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'When you love somebody, you live it'

Cairo's poverty-stricken garbage villages are breeding grounds for Islamic extremism, but brave Christians offer hope to the poor

You see the garbage pickers on the main highway of Cairo that runs from the airport to the pyramids. They lumber through honking car traffic on donkey carts. Each driver sits high on massive sacks of the city's refuse. Often a young boy or two is seated at his feet, or, in predawn hours, curled asleep atop the trash.

Not until the past year did government leaders get serious about turning garbage collecting over to professionals, most likely a European multinational group. For generations Cairo's poor have served as the city's garbage collectors. Today 50,000 city dwellers do the work. Ninety percent of them are Christians.

They live in about five areas of the city specially designated for the trade, in houses-usually tin huts with bamboo roofs-called zaraayib (pigsties).

By night men collect garbage and return to their homes, where women and children sort it by day. Courtyards overflow with the city's refuse. Cows, goats, and pigs are integral to the system. They feast on organic waste in doorways and street corners of garbage areas, then later show up at a nearby butcher. Plastic, metal, paper, and cardboard waste is culled by hand, recycled, or burned.

The business is an invention of necessity. Cairo's population, now roughly 16 million, has over the last 30 years trebled in size. Most of the city has never had proper waste management. At the same time, successive waves of migrants, mostly tenant farmers from Upper Egypt, find itinerant garbage collection suits them because they are adept at its earthy elements, at managing animals, and because they need work. Christians, in particular, find themselves relegated to menial labor in a country that is 90 percent Muslim.

The poverty of the Middle East, and particularly its largest cities like Cairo, is an overlooked ingredient feeding Islamic-led terrorism. Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammad Atta grew up in one of these Cairo slums, where Muslim extremists have learned to capitalize on Cairo's poverty. Imams pay villagers to learn portions of the Koran by memory, one Egyptian pound per verse, students told WORLD. "To be very poor is to have no decisions," says Emad Beshay of Stephen's Children, a group working in the garbage areas. "You can be easily led."

Garbage collectors are by no means getting ahead. They receive about two Egyptian pounds (25 cents) per month per customer. They are forced to live in the worst parts of town. Mukattam, the city's largest garbage-collection area, hugs the foot of a chalky cliff that is a historic area for persecuted Christians. Cave churches were carved out long ago here, and tombs have existed inside the mountain since before the birth of Christ.

In 1969 the government set aside land at the foot of the cliffs for garbage collection and sorting. One thousand tons of garbage enters Mukattam every day, about one-eighth of the city's output. Its roads are packed-mulch pavement wide enough for two packed camels only, as the old laws decreed. Open doorways reveal toddlers sorting empty soda bottles from a mound of trash. Goats graze in a courtyard of slushy muck beneath just-laundered undershirts. Worn-out donkeys idle at hitching posts.

As its population has grown to 20,000, Mukattam has become a byword to the rest of Cairo. Mosques complain about their proximity to its pigs. The city condemned a profitable large-scale composting operation because it could be seen from new high-rises. Developers complain about its stench. The government neglects services to the community, including education, medical care, and utilities.

All the downsides spell opportunity for faith-based charities. Churches and nonprofit organizations have set up micro-enterprise projects. These give unschooled children skills and employment other than garbage picking. They turn out shoes, rugs, handicrafts, and clothing, sometimes using recycled garbage materials. Coptic and Catholic churches, along with private organizations, are running the only kindergartens in Mukattam.

On a sunny morning in January, children arrived at one such school looking fresh-scrubbed and neatly dressed despite traipsing trashy streets to get there. The students, ages 3-5, sit in straight rows to learn the alphabet and numbers by recitation. For most of them, the greatest challenges are sitting in a chair (they have no furniture at home) and caring for a notebook when everything around them is disposable.

In one classroom, 30 4-year-olds are learning to recite Psalm 23. In another they sing ABCs in English. Each classroom is learning to say, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," in Arabic and English.

The school is the first to open in Mukattam under Stephen's Children, a Cairo nonprofit group with offices also in the United States and Canada. Stephen's Children has opened 30 kindergartens in poor areas of Cairo, with plans to open five per year.

The government must grant a license to operate each school, a labyrinthine process that requires dealing with five separate government departments. Staff and teachers all are Christians-a contrast to government schools where most teachers are Muslim and use the Koran in Arabic classes. Here students learn to read from the Bible, celebrate Christmas, and absorb Christian values. The schools have sought business sponsors, which gives them public legitimacy, and are careful to avoid the appearance of evangelizing Muslims, which would get them into trouble with local Islamic leaders and the government.

Despite those restrictions, the opportunity is enormous. "When they go to government schools, they are exceptional students," says Mr. Beshay. "They are honest. They have values. They are good workers."

Stephen's Children began in another poor neighborhood of Cairo nearly 20 years ago with four workers. It now has 600. They work with 5,000 poor families, most living in garbage areas. Workers essentially adopt one child per family to meet with once a week. On his first visit to a Mukattam family, Mr. Beshay said he was served orange peel, obviously salvaged from garbage. He said it was important to eat it in order to foster the kind of consistent relationships that build regular school attendance, hygiene, medical care, and Christian discipleship. The organization pays for medical exams for each "adopted" child, student fees, and a once-a-year camp outside Cairo.

The woman behind this ministry is 5 feet 4 inches tall, a striking olive-skinned Egyptian with white hair sheared straight at the chin. Maggie Gobran, 53, began daily visits to garbage areas and other slums 20 years ago when her own children were small. Stephen's Children developed from her commitment to poor families and to witnessing the overwhelming needs in places like Mukattam. "A child is like the candle in the family," she told WORLD.

Mrs. Gobran's heritage is upper-crust Egyptian. Her father was a well-known physician in Upper Egypt from a Christian family. She received an elite education after the family moved to a well-to-do Cairo neighborhood. Married "in a very fashionable way" to a prominent Cairo businessman, as she describes it, Mrs. Gobran had no reason to visit the city's poor. But she did, stirred by the death of an aunt who had made a lifelong habit of serving the poor.

She took her own two small children to that first visit. "In the slums I found in the children that we visited the same look of my own children," she said. "I felt that was from God. It is not easy to go in the dirt and like it. But these I could easily hug and wash their faces."

She began visiting garbage pickers and other poor children every day while her children were in school. "I spent whole days among these families. Every meal, every hour, helping with homework, in a sense living with them," she said. Out of that grew a desire to see more laborers doing the same. "This is a different kind of work. It is not an orphanage; it is not a one-time thing where I show up sometimes and leave."

Her new devotion brought puzzlement from friends who remember her as the life of the party driving a Mercedes in affluent Cairo. She was branded eccentric. "Now she is a woman of great integrity who deliberately keeps out of the limelight in Egypt," Ramez Attalla, director of the Egyptian Bible Society and a lifelong friend, told WORLD. "You can disagree with her methodology but that does not mean you disparage her work."

Among the poor, her commitment earned her an affectionate nickname, "Mama Maggie," and a reputation as Cairo's Mother Teresa. Like the Sisters of Charity founder of Calcutta, Mama Maggie is a ready combination of both reserve and fierce affections; of otherworldly piety and earthy practicality-always arriving to work in a long white skirt, a simple white shirt, and a sandy-colored hooded jacket.

In her small voice she pounds teachers and co-workers with the necessity for daily devotions and memorizing whole chapters of Scripture. "There is no medicine for our spirit but God's word," she tells them. A moment later she turns to a preteen boy to examine a hand cut. He tells her it came from sorting tin cans. She calls for medicine and a bandage to tend it herself, saying, "When you love somebody, you live it."

Garbage areas-and garbage-area dwellers-are increasing in number even as they may be put out of business. This month city officials are completing contracts with Italian and Spanish conglomerates to begin garbage collection in some parts of Cairo. "Multinationals coming in is a crisis for garbage collectors," said Ezzat Gendy, a third-generation Mukattam garbage collector who sorts and recycles plastics for industrial uses. Mr. Gendy says the city will deprive him of a livelihood, however meager. The work of faith-based organizations, he said, will be more important than ever.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.