Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sisters in Minya

A few days ago, I wrote about my desire to visit the village of Mensafis, in Minya province. As you know, that desire will have to remain unfulfilled. However, I do have a friend, Halina, who has traveled to Mensafis to see the work that is being done there. She recently wrote an article that appeared in the Maadi Messenger, and she graciously gave me permission to reprint it here, along with some photos she took during her visit. It is this article that first drew my attention to the need in Mensafis and to the work that is being done there. After reading the article, I showed it to Jeff, and it was he who suggested that we support this work to the extent that we can. I hope it opens your eyes as it opened mine.

The governorate of Minia[*], 240km [note from Deborah: about 150 miles] from Cairo, is best known among tourists for its important archaeological sites including Beni Hassan, Tourna El Gebel and Tell El Amarna, a capital city established and built by the Pharoah Akhenaten in 1353 BC. However, visitors to the area do not catch a glimpse of the reality of life that is marked by the highest unemployment rate in Upper Egypt with around 1 million poor, including ultra-poor, living on the margins of poverty.
In 2007 an Order of nuns, that has been working tirelessly among poor rural communities in Egypt for 50 years, set up a mission in a small village in Minia with the aim of living among the poor and deprived families to help improve their health and living conditions and give the children hope for a better future.
Most of these families rent a small plot of land and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. They live in dilapidated, badly ventilated and windowless houses that are damp in winter and stifling-hot in summer. Few have electricity and often families are crowded into one single room in which they cook, sleep and even shelter their farm animals.
Inadequate access to clean water and the lack of sanitation in the village leads to a high rate of kidney problems and intestinal diseases - hepatitis C is rife among adults and children and few have any possibility of being cured. For most villagers the nearby canal is their only water supply and a place for children to bathe, for women to wash their clothes, pots and pans, and for everyone to dump their garbage.
Children can attend government schools but the standard of education is low. As parents struggle to earn a living, few can afford to send their children to better schools and many children do not go beyond preparatory level or drop out of school to help their parents working in the fields.
Villagers look forward to regular house calls by the Nuns who listen to their problems with compassion, distribute donated clothes and shoes, help pay for medication in extreme cases and teach and encourage women to improve hygiene in and around their homes. As community life is centered on the local parish that provides the only recreational facilities in the village, the Nuns have set up a mothers/toddlers play group and hold regular literacy classes for adults and children that are always well attended.
The Nuns have a big challenge ahead of them. As some of the Nuns have nursing qualifications, one of their immediate projects is to set up a dispensary clinic in the village where they can treat minor injuries and illnesses on the spot, detect symptoms of serious ailments in advance and help to pay for vital medical treatments. By donating to the Gold Basket you can help them to lay the ground work for this clinic so they can continue their mission to better the lives of the villagers.

The Gold Basket that is mentioned in the last paragraph is the reason why Halina wrote this article for the magazine. Each month at the meeting of the Maadi Women's Guild, one charity is highlighted. It is featured in that month's
Maadi Messenger, and a brief presentation about the charity is given at the meeting. Then the Gold Basket is passed. All of the money that is put into the Gold Basket is given directly to the charity.

* The Arabic alphabet is very different from the English alphabet. Therefore, when writing Arabic words and names using English letters, various spellings are equally valid--even though I write the province name as "Minya" and Halina writes it as "Minia," both are equally correct.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I am an independent person. I like to make my own decisions. If a joint decision needs to be made, I like a lot of consultation. If the other person doesn't care too much about it, I'll just make the decision and present it to the other person for approval.

I often have made major decisions and acted on them before anyone else knew I'd made them, even in situations where it's typical to consult with others first. For example, when I decided as a child to follow Jesus, I prayed the sinner's prayer alone in my room, then walked the aisle at church the next morning to announce my decision to the world. My parents, my pastor, and my Sunday school teacher all were taken by surprise, even though I'd wrestled with the decision for weeks.

When I was in the eighth grade, a teacher told me about a public boarding school for academically gifted juniors and seniors. I went home and announced to my parents that I would be moving out in three years in order to attend this school. I just assumed they'd support my decision (they did).

So you may think that I would have a hard time with submission. An independent person who tends not to consult others before making life-changing decisions probably wouldn't do too well when she has to relinquish her own decision-making capability to someone else, right? For the most part, you'd be right. I've rarely had problems with authority, but that's because most of the authority figures in my life were wise enough to give me general guidelines and then leave me to make my own decisions within those guidelines. That was a good strategy with me. Whenever some authority figure has made me feel the limitations on my autonomy, I've reacted with strong assertions of independence.

There are only two areas where I have not experienced problems with submission and where I would not expect to experience such problems: my faith and my marriage. I believe that the Bible is the accurate and authoritative Word of God, to whom I submit willingly to the best of my ability because I believe that He really does know what's best for me and He really does love me. I can't profess those beliefs and not also believe Ephesians 5:22-24, where it says, "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands" (ESV). I believe that this statement is true because God says it is; I can accept this command because I trust God--and it also makes it easier that I believe Ephesians 5:25, 28--"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself" (ESV). I made darn sure before I said my marriage vows that my husband is a Christ-following man whose judgment and love for me I trust. He doesn't abuse his authority; he has 51% say and I have 49% say, and we talk about everything. Often he yields to my wishes because I care more about a given issue than he does. He makes it easy for me to submit to him. If he didn't, I'd have real problems, and I think he knows that and chooses to make it easy for me.

But what happens when my husband can't give in to me even if he wanted to? When he is required to defer to someone else's judgment, and his submission requires me to submit as well? So I'm not really submitting to my husband, but to some other man? When I'm pretty confident that, left alone, I could convince my own husband to let me do what I want to do (although he just told me that my confidence is misplaced), but this third party is required to be involved, and there's no convincing him? This situation is where I've found myself.

I want to go to the village of Mensafis, in the Minya province of Egypt. There's some work being done there by Catholic nuns, and I was offered the opportunity to go see it. What an amazing opportunity--to go see some of my suffering brothers and sisters in Christ, to participate in the work that's being done to help them, to publicize what's being done on their behalf! I want to go so badly I can taste it.

I came home all excited about the possibilities, and I told Jeff all about it. It never occurred to me that there would be a problem with me going. At most, because Jeff and I both are aware of some recent problems in Minya, I thought that it may take a little convincing before we agreed that it was safe enough, and I could go. But Jeff said, "It sounds like a great opportunity, and I hope you get to go. But I have to check with the RSO first." My heart sank. There's no way the RSO would approve a trip to Minya.

The RSO is the Regional Security Officer. He's responsible for the safety of mission personnel in Egypt. He lets us know what's going on from a security standpoint, and he makes rules about things we can and can't do for safety reasons. We're supposed to notify him of any planned trips outside of Cairo and the normal tourist destinations, and his position requires him to nix any plans for visits to dangerous areas. Minya ... well, there have been some problems there lately ... but not in Mensafis! I'm convinced that I would be safe. One of my friends has visited once already, and the Catholic sisters live there. It would just be a small group of us--three of us, plus a driver and possibly one sister--not enough to attract attention. I'd even cover my hair if Jeff insisted. But he isn't insisting on that. He's insisting--as he is required by his job to do--on deferring to the RSO's judgment. And the RSO, as expected, is not allowing any unnecessary trips to Minya on his watch.

I respect the RSO. I've met him a few times, and I'm friends with his wife. He has a job to do, and his job involves protecting me ... even when it's against my own wishes. I don't hold it against him. This is just another aspect of embassy life that I hadn't thought of before I signed up. And I'd still sign up, even with this limitation, this subjugation of my own judgment to someone else's. But I certainly don't have to like it. I just wish I could convince myself--in my heart, not just in my head--that I'm really submitting to my husband, not just to the RSO.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Volunteering in Cairo

I spent this morning downtown at the embassy. There was a seminar about employment opportunities for the "trailing" (i.e., non-foreign service officer) spouse, and four wives had been invited to share their experiences here at Mission Cairo. One works within the mission, one works on the economy, one has delved deep into study of the Arabic language, and one occupies some of her time with volunteer work. Guess which wife was me. That's right, I gave a very short (maybe 5 minutes) presentation about volunteer opportunities here in Cairo. The response seemed fairly good, although most of the people there were interested specifically in paid work. [Update: I just got an email from someone interested in going to the orphanage, so it was a successful morning!] I decided to present the same information here, basically because I can (even though a lot of it has been presented in earlier posts). At least I think I can. I didn't write anything down before the presentation this morning; I just thought through what I wanted to say over the last day or so, then winged it during the actual presentation. So maybe I should say that here, I'm going to present something similar to what I said this morning ... plus a few other details I forgot to mention.

I've been here in Cairo now for around 15 months. Since it's our first tour, I did a lot of research about Egypt and what it's like to live here. Two things really jumped out at me right from the start. The first was how much Egypt has to offer us--there's a large mission and expat community to make the adjustment easier, there are a ton of cultural opportunities, and of course there are the antiquities and the amazing opportunity to live near them and see them in person. The other thing that jumped out at me was the overwhelming need.

Soon after I arrived, I started looking for ways that I could help meet the needs that are so abundant here. In the last year, I've started volunteering in two organizations. The first is the Baby Wash program, which is a part of Caritas, a Catholic charity. A group of English-speaking ladies goes once a week; each individual lady usually gets to go around once a month. Egyptian mothers bring their babies in, and we bathe the babies. While we have the babies undressed, we give them a quick once-over to see if there are any obvious medical problems. If there are, we send them to the on-site clinic. We also can see if the babies are being cared for--bathed properly, diapers changed often enough, that kind of thing. Most of the mothers are doing a great job with their babies, but some need a little instruction, and we provide that. We also give them things like diaper rash cream if it's needed.

The other charity where I'm involved is Mother Teresa's orphanage in Mokattum, in the area known as Garbage City. This is also a Catholic ministry. Some of the kids live in the orphanage; others come for daycare because their parents both have to work, and the kids are too little to go to work with their moms. The sisters who run the orphanage hire a few local girls to help care for the kids, but the bottom line is that there are too many kids and not enough workers. So volunteers go in and play with the kids and help feed them and change their diapers and in general take care of them. They need help in the morning and afternoon six days a week, and they need whatever help they can get. The only thing I would recommend is that if you go, take your own disposable wipes because what they use ... well. Just take them.

As you can see, my "thing" is working with babies. If that's not your thing, there are still plenty of opportunities for you. If you like working with children, there are refugee children who need to be taught an entire English curriculum. If you like working with adults, there are refugees who need to learn English. There are opportunities to work with deaf people. There are charities in need of administrative assistance. If your thing isn't people at all, but you're an animal lover, there are shelters that could use your assistance in caring for and playing with the cats and dogs they've rescued. There are so many needs, so many different needs, that whatever your skill or talent or gift is, you can find a way to use it to benefit others. There's a long list of charities in your packets if you want to see some of the options. {Each participant in the seminar received a packet from the embassy's human resources office; that's what I was referring to there.}

One other opportunity for an immediate, short-term project: the Maadi Women's Guild is an organization that supports several local charities through grants. The charities have a need and apply to the Guild for funding to meet that need. A lot of the money for those grants is raised at the annual Christmas bazaar. The planning for the Christmas bazaar is starting now, so if you want to help with that--especially if you have experience with similar things, but even if you don't have experience--I can put you in touch with the woman who's organizing it.

Volunteer work, by definition, isn't paid with money. But it's so worthwhile. You can meet some great new people, have some fun, and also know that you've done a good thing.