stand up in front of a group of young intellectual students, all of whom were Muslim, and tell them that a presidential candidate would most certainly not be elected in America solely because of the fact that he/she might be Muslim. I am well aware that America has had some very tragic experiences with certain Muslim extremists (need I mention 9/11) but I really couldn’t stop thinking about the ignorance and fear of Islam that has been around for almost 11 years now in America. Desmond had to explain how people would immediately associate Islam with anti-feminism and anti-freedom ideals. What bothers me the most is that any group of people can be victims of the ignorance that so many Americans have. The fact that it’s so easy for us to form an assumption about an entire religion, race, or sexuality just because we have seen or heard about one negative extreme blows my mind. Maybe it’s not just a trait specific to America; In sha’Allah I hope it is not. I know ignorance exists all around the world I’m just not so sure if it’s as prominent in other countries as it is in the one that I call home.”

-July 10th, 2012

I was never able to post this entry until now because it felt incomplete; the inner-debate that I was having within myself felt unresolved until today because my words solely displayed negativity.  Something has happened since then that has caused me to readjust my attitude. Yesterday there was an awful shooting in a movie theater in Colorado. It came up multiple times today as we grieved for our fellow Americans back at home. Being in Cairo while this horrific event occurred got me thinking- why is it that Cairo, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world (approx. 17 million inhabitants) rarely has such disasters occur? It has almost 11 million more people than NYC, yet the violent and residential crime rate is so much less. I was always told that the more populated the area was, the higher the crime rate would be. Or does that only apply to America? I couldn’t actually find any crime ratings for Cairo, but from what I’ve searched the most serious crimes you need to worry about here are sexual harassment (a very severe issue) pick pocketing, and some carjacking.  Not murders, manslaughter, burglary, or robbery. Why? Maybe it’s because they don’t have easy access to firearms (earlier today when we were mourning for the victims in Colorado Sarah voiced her opinion for stricter gun control when it comes to America’s “right to bear arms”). Maybe it’s because it’s a city run by religion. Or maybe it just has something to do with that strong Egyptian sense of community that Kishan so beautifully referred to in his most recent post.

I think the real reason I was so upset when writing this post at first was because, like Kishan said, “the tension between the American perception of Islam and the Middle East’s insight into America’s views is a vicious cycle”. It kills me to know that people think so poorly of this country and its people when I have met some of the most generous and welcoming people that I will probably ever meet in Cairo. I’m not saying that only the purest of good exists here. I’ve seen the aftermath and torture of sexual assault and I’ve seen the pure hatred of Americans (read about the incident that occurred this week in Kishan’s article). But I do know that the good has most certainly outweighed the bad for me on this trip and although I am left slightly conflicted in thought, I’ll be heading back on that plane to America in one week defending the Middle East and its culture more than I ever did before.