As Egyptian families fretted over Back to School activities earlier this month, not everyone was happy or excited. For many families across the land the burden was more than they could handle, their means being too meagre for school requirements.
While education is free in the sense that school fees amount to paltry sums, there are school uniforms and shoes to buy, as well as school bags, stationery and other needs. When it is impossible for the parents in impoverished areas to provide these items they simply do not send the children to school.
It is up to Egypt’s social network of voluntary workers to make sure that this does not happen. With Egypt’s illiteracy rate nearing 26 per cent, more children dropping out of school or not going in the first place would be disastrous. One such volunteer organisation is the Youssef al-Naggar (St Joseph the Carpenter) Foundation for Development, which for the second year in succession has joined forces with the church of the Holy Virgin in Ard al-Golf in Heliopolis, Cairo, to provide the children of needy families with Back to School gear.
Each child is provided with a pack that includes a school bag, colour box, notebooks and pens, as well as toothpaste, a toothbrush, a towel and soap. The packs are distributed to needy families regardless of whether they are Muslim or Christian.
Watani was at the large church courtyard and hall to witness the work being undertaken by a huge number of volunteers as they prepared 5000 Back to School packs.
Father Kozman of the Holy Virgin’s told Watani that one of the main targets of the service was to encourage the families to send their children to school. Each pack, he said, cost the church about EGP70, but if the families purchased the items themselves they would cost more than twice as much. Many members of the congregation, including children, helped pack the bags.
Medhat Waheeb, who was there with his wife, sons and grandchildren, was engrossed in his work. “This is how our children can learn love on a very practical level. They have all never had a problem with having these things once it was back to school time. Now they know how lucky they were, and how many children there are who are not so lucky. It is our responsibility to help them and brighten their school days.”
Mourad Haroon, branch manager at Misr for Insurance, said it was impossible to describe the feelings of the volunteers. “It is unspeakable happiness when you participate in doing something for the needy,” he told Watani, while Mona Samir, who is helping out for the first time, said that the best thing about it was the good cheer and teamwork. She said she was very happy, even though it was tiring. Ms Samir liked the idea of involving children in the charity work. “They have been so enthusiastic about it once they understood why it is being done,” she said.
Nader Emile Suleiman, head of the board of directors, spoke to Watani about the Youssef al-Naggar Foundation which was formed in 2011. Speaking of it as a civil foundation with independent funds and activities, he said its targets and mission were based on the principles of love and care. “We work on eradicating illiteracy, especially among children. The foundation offers tutoring services to pupils of various ages in the poorer neighbourhoods. We also work jointly with the government to provide vocational training to young men and women, and help them start small or micro projects. We help them with the feasibility studies and project funding.
“Our work allows us to form an extensive data base which can also work to help government organisations on the local and national level,” he added.
The foundation serves populous and underprivileged neighbourhoods in Qalyubiya governorate, north of Cairo, working in the districts of al-Alg, Ashish, Beltan, Abu Zabal and Tokh, as well as in Mallawi in Upper Egypt.
“We also work to raise awareness in the fields of health and hygiene and provide primary health services,” Mr Ashraf Waheeb of the Youssef al-Naggar Foundation told Watani.
Encouragement, love and care
For Suzanne Alfred, the foundation’s awareness and education officer, educating children from needy families is a labour of love. “We divide the children according to age and educational level,” Ms Alfred told Watani. “Our programme is based on the principle of ‘love, care and encouragement’. Given that the average attention span of small children is no more than 15 minutes, we try to attract them through fun learning such as linking the first letters of their names with colours or pets.
“Most of the children we deal with don’t get enough care at home since they usually come from families with a large number of children, so the parents’ time and effort is taken up with caring for so many. The result is that most of the children’s questions go unanswered. So we listen to them lovingly, encourage them, and make them feel how much they matter.”
21 October 2015