Loving the Urban Poor in Cairo

Befriending and investing in the lives of those living in garbage
communities can lead to lasting and significant change.

I have been involved for more than twenty-five years in a section of Cairo that is inhabited by garbage collectors, the most despised of all classes in Egypt. It has been thrilling to help the church there to improve the quality of its school and to better the economic and medical status of some of the more destitute families in this “garbage village.”

However, if I have accomplished anything of real value, it has been by befriending some of the garbage collectors and their families. It is not in the new programs I have started, or in the money I have helped to raise. These, of course, are very helpful for those in need; however, they are not the most important thing I have done. These things will not last to eternity, except as they have helped to change the attitudes and characters of the people involved, including me.

An Introduction into the Garbage Villages of Cairo
My experience began with a teenage boy standing at our door. He was so dirty I could hardly make out his features! Quite honestly, he wore clothes I wouldn't have even used as rags. The large, decrepit-looking basket slung over his shoulder was almost full of garbage; its weight had already caused him to be stoop-shouldered.

When my husband asked the young man in Arabic what he wanted, he explained that he was our trash boy and would be coming every day to collect our garbage. He actually wanted our garbage! This was my introduction to the garbage people of Cairo; through this boy, Salah, I learned quite a bit about these people.

Salah awoke every day before sunrise and left his ghetto in the middle of the city to travel by donkey-cart to our area. Here, he collected the trash from every apartment. After returning home, he and his father would turn over the day's pickings to the women of the family, who, with bare hands, would sort it into piles of plastic, cardboard and glass for recycling They gave the food items to their goats, chickens and pigs. These same animals shared the communal courtyard with the family and the garbage. I could not imagine the filth and unsanitary conditions they must be living in; however, the stench of Salah's clothes said it all. Interestingly, Cairo has one of the most economically efficient recycling programs in the world. Unfortunately, the human cost is incredibly high.

Meet the People of the Garbage Village
Come with me on a visit to the garbage village. Here, you will find:

Miriam. Miriam is a 16-year-old girl who attends the village church. She lives in a tiny, one-room hovel with her parents and five siblings. Their yard is continually full of dirty animals and garbage, which they have collected in their small donkey-cart from a far-away section of Cairo. The women of the family carefully sort out this garbage each day to feed their animals and to sell what they can. The stench of garbage permeates the air and everything a person wears. Miriam's mother lost several children either just after birth or in early childhood as a result of the unsanitary conditions in which they live.

One day, as I sipped tea with Miriam’s parents, we discussed plans for Miriam's upcoming marriage to her cousin. The marriage had been arranged by them against her will. I tried to convince them that she would not be happy with this man—even if he was financially more comfortable than they. I cried out, “He is not a believer! And besides, Miriam loves Maged, who is a wonderful believer from the church!” Only later did I realize that I had said the wrong thing. I later heard that Miriam's mother was scandalized that it could be said her daughter “loved” a man.

I went home to my comfortable, clean apartment. After a refreshing shower, I shared my despair with my husband. Often I am misunderstood, not only because of my accent when speaking Arabic, but also because of my completely different worldview. We prayed about it and I knew God could do miracles in spite of my mistakes.

Many months later, after much prayer and fasting by those of us who love Miriam, we attended her and Maged's wedding. God had broken into the situation and overcome centuries-old marriage traditions. I am encouraged; however, I also think of the many cases where the story will not end happily because there are no friends to share the girls' struggles and intercede for them to both God and their parents. Real love always costs. It is a risk, and it often hurts to get involved. Yet, this is perhaps what the poor most need and want from us. Love.

Jehan. One of the people I met when I first arrived at the garbage village was Jehan, a 12-year-old, who, despite being from a very poor family and lacking self-confidence, had a sweet personality and displayed some real leadership qualities. Sure enough, after graduating from our church-school, Jehan joined the Vocational Training Workshop, which is now an important part of village life. There, she learned to make beautiful handicrafts from recycled cloth. This helped to raise her family’s standard of living. Jehan, in fact, was one of the first village girls to travel abroad. She was sponsored to represent the workshop at international conferences on recycling.

Suma. Suma was a teenager at the church-school when I arrived. She was from a very poor, dysfunctional family, who, until this day, still lives on the same level with their garbage and pigs. (Most families have built a second story onto their homes, where the people live.) But Suma seemed to be different from those around her. True, she had the same circumstances: at age sixteen, she was engaged to a man she hardly knew, one year later was married and the following year gave birth. I helped her through these times. We laughed and cried together as she learned to take on the responsibilities of a woman while still only a teenager.

Ministering among Cairo's poor may also make us realize
how much we need them.

Suma and her husband believe that since they are married, they must stick together and learn to love each other. This is just what they have done. She, along with other villagers, is a main reason I could never leave the garbage village. As we have learned to love each other, part of my self-identity and reason for living has become that these people are like my second family. The truth is, we all need each other desperately.

Azaz. Another person I have learned to love is a young man named Azaz. He was only twelve when a landslide at the village killed his parents and five siblings. Azaz went to live with his grandparents. Psychiatrists told us that if he did not have years of intensive therapy, he would end up severely emotionally-handicapped. But he is not. Azaz is growing up pretty normally; he does not seem very different from most of the teenagers around him. The sadness, which will likely always be there, comes out once in awhile and has sometimes results in anti-social behavior. When this happens, an uncle or a youth group leader takes him under his wing and gives him extra attention and, when needed, discipline. Azaz now has the security of a wider family.

Martha. My life in Cairo includes other groups of people besides the garbage collectors. I also work with prisoners and refugees. Martha, for instance, is a Sudanese refugee who helps me clean my house once a week. She has been aided by a refugee program we run in our community church. Martha has eight children, whom she is raising herself. Her husband is fighting in the civil war in Sudan; Martha does not know if she will ever see him again. Most days when Martha comes to work, she is pretty upbeat; however, a few months ago she showed up devastated.

The night before, she and her children had been evicted from their apartment; their possessions were thrown onto the sidewalk. It was racial prejudice on the part of her landlord and neighbors. Martha had no money and there are no housing services in Cairo for refugees. Martha and I spent a long time that day weeping together and crying out to God for a solution. I gave her some money for another apartment. She stood tall, faced her problem (knowing that God was on her side) and walked out of my place with a smile on her face. Martha has already been in and out of three more apartments. I am confident, however, that the same Jesus who has been with the garbage village people through all of their trials will continue to be with Martha and her children.

Final Reflections in Ministering among the Poor and Needy
Let me conclude with two reflections on what I have learned in Cairo.

  1. Wealth and possessions do not make you happy, neither does the lack of them make you unhappy. Our circumstances do not make us who we are; it is how we respond to them that is crucial. I have found more joy and peace among the poor, despised garbage collectors of Cairo than among the upper-middle-class people I rub shoulders with but who do not know the God whose love is not based upon one's wealth or social position.
  2. Love is a two-way street and includes dependence on the other. Ministering among Cairo's poor has made me realize how much I need them. As I see their responses to daily trials which would simply devastate me, I learn to put life into perspective. I have come to see how important it is to accept our problems as opportunities to further learn to trust our heavenly Father. I have learned what love is all about—how it comes through being committed to each other and sweating through our difficulties together. It is about learning from the person I love and allowing him or her to give to me, regardless of his or her intellectual aptitude or social position.

At the end of the day, I honestly feel that I have benefited more from the poor and needy I work with than anything I have been able to give to them. Perhaps that is often the way God works.

(This article was written and edited with the help of Glenn Smith.)

Rebecca Atallah ministers to the poor in the garbage villages of Cairo and to the Sudanese refugees living in the city. After growing up in Haiti as the daughter of missionaries, she immigrated to Montréal, Canada. She and her husband moved to Cairo twenty-eight years ago.