Ed West meets the woman known as ‘the Mother Teresa of Cairo’ for her work with the city’s ‘garbage people’
The attack on the church in Alexandria just a few minutes into 2011 and the protests currently shaking Egypt have woken the world up to the dangers facing the country’s Christian minority. But on top of the ever-present danger of terrorism and political instability in the majority Muslim nation poverty is still the number one enemy.
Although many of Egypt’s more than 10 million Christians are middle-class and highly educated, roughly half live in dire poverty. Many are in Cairo, a mega-city of 20 million people which mirrors the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution in Europe – except that the extremes of poverty are more intense, and there are more people struggling to earn a living.
The poor occupy the teeming slums, the poor occupy the graveyards and the ancient ruins, and they even occupy the city’s rubbish dumps. The Zabbaleen, or “garbage people”, are Coptic Christians who have lived in the dumps for a century now and work as informal rubbish collectors in the city. The Zabbaleen are also called Zarraba, which translates as “pig-pen operators”, as they keep pigs that feed on organic waste. They number between 60,000 and 70,000 and mainly live in Moqattam Village, nicknamed “Garbage City”, at the foot of a mountain outside Cairo, next to a Muslim squatter settlement.
This is a different world to the one Maggie Gobran was born into, as part of Egypt’s cosmopolitan, western-facing upper middle class, which until Nasser’s disastrous nationalist reforms included large numbers of Greeks, Italians, Jews and Armenians in one of the culturally richest countries on earth. The mother of two was working at the prestigious American University in Cairo when her father’s sister died.
“She dedicated her life to the poor,” she recalls as she sits dressed in a white shawl during a brief visit to London. “When she passed away afterwards I realised I must do something for them. I was around 35 when I first visited but it took some time before I had the call from God.”
That Christmas she visited a rubbish dump to hand out gifts to the poor, and at one of the mounds saw something moving. Beginning to dig, she found a small child buried in rubbish. Then she found another.
“The first time I couldn’t believe human beings could live like this,” she says, “that people are surrounded by garbage. You could not imagine a child could survive like this.
“There are some areas in Egypt, like Sharm el-Sheikh, that are very good for tourists and I recommend it. But in Cairo there are half a million living like that. When you find the poorest children in the slum areas there is not enough access for many basic needs. They’re the poorest of the poor. They don’t have someone to care for them.”
But one incident really shocked her. “I found a widow, almost my age, and her children were the age of my children and she couldn’t find a pair of shoes. When I took this girl to get shoes she said: ‘I wanted a bigger size.’ ”
She asked the girl why. “For my mother, she doesn’t have them,” the girl replied.
“And I thought: what a spirit of sacrifice, that she thought of her mother rather than herself. When I got home I thought I could have been in her place. She said when her husband died four years ago no one came to us.
“I didn’t choose my family to be brought up in a well-off family. All of a sudden it was a great shock.”
Resolving to do something about it, this gentle but formidable Coptic Orthodox Christian set up Stephen’s Children, named after the first martyr. In a quarter of a century it has helped thousands of children, and has over 1,200 members helping in the region of 24,000 families, operating 60 medical clinics and education centres, and ministering to over 21,000 children. It also runs a kindergarten which cares for between 250 and 400 children, aged two to six years, at any one time. Here, the children get food, health checks, clothes and a Christian education – something many lack.
One veteran Christian activist has described Maggie Gobran as “one of the most amazing Christian ministries I have ever come across”.
Recently the organisation helped a young Christian boy, Malak, whose family was surviving on one meal a day, and whose mother was too malnourished to feed her starving baby. Malik was praying to God to save the life of his baby brother, who was getting weaker with every hour, when a worker from Stephen’s Children found out about it. They arranged for the family to be given a goat; the mother and baby survived.
Mama Maggie, as she is known in Cairo, became a regular figure in the slums.
“I didn’t know how to deal with people because they had their own culture,” she says, explaining that her upper middle class accent and mannerisms made her stand out. “But I couldn’t accept that I couldn’t do it, because when I was reading my Bible it became clear God was calling me. I couldn’t do anything else.”
In the rubbish dumps Christian women search through for bits of discarded bread, in competition – appallingly – with rats, which are large and think nothing of entering their makeshift homes. The vermin are even known to bite off bits of children’s ears. Desperation has led to a strange environmentalism. The Zabbaleen recycle up to 80 per cent of waste, far more than any Europeans do. But in 2003 the Cairo city authorities handed over recycling contracts to big companies, which has left the Zabbaleen out of work.
Another blow came in April 2009 when, following the swine flu epidemic that began in Mexico, the Egyptian agricultural ministry ordered the culling of all pigs (although there was no medical reason for doing so, since the flu was spread by people, not pigs).
In the slums hygiene is neglected and children are covered in dirt and, more dangerously, in cuts, an inevitable consequence of contact with rubbish. Water is a luxury. So as well as providing medical help helping with hygiene is also vital. A British-based Christian visitor recalls watching the workers washing the feet of these children: “I was immediately reminded of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Just in front of me was the literal living out of Jesus’s teachings on servanthood. Mama Maggie herself tenderly washes the children’s feet whenever she can.”
Mama Maggie herself says: “I can see in every child Jesus Himself. You have a mission to love others and to accept the love of the Lord. This is our mission, to tell everyone that Jesus loves them. What destroys the poor is the lack of love, acceptance and self-esteem.
“Every time I see a child like that I think: ‘How can I be a good human being?’ You know when Jesus was on the Cross he said: ‘This is your child’ and to John: ‘This is your mother.’ So every needy child is your child. Its not easy to see your children suffering that much.”
In this spirit those helped by Stephen’s Children in turn help others. Mama Maggie recalls fondly that many of the children of the children she once had come back as workers to work for her. According to one estimate, a third of the staff at Stephen’s Children were children who were themselves previously helped by this ministry.
The organisation is interdenominational, with volunteers from all denominations. They help whoever needs it but there are difficulties in a country where the allegation of evangelisation can be dangerous.
“Helping Muslims is not welcomed because it is thought we are trying to turn them into Christians.”
Mother Maggie has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at least three times, and is widely referred to as Mama Maggie although nicknamed called by many “the Mother Teresa of Cairo”. Inevitably the comparison is raised. Like Mother Teresa, Maggie Gobran lives very simply. She gave up a well-paid job, and has also sold jewellery and other personal possessions.
“I am very inspired by Mother Teresa, but I am not worthy to wash her feet. Mother Teresa – she is one of my best friends. Not in flesh, but in spirit.”
She adds: “I want to say to everyone: where you really think of others you will find yourselves. Go deep inside yourself by presenting real life to others. God is so merciful and loving.”
If you would like to help Stephen’s Children, please send a cheque payable to “Stephen’s Children” to Stephen’s Children, 30 Pied Bull Court, Galen Place, London WC1A 2JR