Transforming Lives in Cairo’s Garbage Villages

 Overview of Cairo, Egypt

One of the oldest cities in the world, Cairo (Egypt)
has a rich history and culture that dates back to
biblical times. Whereas the pyramids, the Nile and
the rich culture may appeal to foreigners, such
romanticism may not be prevalent among the nearly
twelve million people who live in Cairo.

Every ten months, the country’s population grows
by one million; every day, this capital city sees an
influx of one thousand new residents! Fifteen
percent of the city’s population does not have
access to portable water, 4.2 million residents live
without access to a sewage system and Cairo’s
poor air quality accounts for over two percent of
all deaths. Cairo boasts to having one of the
poorest air pollution levels in the world.

Often considered the “Jewel of the Nile,” Cairo may
preach elegance to the world. But for the millions
who live in abject poverty and in wretched conditions,
Cairo is less of a gem and more of a rock.

(Taken from Urbana’s Global Urban Trek.)  

While he revolutionised Bible missions in Egypt, she became “Mother Theresa” to the untouchables of Garbage City outside of Cairo.

The husband and wife team of Ramez and Rebecca Atallah allow God to inspire them to help people know God better and express Jesus’ love in Cairo. Ramez was born in Egypt; he immigrated to Canada as a child in the 1960s. In 1980, the couple took their children and moved from Montréal to Egypt. Since 1990, Ramez has headed up the Bible Society of Egypt. His desire was to see scripture become relevant for Egyptian Christians, so he began finding new formats and styles in which to present God’s word. Both Ramez and Rebecca work closely with the Coptic Orthodox Church in their respective ministries.

Touching Untouchables
Rebecca is a key worker at the St. Simon Coptic Orthodox Church in the Mokattam garbage village. Over the last twenty-five years she has helped with church planting and providing Christian education among the lowest of the low, Egypt’s untouchables. Her gentle, compassionate way of ministering and befriending people has helped hundreds of untouchables realise their potential and value in God.

Villagers collect garbage from city apartments and recycle it. They are not paid by the government; however, they receive small tips from the people whose garbage they collect. The rest of their income comes from recycling garbage. 

Countless thousands of people who live in garbage villages
collect and recycle garbage they pick up from apartments
and homes in wealthier neighborhoods.

Many of the villagers feed most of the organic garbage to their pigs—indicating that they are at least nominal Christians (Muslims will not have anything to do with pigs). “While this means the villagers are a despised minority, it also means there are various freedoms in the garbage village that we don’t have anywhere else,” Rebecca says. “We can meet openly as we assume everybody is a Christian. We can say things without being accused of evangelising.”

Garbage, People and Pigs
Father Samaan, a Coptic Orthodox priest, manages the work Rebecca is involved in. Thirty years ago, he gave up his job in the city to become an ordained priest in the garbage village. When he began, the village had no churches, schools, electricity, water, medical care or markets. It was just garbage, people and pigs. When thousands were brought to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, the first thing they wanted to do was build a church—and Father Samaan became their priest. Today, the garbage collectors are filled with love and motivation from God. This is what changed their village. The village is a bustling, hopeful community of thirty thousand people. They still collect garbage; however, they now have three schools, a hospital and many churches.

Blessing in Caves
The churches are located in caves that were blocked by rubble. It was only when one small cave was discovered that residents realised they were surrounded by caves. While that first cave was being converted into a chapel, residents found another one that is now used for church services of up to four thousand people. They soon realised that another cave could be transformed into an enormous amphitheatre to seat fifteen thousand people. “Regular church services are held there and people come from all over Cairo—not just from the garbage village—to worship with other Christians,” Rebecca explains. “It is the only place, other than the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, where Christians can meet in large numbers in Egypt.” Father Samaan now pastors the largest church in the Middle East and one of the best known in Egypt.

Helping Refugees
Rebecca also ministers to Sudanese refugees who have come to Egypt as a result of the war in Sudan. Because Egypt does not have United Nations refugee camps like the African nations around Sudan, refugees who come to Egypt have no means of support other than what the churches provide. “It is good they are out of Sudan, because they were very badly treated there and many were fleeing for their lives,” Rebecca says. “However, while they are safe in Egypt, there are a whole host of new problems that they never could have envisioned.

“Our English-speaking church ministers to about seventy Sudanese people each week. They are lovely people who, under persecution, have discovered a deep relationship with God. We keep praying that the war will stop so they would be able to go home again. That is really what they want. In the meantime, we will help in any way we can.”

Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.