The following is a guest post from Serve to Learn alumnus Mariam Magar, who talks about how Coptic Orphans goes beyond handouts to help address the lies that trap children in poverty, and so works to strengthen Egypt as a whole.
I was blessed to join Coptic Orphans’ Serve to Learn Program in the summer of 2010 at the Qus, Qena site. Besides what I describe as being “three weeks in heaven,” this experience was a true eye opener to Coptic Orphans’ work in Egypt.
The first time we met the children at our host church (both Coptic Orphans and non-Coptic Orphans children), they were very excited to see us. But despite the excitement and clear desire to engage us in conversation, which I saw in their eyes, they only timidly extended their hands in a welcoming hand-shake. None of the children uttered a word as they stood with extended hands inches from me. This was especially true of the older girls. I challenged myself to break out of my comfort zone and initiate conversation.
I asked a young girl the simplest question I could think of, “What’s your name?” To my amazement, this girl’s face lit up and the biggest smile appeared on her face as she told me her name. As soon as those children close enough to hear realized what I was doing, I was soon surrounded by a sea of young faces. I quickly realized the effect of my simple question on these children – I was recognizing each of them as an individual. Over the next three weeks, I learned that in the midst of the whirlwind of life’s demands, the cultural norm of overlooking children in poor rural areas, and the parents’ ignorance of the kids’ psychological needs, most of these kids were not given the individualized attention they so desperately wanted and needed. By sending me, and others like me, into the field, Coptic Orphans is giving these children the same message that we, who grow up in educated families, take for granted: that each child is a valuable individual who deserves recognition and personalized attention.
Over the three weeks that followed, my three co-volunteers and I had the privilege of interacting with many of these kids in the classroom. We taught English to elementary-school-aged children, most of whom were members of our host church but not the children of Coptic Orphans. As much as we loved them and loved interacting with them through our various activities, a few things really broke our hearts. Very soon after classes started, we realized that these children’s creativity was stifled. We would play a game of charades to practice some of the new words they just learned, and child after child would attempt one acting gesture and then stop. When the other children could not guess the right word, and we urged a change of gestures, the children would only repeat the same gesture over and over.
Even more serious and disturbing was that these young kids, who are so full of life, were plagued with an “I can’t do it” attitude that was followed by “What I did isn’t good enough.” It always broke my heart to hear a child urging me to draw something for him/her because s/he “couldn’t do it” (and mind you I can’t even draw good stick figures). It was very difficult, and often frustrating, to hear another child holding up a beautiful drawing (better than anything I could ever attempt since drawing is not my forte) say that “it wasn’t good enough.” These episodes were most prevalent in the older classes – the older the child, the more “she couldn’t do” or the less accepting she was of her final product. We sadly realized that the school system and the environment in which these children grew were the culprits behind these lies the children believed and lived.
It became our goal to challenge these kids to use their imagination and discover their repressed creativity. We refused to give them the easy way out of doing things for them that they were afraid to try. We encouraged them and complimented them every chance we got. Seeing a triumphant look of accomplishment in these kids’ eyes was amazing and worth the thousands of miles we each travelled! In essence, for three weeks every year, Coptic Orphans is able to remind these kids that “yes, they can accomplish anything they put their minds to!”
Outside of the classroom, we made many home visits, mostly among children of Coptic Orphans, but also to some non-Coptic Orphans Brethren of the Lord (poor) families. Although all the families lived in neighboring towns, we consistently saw a stark difference between the non-Coptic Orphans families and the Coptic Orphans ones. The children in the former were shy, embarrassed, refused to take pictures with us, and clearly treated our gifts as alms. In contrast, the children in every Coptic Orphans family we visited, whether toddlers or recent college graduates, were confident, comfortable talking to us, welcomed taking pictures with us (and even asked for copies to memorialize our visit), accepted our gifts as gifts, and treated us as family. We played with the younger kids and spoke about schools and hobbies with the older ones. In addition, we were happy to see that many kids had talents that were fostered by their Coptic Orphans Reps (local church-based volunteers who regularly visit the children, look after their needs, encourage their dreams, and advocate for them). We saw drawings, paintings, knit and crocheted products, and wooden crafts.
A non-profit organization that promotes the education, self-reliance, empowerment, success, and patriotism of Egypt’s generations of children is investing in generations that will give back a hundredfold to their country. That’s the work of Coptic Orphans in Egypt!