More shocking than the stench of waste decaying in Manshiyat Nasr’s midday heat is the astonishing sight of women and children intently digging through it. Separating papers and plastics from used toiletries, decomposing food and everything else imaginable in a household’s trash is a messy business, but it provides the only livelihood available to Cairo’s poorest Christian families.
More than 50,000 garbage-area dwellers, many of whom are children only five or six years old, do the city’s dirty work. Thousands of these families live in Manshiyat Nasr and the neighboring slum, peculiarly called ‘the City of the Dead,’ and have been all but ostracized by the rest of Egyptian society. Apartments are damp and overcrowded, sewage frequently overflows onto the streets, and homes are often without water or electricity. The indigent living conditions have led to disease and illness, especially among the slum’s children.
“My parents took me to these slums when I was a child to show me how fortunate I was,” my guide told me as we walked past kids digging face down in a dumpster, their feet dangling in the air.
Education is not highly valued in the community and children are often discouraged by their parents from attending school. Without the extra hands at home, a family may earn less than an average daily income equal to two U.S. dollars, which places them below the world’s poverty line. By not sending their children to school, however, families feed the cycle of poverty that has already poisoned the community.
“Unless you give these kids a chance at something better, they too will collect garbage,” said an ICC partner who oversees a number of Christian kindergartens in the area. “To be very poor is to have no decisions. We offer these kids the opportunity to make a decision.”
When visiting a classroom, I watched as children recited Psalms and their ABC’s in both Arabic and English. Flies swarmed the room and nestled on the children’s faces, but it was only I who noticed; the children had grown accustomed to the flies.
Outside the classroom, a teacher scrubbed a girl’s feet and washed her face, an act of servitude and love. “This is the only place children can wash,” the teacher said. “Many diseases are spread through cuts in the feet when sorting through trash. We must keep them clean and treat their diseases. Christ tells us that the greatest leader must also be the greatest servant.”
Christian children born in Egypt’s garbage slums are sadly among the country’s greatest victims of persecution. Before they were born, their parents were ostracized for their Christian faith. Government policies discriminating against them for their beliefs prevented them from being educated and pushed many of them to accept demeaning jobs, like trash collecting, as the only means to provide for their families. Children grow up vulnerable to diseases, many without a fighting chance of survival or to make something more of their lives.
After four trips to Egypt, countless meetings with local churches and ministries, and hours of research, ICC has finally found a solution. In partnership with local churches, ICC is sending children to school. The education offered builds both the academic foundation needed for the child to attend public school and the spiritual foundation needed so the child can discern between their faith and the Islamic ideology that will be taught to them in public schools. Staff and teachers all are Christians, a contrast to government schools where teachers are Muslim and use the Quran in classes.
“After kindergarten, these kids will go to a state school and be forced to memorize the Quran,” said an ICC partner working with the children. “We want them to have a personal relationship with Christ first.”
“By the time they get to a government school they are exceptional students. They are honest and they have values,” he continued.