Egypt’s long history has registered many people who dedicated their lives to serving the poor and needy, who trod in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, Himself the finest example of service.
We might not have heard of them but for the chance of hearing their names mentioned by others, since they invariably preferred to remain out of the limelight.
ShalateenLillian Trasher: “The affliction of my people in Egypt”Shalateen
Lillian Hunt Trasher, known as the Egyptian mother of orphans, tops our list of those people who in silence and dedication served the community. In 1911, in Assiut, she founded the first orphanage in Egypt, a country which had so far known no such institutions.
Lillian Trasher was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1887. A devout Christian, she ardently wished to serve Christ. On hearing about missionary work and of the appalling poverty of the under-privileged, she made a decision to serve in Africa. On the very evening that she made this vow, she opened her Bible and came across the verse: “I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee into Egypt.” (Acts 7: 34). For Lillian, the message was clear. It was 1910; she left her fiancé, her family and her comfortable life in America, and arrived in Assiut to begin her missionary work with the American mission there.
ShalateenMother of the orphansShalateen
At the beginning of her service she travelled between villages by donkey or boat, the main means of transport at the time. Although she suffered bitterly from homesickness, she learned Arabic and soon adapted to her life in Egypt. One evening, she was called upon to visit a poor family, where she found a dying mother and her baby living in extreme squalor, with the baby hungrily drinking some sour milk from a rusty tin cup, the only food in the hovel. The mother died, and Lillian took the sick child back to the mission. She used a pair of scissors to cut away the filthy clothes sticking to his long-unwashed body, from which the stench disappeared only after repeated daily baths. She nursed the baby back to health, despite the grumbles of the mission staff who were disturbed by his constant wailing.
Lillian left the mission in 1911 and rented a small house, which became the first orphanage. In those days the concept of regulated free care for orphans was an unfamiliar one and Lillian was frequently discouraged and embattled, in one case by a rumour that she was rearing unwanted children to sell as slaves in the United States. But perseverance and God’s help saved the orphanage, which miraculously survived in spite of a chronic shortage of funds and frequent epidemics of childhood diseases.
When the nationalist 1919 Revolution erupted against the British occupation of Egypt, Miss Trasher was forced to leave Egypt and return to the United States, but she continued to collect donations and send money to Assiut. By the time she returned her name had become a symbol of service and dedication; hundreds of needy children approached her for help. The number of children in the orphanage increased so much that her friends advised her to stop receiving more children. She refused. “I can’t close my door to an orphan or a hungry or deprived person,” she said.
Donations flowed in, and land was made available on the east bank of the Nile at the entrance to the village of al-Fateh. Lillian brought a brick kiln and, helped by the children, produced bricks to build new premises. Her life’s work grew into the grand foundation of today.
Miss Trasher did not abandon the children after they left school. She sent the girls to nursing school or to learn sewing and the boys to vocational training. In the 1940s, Lillian Trasher founded a hospital for the sick of the orphanage and neighbouring villages. Altogether she founded an orphanage, a hospital, a school and a house for widows.
Lillian Trasher, the mother of orphans, passed away on 17 December 1961.
ShalateenArdina Meleika Youssef: Mother of the poorShalateen
Pope Shenouda III called Ardina Meleika Youssef “Umm al-Ghalaba” (Mother of the Poor) because of her love and acts of mercy towards the poor and the needy. She was also known as Umm Abdel-Sayed on account of her own son, Abdel-Sayed.
Youssef was born in Suhag in 1910 to a rich family. Sadly, her mother died 40 days after her birth, but she grew up to be a person of spiritual maturity. Her father forced her into marriage when she was only 14, to make it impossible for her to fulfil her dream of taking orders. Her husband was a hard-hearted man who was much older than she was and who treated her with cruelty, but she prayed: “God, do not remember the sins of my husband”. During his last years he suffered from a debilitating illness and was bed bound, but her devoted service for him all through his sickness worked the miracle of making him repent.
After her husband’s death, Youssef took up spiritual service in Upper Egypt. She walked many miles from town to town preaching the word of God, and in the late 1950s she travelled to Cairo where she served for several years in Coptic charity associations.
ShalateenSpecial relation with GodShalateen
At the beginning of the 1970s she met Father Akhnoukh of St Mina’s church in Shubra. They served together in areas where people were desperately poor and sick. Youssef’s days helping the poor started early in the morning and ended at midnight. She visited people and told them a few simple words about God, and she would help the needy, especially widows. She helped more than 2,000 families in Cairo and Upper Egypt, registering them all in her small book.
Youssef enjoyed a very special relation with God. She dedicated almost all her life to serving others, and left a legacy of stories. One involved Amm Ibrahim, a paralysed man who would sit in the street to beg. Youssef would help him cross the road every afternoon to sit on the shady side, to avoid the scorching sun as it travelled into the western horizon. But as the days went by and she grew more frail, the task of aiding Ibrahim grew more and more difficult. She raised her voice to God and asked: “Please Lord, can’t you heal just one of his legs, so I could aid him more easily if he can use a crutch?” That night St Mary appeared to Amm Ibrahim and, in the morning, one of his legs was whole. Youssef was delighted; she cried: “O thank You Lord! But why didn’t I ask You to heal both his legs!”
Ardina Meleika Youssef died in 1993.
ShalateenMartha Roy: the music womanShalateen
Martha Roy played an important role in preserving Coptic heritage. Born on 27 September 1913 to American missionary parents, she was educated at the Lycée Français in the district of Attarin in Alexandria before going on to study for a degree in music and French at Muskingam University in Ohio. She earned a Master’s degree, also in music and French, from Columbia University, after which she returned to Egypt.
Martha, as she was universally known, spent 20 years in Luxor, where she taught French, music and Coptic heritage to girls, and another 15 years in Cairo, where she taught at the American College for Girls. She compiled and recorded Holy Week prayers in various Coptic churches, and these recordings are currently held at Indiana University.
Martha’s musicological ability was her special service. She collected the Coptic Orthodox Mass of St Basil, which was published in 1998 by the American University in Cairo (AUC), with the cooperation of Ragheb Muftah, head of music and Coptic hymns at the Higher Institute of Studies in Cairo. She was awarded the State Appreciation Award, second class, by President Anwar al-Sadat. She died in March 2011.
Martha Roy spent only six years of her long life outside Egypt. She used to say “Egypt is my home and I know no other.”
Maggie Gobran or Mama Maggie, was born in 1949 into an upper-middle-class family from the Coptic Orthodox community in Upper Egypt.
As the youngest daughter, Maggie grew up shielded from the realities of Egypt’s squalid slums. After graduating in business administration from the AUC, she became a successful professional, first as part of the management team of a marketing firm and later as a university professor of computer science. As she and her husband were raising their own two children—a son who became an engineer and a daughter, as well as three grandchildren—Maggie’s vision of ‘motherhood’ expanded with the dream of reaching out to children in need.
Maggie first experienced Cairo’s garbage slums through an annual Easter outreach aimed at distributing food and clothing to families. Maggie was gripped by the despair she saw and haunted by the children’s hunger for love, acceptance, and value in society.
In 1985 she founded the non-profit charity Stephen’s Children in Cairo. Her foundation, in which some 1500 volunteer workers serve, serves 250,000 families. Her slogan was “When you love people, you live for them”.
One of the volunteer workers who serve with her, Waguih Shenouda, says: “Her voice is so soft one can hardly hear it; her slim, tiny body bears no indication of her energetic service; but she possesses a peculiar spiritual charm. She cares for the children herself, lovingly washing their faces, hands, and feet.”
Mama Maggie was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Her sacrificial leadership has guided Stephen’s Children for more than 20 years.
This distinction has bestowed on her the unofficial title of ‘Mother Teresa of Egypt’.
5 May 2013