It has been 35 years since Maggie Gobran abandoned a successful marketing career and an esteemed professorship to care for the poorest of the poor in Egypt. Though she has been named one of the BBC’s 100 most influential women of 2020 and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize more than a half dozen times, the only accolade she cherishes is a nickname the children gave her many years ago: Mama Maggie.
“In 1985 when I first visited these places, I was sick from the smell. And I think my soul was sick, asking how come we live so comfortable life and they don't find even a cup of cold, clean water?” she says. “Then we started to ask God, ‘If you are merciful, God, how come you allow all this misery in this life?’” God seems to have answered: How do you?
When she entered Mokattam Village for the first time all those years ago, Mama Maggie noticed a woman, about her own age, sitting alone in the middle of the street selling corn. Caught in a downpour, the woman—a widow, Mama Maggie would learn—shivered from the wet and cold as puddles pooled around her bare feet. Soon a much-too-young girl ran to her side, relieving her mother to care for the other children at home. Soaked herself but filled with compassion, Maggie quickly took the girl to buy shoes before beginning her shift. Delighted with her choice, the girl kindly requested an adult size. “This girl taught me a lesson of my life,” says Maggie. “That even though she needed something badly, she preferred someone else’s need before her own.” She had wanted to give them to her mother.
“The poor are rich in their love and they give without limits,” she says. “Sometimes I give food to a child and notice that he does not eat it. I ask him if he does not like it, and I am surprised that he keeps the food to give it to his hungry brother when he returns home.”
These experiences have formed in Mama Maggie a core conviction: the poor have much to teach us. “We need them more than they need us.” In this spirit and for this purpose, the Gobran family formalized its care for the poor by focusing on education and human development through its nonprofit, Stephen’s Children.
This is the story of what has happened since one shoeless little girl selling corn in the streets inspired Mama Maggie and thousands of others along with her to provide education and care to the poorest of the poor.
In Mokattam Village, Cairo's garbage collection system is woven intricately through the streets, homes, and the families inside them. Dusk to dawn the community separates recyclables from refuse, harvesting value from every shred and shard.
It is all sorted by hand. Women and children wade through piles of rotten food, soiled diapers, glass bottles, paper scraps. Items with any semblance of value are either repaired and reused, or sent off for recycling. Extra waste is burned for fuel and food scraps are tossed to the pigs.
“The first few years when we went to the garbage areas and the slums areas there was not one piece of rock for building. It was shanty rooms all covered with garbage, and you feel that you are inside a garbage box. It was not like what we see today. Today you find some buildings. This is very, very new,” says Mama Maggie.
The buildings are mostly multi-story brick structures. Each floor has a particular function. The ground floor is the factory, where the daily sorting and processing happens. Then there is a residential floor where the family lives, and sometimes a floor for animals as well. Many rooftops are reserved for valuables, like an open-air savings account.
Each factory and family specialize in a particular product type and phase of processing. For example, once separated from garbage, plastics are sorted by color so that when they are melted down and chopped into pellets the finished product will be as pure a color as possible. Soft, clear plastic (like water bottles) is most valuable, while hard, dyed plastic (like red buckets or blue pails) is least valuable.
Once sorted, sacks of paper are transported to the shredding factory, while teetering truckloads of plastics are taken to the crusher. Hard rubbers are melted, then cooled and cut, while glass is washed and batched for export.
With many of these exports sent to China, your next iPhone case or car bumper will very likely be made from some of this raw material. The 20,000 – 30,000 residents of Mokattam Village process roughly 30 percent of Cairo’s daily waste (about 125,000 tons annually) and recycle up to 80 percent of it (western Europe by comparison recycles only 20 to 25 percent). The businesses are handed down from generation to generation, improving operations and investing in new methods as cash allows. In 2006, researchers Wael Fahmi and Keith Sutton estimated that the entrepreneurs of Mokattam Village specifically “have invested an estimated 2.1 million Egyptian pounds in trucks, plastic granulators, paper compactors, cloth grinders, aluminum smelters, and tin processors,” making this village a rather sophisticated network of strategic capabilities.
There is a chance that this labyrinth is home to the highest concentration of waste-diversion micro-entrepreneurs in the world. But raised in a culture so singularly focused on one industry, those who hope for any other future have to make a hard gamble — on education.
Since children are an integral part of productivity, education is generally seen as less valuable than factory work. Instead of kindergarten, young girls help sort at home with their mothers or care for siblings; sons join their fathers, brothers, uncles learning to operate machines and manage the inner-workings of the family trade.
The kindergarten that Stephen’s Children built in El Khosous was the first school in an area of 2 million people. “The mothers around the school, they say, ‘We never dreamed that anyone could think, how can we put our children one day in school?’ Not even dreaming,” remembers Mama Maggie.
Still, a major aspect of the education effort involves mentors going out into the communities to talk with parents about the importance of their children attending school. Sabah, for example, has been doing this work long enough to know third generation impact by name. She has been visiting one particular family every week for eight years. The family has nine children, of which Demiana is one. She was the first of her siblings to go to school. We met her in 2016 on her first day—she was eight.
The first few times a child visits school, a teacher welcomes them at the front gate and washes their feet. This is an exercise in both humility and honor. As Demiana is getting her feet washed, the teacher points to a scar and inquires—does it hurt? Yes. What is it? A nail. Embedded and healed over.
Given a new pair of blue flip flops, Demiana is walked upstairs to the doctor who volunteers at the school a couple hours a week. She gets in line behind other children with suspicious scabs and obvious infections. A little while later the nail is gently extracted and the wound bandaged.
In class, Demiana receives an activity book and pencil—her first. Emad, COO of Stephen’s Children and our gracious host, explained that many of the children when given a new sheet of paper immediately crumple it into a ball because that’s the only way they’ve ever seen it.
As she begins learning to read and write, her father continues to work in the aluminum factory, boiling tin cans down into a more valuable silver slurry. While conditions at the plastic, paper, and glass factories are also extremely hazardous, nothing compares to the aluminum factories. They are brutal. Workers heave truck-sized-bags of tin cans into raging cauldrons. The ash and soot darken every surface: the floors, the columns, and the workers’ faces. The air is palpably toxic. The average life expectancy here, the workers tell us, is 27-years-old. Blunt questions about their motivation - always and without fail - lead to some variation of the same answer: to provide a better life for my children.
Workers in Mokattam Village's aluminum factories
A fifth of Stephen's Children 500-person staff grew up in slum areas themselves or were children when Mama Maggie first visited and introduced them to school. Now, alongside 2,000 volunteers, they are leading the work and there’s plenty to do. In 30 years, Stephen’s Children has built more than 100 community education centers and two K-12 schools. They educate and feed more than 40,000 children every year.
Dozens of volunteer medical professionals have contributed thousands of hours of check-ups and consultations to children and families who have never set foot in a doctor’s office. And while most mentoring happens through one-on-one home visits, the community education centers provide access to family counseling services, basic medical care, as well as vocational training in embroidery and shoe-making.
Boys learn to make shoes as girls learn embroidery
Stephen’s Children also offers literacy classes to girls age 8-14 and monthly support meetings for mothers. Once a student completes the literacy program, she receives a Certificate of Competency enabling her to qualify for entrance to the state school system. The hope is to introduce this eventually in all 29 of Egypt’s governates—especially those with garbage slums and poor villages.
I hope we fulfill what we have been created for. For every human being who feels neglected, hungry, nobody cares for him, he couldn’t find his dream yet. We want every human to know his life is worth living, and he deserves all the values and the gifts God put in him.
While the full extent of Covid-19’s impact on the informal economies of the world remains to be seen, there is little debate that poor communities have borne the brunt. Schools are closed. Without internet in the homes, virtual learning in Mokattam Village is practically impossible. So Stephen’s Children has adapted to provide groceries as regularly and safely as they can. Families long familiar with suffering are struggling just to survive.
“The world was making great progress in decreasing poverty levels, but the current pandemic is a huge setback. That means we’re still far from being able to give up the work of caring for those most in need,” says Mama Maggie.
A look at sacrificial love in Mokattam Village
Demiana is now 13-years-old with the same sweet smile. Her mother makes ends meet by collecting used sacks. “Her father does not work as he is a drug addict and he does not care about anything concerning his family,” says a Stephen’s Children staff person who visits the family regularly. “On the contrary, he takes from them the little money they earn from any work they do.”
Demiana and her family, then and now
Yet her father’s negligence has taught Demiana self-reliance. She continues with school and works as well, giving what she earns to her mother to help with the other children’s expenses. When she comes home, she brings the lessons of the classroom to her brothers and sisters, teaching them personal hygiene and concern for the cleanliness of their home. Once a street girl running barefoot, Demiana can now read and write and is diligently continuing her studies.
“I cry every day since I started working to help the needy,” says Mama Maggie. “I cry because of what I see of the children’s deprivation and helplessness, I never imagined before working with them that life could be so cruel. However, I see from the children great enthusiasm, purity and desire to give.”
In the decade ahead, achievement gaps in education will tell the most complete and poignant story of how the pandemic impacted different communities around the world. For the 40,000 children attending Stephen’s Children campuses, we should expect to see higher rates of disease (given no access to or training in hygiene activities), poorer nutrition without school meals provided, and most costly, delays in cognitive development with the abandoned practices of classwork.
And so, new challenges for Stephen’s Children have come into sharp focus. The 100 centers will need to be reopened safely and staffed carefully with new protocols established, rhythms set, and resources deployed.
As we rebuild, may we prioritize those on the sharpest razor’s edge of survival and, like the little girl asking for an adult shoe size, may we prefer to care for the need of another ahead of our own.
“Give, give, give, every day. As much as you can. Give until it hurts. Something you really want, give it away—every day—and your days will become meaningful,” says Mama Maggie. “When you give all, you receive much more.”