Ten-year-old Mark Ashraf was on a bus ride back from a day of fun and activity with some 40 other children when he found a five-pound note lying on the bus floor. He picked it up, looked at it intently—no one can tell what sort of conflict took place in his little heart then—and took it up to the bus supervisor. “I found this,” Mark said. “Today, I have been hearing a lot about honesty. I decided to apply what I learned and be an honest boy.”
That was a quick result if ever there was one. Mark had been among a busload of children from Alexandria who had spent a day in the International Park on the outskirts of the sprawling coastal city. Amid the laugh-and-play of the activity day, a set of positive values was instilled in the children; many the young girls and boys already knew, but the emphasis that day was that these values should become part and parcel of everyday life.
The perfect setting
The education-through-fun day was part of a three-day event organised by the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) jointly with a number of Alexandria NGOs. The theme of the event was “Our ethics are in our school” meaning that ethical values begin at school, school being in all probability the first forum where children get to meet and interact with ‘other’ children from the diverse Egyptian community. The initiative sought to bring together Muslim and Christian schoolchildren aged between 6 and 12, with the aim of engaging them in purposeful common activity they would all enjoy. This, as the event proved, would be the perfect setting in which to extol and promote values such as love, truthfulness, helpfulness, friendship, honesty, tolerance, and hope.
It is an open secret that fanaticism and non-acceptance of the other are among the complaints most common in Egypt today. Yet the Egyptian saying goes: Education at young age is like engraving on stone, meaning that what a child learns at a tender age can never be erased. CEOSS decided that if fanaticism was to be conquered it had to be nipped in the bud; conquering it should start with the potential fanatics: the children. Hence the Alexandria event.
Watani was on hand to share in the innovative experience.
The first day of the event, Monday 29 August, set off on a merry note. The children, who came from different neighbourhoods in Alexandria, had known of the event beforehand through the NGOs and CEOSS. The first activity planned for the day was an ‘introduction’ during which each child would tell the others his or her name, age, school, and where they came from. But 40 ebullient children did not wait; they directly began talking, smiling, and making friends.
Tree of virtues
Everyone joined in baking bread. They made the dough into small loaves which they then baked. The smell of the bread baking in the oven challenged the most diehard diet fanatic; it was impossible to resist the freshly-baked loaves. The children made them into sandwiches for breakfast and gave some to the park animals and birds who seemed to fully appreciate the delicacy.
Then the handcraft activity started. The supervisors, many among whom were young volunteer workers, guided the children through clay and wood working, watercolour painting, and medal making. The children were given the space to create and innovate with the material at hand. By the end of the session a large side table boasted a large, varied collection of cars and aeroplanes made of wood and clay, also Mickey Mouse characters and houses, as well as a menagerie of animals.
By then it was time for lunch. The meal was an excellent opportunity to teach the children table manners. It was obvious that some of them were already familiar with how to properly behave at table; those who were not, quickly responded, proud to have learnt to act ‘in a civilised manner’.
After lunch it was time for some serious thinking. The children were divided into three groups; with the help of the volunteers, every group drew a big tree. On green paper cut into the shape of leaves, each child wrote a value he or she most appreciates and hung it on the tree. The tree showed off leaves of love, respect, helpfulness, hope, tenderness, beauty, understanding, and many others; but by far the value most chosen by the children was love.
Each of the children was then asked to explain to the others why he or she had chosen this specific value.
Memories for a lifetime
The supervisors told the children short stories that highlighted honesty, love and the importance of dialogue. The children were asked to specify the moral of each story, and the lesson they had learned from it.
The day ended with a hilarious time of games and competitions.
The following day, Tuesday, saw these activities repeated with another set of children who gathered at al-Iman School for the day. This time, some 30 girls and boys with glowing smiles participated in the event.
At the same time, awareness seminars were held for a group of teachers who it is hoped would work to promote the values of love, tolerance, acceptance of the other, and togetherness among the pupils they teach.
The third and final day of the event, Wednesday 31 August, saw all 70 children join in a day trip to the Alexandria gem of culture: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The children visited the planetarium and were guided through the library and building, then sat to watch the film The Seven Wonders of the World. Then it was good-bye and souvenir time, everyone gathered for a group photo and took home a T-shirt and a pin commemorating the wonderful time they had spent and the priceless values they had learnt.
The event was such a success that CEOSS has plans to organise others like it on a regular basis, and to expand to places other than Alexandria.
The warm memories of these three days, and the love and good cheer learnt during them will surely remain with the children throughout their lives, fending off all evil.
1 September 2016