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Philip smiles with boys in Egypt

Today’s guest post comes from Philip Bishara, a fellow who attended The 21 in June of 2022. We asked Philip to write about his time in Egypt and share the parts of his experience that stood out the most to him. In today’s post, Philip shares what he learned about grace and patience from the children during The 21.

I was jostled awake from my short nap as the van lurched to a halt on the road outside the school in Al Fashn. Our 15 minutes of peace before the chaos of the school day was over. Some days, that van ride felt like the scene from Saving Private Ryan where the soldiers sit helplessly in their transport boats, waiting to face enemy fire on the beach at D-Day. Between our late snacks of batikh and mangoes with our host, Abouna Samuel, and our even later spiritual reflections and group talks, waking up early to teach English to energetic children with whom I could not converse was a daunting task. But then the doors of the van flew open. 

We almost never had to open the doors ourselves because our kids would be eagerly awaiting our arrival just inside the school gates. They mobbed the van, attacking our tiredness with their smiles and smothering our apprehension with their embraces. We didn’t stand a chance. Within moments, we were parading into our classrooms together, energized and laughing. More talkative students like Philopateer or Ibraam or Julie were always excited to share about their weekend or recite the part of the Lord’s Prayer we had worked on during the previous class. The quieter students like Mohrail or John were content to skip alongside the group or hold hands as the other students shared.  

Coptic Orphans paired me up with Mark, my phenomenal teaching partner, because he is proficient in Arabic. He did his best to interpret the constant stream of chatter for me, but frequently faced his own barrage of life updates and questions from kids on the other side of the classroom. Our kids learned pretty quickly that I didn’t understand Arabic very well, but that realization never chilled their desire to share with me or spend time with me. In many cases, all I could offer was a smile or a nod or an enthusiastic “wow.” As our time in Egypt raced by, our students only seemed more and more determined to include me in their lives. If I didn’t know an Arabic word, they would all band together and try to act it out or translate it in pieced-together English. 

Every evening, we were blessed to be able to visit the children individually in their homes and meet their families. On each home visit, I experienced a continuation of that hospitality and love, and a personal glimpse into the settings, traumas, accomplishments, and dreams that made each child so special. 

Coptic Orphans assembled an incredible and diverse group of fellows from around the world and took us on many unforgettable excursions all across Egypt, but the sensation that I will always associate most closely with the memory of this trip is the unconditional, unwavering love with which the children responded to my inadequacy. It was a powerful and humbling experience that also showed me how a humble offering of time or love in service can make an immeasurable impact on a child, as evidenced by the angelic smiles that greeted us daily and the tears that sent us off at our final farewell.