Watani talks to Mama Maggie
She was, by all standards, the epitome of success. Maggie Gobran was a beautiful, vivacious, dynamic woman who had everything; she was the envy of all who knew her. She came from a well-to-do Coptic family from Upper Egypt, had an excellent education, married a successful man and had two wonderful children. She had a thriving career, wore the best clothes and jewellery, spent her vacations at the most exciting destinations in the world, and was the life and soul of any party. Maggie Gobran was a happy, successful woman.
That was more than 20 years ago. Today Maggie still has her wonderful family but she has given up her career, her elegant clothes and jewellery, and her busy social life. Her life now is bathed in radiant spirituality and centres around serving the poor, the downtrodden, the despised—in short, those denoted by the Coptic Church as ‘those whom no-one gives a thought’. She wears a white T-shirt and skirt and covers her head and shoulders with a white shawl. She frequents places where ugliness reigns and only the most destitute live. There she generously offers love and care, and washes the feet of children. She has even acquired a new name, Mama Maggie, spontaneously bestowed upon her by the people she loves and serves. ‘Mama’ in Egyptian lingo embodies the concept of the unconditional motherly love and is honoured above all else.
Happiness comes from within
“I found out that elegance and joy come from within, not from without,” Mama Maggie says. “True love is to give and forgive, to give until it hurts. With God’s grace I left everything and found Him shining out there, waiting for me with open arms and a crown of love. And I discovered first-hand that a man or woman who decides to live with God never fails because the Lord is Himself the love that never fails, and the source of all true success.”
Mama Maggie never left her family in order to dedicate her life to the people who needed her most. She thus defied the stereotype of individuals who do dedicated, demanding work without being tied down by family burdens.
Mama Maggie’s work is extensive; she is the founder and active operator of the non-profit charity Stephen’s Children, which began as a small enterprise in Cairo but has extended to cover all Egypt, offering care to thousands of families. So how does she manage the two apparently conflicting roles?
“My husband is a gift from Heaven,” she told Watani in an interview in which she showed her overwhelming love and candour. “He understands my vocation to serve perfectly, and he has supported me and the charity along every step. He comes from Fayoum and his patron saint is the modern-day saint Anba Abra’am (1829 – 1914) who was Bishop of Fayoum and gained fame as ‘the friend of the poor’. When I was a little girl I read a book about Anba Abra’am that moved me deeply. I wished and prayed that I could be his daughter. My husband seems to be the answer to my prayers. I could never have been where I am without him.”
Watani was keen to talk to Mama Maggie, not to encroach on her private life but to learn more about the force that urged a woman who had everything to leave it all and venture along a path that promised nothing but difficulty and deprivation.
“I grew up in a family that can best be described as loving and giving,” Mama Maggie began. “My father was a doctor. He was wise and calm, and loved art and music. He was one of the most prominent doctors in my hometown of Nag Hammadi, some 600km south of Cairo; he loved and respected people, and they loved and respected him back.
“I have three brothers and one sister. We lived in a big home, the several apartments of which housed our immediate family, my Aunt Mathilda who was unmarried and lived alone, and my father’s clinic which was on the ground floor. When I was seven we all moved to Cairo so we children could go to prestigious schools.
“While in Nag Hammadi, whether as a small child or on school holidays, I used to see the poor queue for free care at my father’s clinic. But what attracted me most and gave me comfort was to see them stop by Aunt Mathilda’s to hear her read the Bible to them, and bask in her overflowing love and kindness.”
“I had to be that one”
“When my Aunt Mathilda passed away I was already a grown woman with a family of a loving husband and two splendid children, and a career teaching computer science at the American University in Cairo—one of Egypt’s most prestigious universities. I lived with my family in Heliopolis, an upscale Cairo suburb; my husband had a thriving business, my children went to excellent schools, and we were members of the best sporting club in Heliopolis. Yet my beloved aunt’s departure had a deep impact on me, apart from the personal loss. The question that kept on harping on my soul was: ‘What would become of the poor and voiceless she had so dearly loved and cared for? Would no one follow in her footsteps?’ And the stunning realisation came after much hard contemplation: I had to be that one.”
On an Easter outreach trip to the slums of Cairo, Maggie found herself in the zabaleen district at the foothill of Muqattam, east of Cairo, The zabaleen are the garbage collectors who gather the waste of Cairo’s residents; they live in a ghetto of dwellings that double as homes, pigsties, and garbage sorting and recycling yards. For Maggie, the stench, squalor and degradation was almost unspeakable. She saw movement in the sifted heaps of garbage, and dug to discover children in the dark depths of the waste.
Maggie realised that she could not simply look on. She went home to her clean life full of interests, but the stench would not go away, the squalor haunted her, and the degradation of the human beings she had just seen disturbed and upset her, defying her peace of mind. It was impossible for her to escape the urge to do something for these people; her heart went out to them, especially the children, and she realised she was being called upon to fulfil her aunt’s example by providing hope to the most vulnerable of people.
After a few more trips to the zabaleen, Maggie started Stephen’s Children on the simple notion that every child in need was one of her own. Why that specific name, Watani asked?
“St Stephen is traditionally venerated as the first martyr of Christianity,” Mama Maggie said. “He was stoned to death. I feel that those needy children are like St Stephen in that they go through so many persecutions.”
Stephen’s Children cares for children aged seven to 18, helping them and their families cope with spiritual, psychological, health, and social needs through community-based education centres. These include pre-school programmes based on the Montessori method, as well as basic Bible classes.
Tears in their eyes
“For the older children,” Mama Maggie said, “Stephen’s Children offers distinct educational programmes that teach them not only reading and writing in both English and Arabic, computer use and the fundamentals of knowledge, but also the concepts of Christianity in an integrated spiritual approach.
“We are keen to hold monthly sessions for mothers, in which we host expert speakers in hygiene, psychology, and family economics to help raise awareness. We also offer health care for needy families: medical tests, treatment, and surgeries.
“Camps and trips are a very important component in the development of children, and answer the recreational needs of the parents. We organise many of these to serve our more than 30,000 children and their families. We have a team of some 1,600 trainers and workers.”
Watani was curious to know how Mama Maggie picked the staff who would do the difficult, demanding work. “Most of those who I picked had tears in their eyes when I spoke to them during the job interviews about the plight of the people they would be required to serve,” she said. “This, for me, was a sign from the Lord that they had the sensitivity and dedication necessary to fulfil the demanding work.”
For her momentous work with the needy, Mama Maggie was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. What did she do when she didn’t win? Since she firmly believes her work and service do not hinge on prizes or human appreciation, she accepted the situation very well. But it was important, she said, to give encouragement to those who worked with her so that they do not fall prey to disillusionment. So Mama Maggie hastened to be in their midst; her smile and enthusiasm were catching and everyone went back with their usual tasks of dedication.
Egypt’s Mother Teresa
Mama Maggie has frequently been called Egypt’s Mother Teresa. In reply to a question on the influence of Mother Teresa in her life, Mama Maggie acknowledged that she had learnt a lot from that exceptional woman, and still derives strength and wisdom from her example. “My nephew, a physician, gave me a picture of Mother Teresa as a Christmas gift,” she said. “She is now before me all the time. I sometimes dream of her, especially during hard times.”
Another role model, Mama Maggie said, was Tamav Ireni, Mother Irene, (1936 – 2006), a modern-day saint who was abbess of St Mercurius’s Convent and who used to care for the poor and wash their feet. “We get along through the blessings and prayers of these saints,” Mama Maggie said.
Now Mama Maggie herself is known to wash the children’s feet and kiss them affectionately. Her white garb has also become a hallmark; there is a story behind it. “I discovered among my children a 13-year-old who was crying because the others laughed at her since she wore the same T-shirt every day, the only one she possessed. I made a deal with her that I, too, would wear the same thing every day.” And what could be more peaceful than white? “Since then, I have worn nothing else.”
“What most moves you in your service?” Watani asked Mama Maggie. “Perhaps the most moving of all,” she said, “is when we give a poor child a sandwich or some goodie and, instead of directly eating it, he or she would rush to share it with a sister, brother, or friend.” It is a lesson in love with which no words can compare.
Oh my homeland
The political upheavals Egypt has been going through have closely affected Mama Maggie and her work. “In 2009,” she said, “swine flu broke in Egypt. Under the mistaken idea that the pigs were responsible for it, the pig population in Egypt was slaughtered. This was a brutal action that directly affected the garbage collectors who, in addition to their work on recycling the garbage, had always raised pigs for a living. This meant we had to do more to help this beleaguered community cope.
“Another very painful situation was the January 2015 beheading of 20 Coptic young men by Daesh in Libya. These were our children, and their families lived among us in Minya.
“But all countries in the world go through times of prosperity and times of anguish. Egypt is no exception.
“We should all do our bit. The older ones among us have spiritual strength and their prayers support us all. The younger ones should work hard to build this country and make it a better place for our children to live in. Egypt is dear to us all; I always remember the line by the 20th century luminary poet Ahmed Shawqy, which is used by Watani—Watani is literal for my homeland—as its motto: My homeland, if I were to leave you for Eternity; even in Eternity would I yearn for you”.
Crown of joy
Mama Maggie has been known to divide her time between active service and periods of seclusion or spiritual retreat. “Which makes you feel better?” Watani asked. “It is very important to do both to retain a healthy spiritual balance,” she said. “Through serving the needy I feel the hand of God working through me, and by spiritual retreats He gives me the strength and energy to carry on in His service.”
Mama Maggie has one son. Like his mother, he recently decided to give up a successful life and lucrative career to take orders. She says she is so happy she was allowed to give her dear Lord that most precious gift of a beloved son to serve Him. “I advised him to maintain an attitude of true humbleness, and to work to increase his knowledge, because knowing God is a real treasure.”
One final question before this interview came to an end: “Mama Maggie, how do you feel when people call you ‘Mama’?”
“This loving title is a crown of joy on my head, an indescribable joy to my heart,” she said.
27 April 2016