The neighborhood of Manshiyet Nasir (known as ‘Garbage City’) lies on the outskirts of Cairo at the base of Mokattam Hill, made famous by St. Samaan’s Monastery. Up the hill high enough to catch the breeze, St. Samaan’s is a place of refuge for the neighborhood. A wide cobblestone lane lined with palm trees and streetlights winds up to the famous church—a 10,000 seat amphitheater carved out of and built into a giant cave. The view of Cairo from here is just plain phenomenal.
Tourists visiting the monastery typically bus in and bus out, very rarely venturing to walk the surrounding streets. If they did, they would encounter dozens of hospitable and hard-working families sorting Cairo’s trash into recyclables of all flavors and types…along with stray and scavenging dogs, doing their part. And flies. Lots of flies.
The residents of Garbage City are called the zabaleen, or ‘people of the garbage’. The smallest of children participate in the family business, whether separating food waste from recyclable wrappers, sorting plastics by color and weight, cutting the lids off tin cans, passing paper through the shredder or aluminum cans through the crusher. Everyone in the family works long and hard.
In these slums, especially amongst the poorest of the poor, the value of education is a rather abstract concept. It’s a hard sell, let’s say. But for a quarter century now, Stephen’s Children has been trying to change that. Having established nearly a hundred schools in the slums, they estimate that half of their effort is spent sending mentors out into the community to talk with parents about the importance of their children attending school.
One such mentor, Sabah, has been visiting one particular family every week for four years. The family has ten children, of which Demenia is one. She was the first of her siblings to go to school and we met her on her first day—she is eight. And precious.
On a child's first few times at school, a teacher welcomes them at the front gate and washes their feet, literally. This is an exercise in both humility and honor. As Demenia 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.
Wearing her new pair of blue flip flops, Demenia 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, Demenia 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 clean sheet of paper immediately crumple it into a ball because that’s the only way they’ve ever seen it.
While the children learn to read and write and not crumple their paper, their mothers are sorting trash in the ground floor of their home and their fathers are likely working in factories, if not sleeping after collecting Cairo's garbage through the night.
Industry And The Pigeons
There are many types of factories, each specializing in a different recyclable product and different phase of the process. Once separated from trash, the 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. Clear plastic (like water bottles and drinking cups) are most valuable, while colored plastic (like red buckets or blue pails) is least valuable.
With much of Garbage City's exports sent to China, your next iPhone case and car bumper will very likely be made from some of this raw material.
The Zabaleen process 30 percent of Cairo’s daily waste, about 125,000 tons a year. They recycle up to 80 percent of it and do so with greater efficiency than western Europeans who, by comparison, recycle only 20 to 25 percent of waste.
“Today’s Cairo garbage collectors have been recognized by many international environmental experts as having created one of the most efficient recycling systems in the world,” said Dr. Martin Makary, professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the biography, Mama Maggie.
And yet, their world beckons filth: The waste is 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 repaired and reused or sent off for recycling. Extra waste is burned for fuel and food scraps are tossed to the pigs.
A baby – maybe nine months old – sits on a sack of trash as his mother does her daily sorting work. Flies swirl in small tornados. A toddler grabs a rolled piece of bologna from an old sack. One or two entire rooms may be dedicated to trash sorting or recycling.
Kids play an integral part in the family business; every hour not working is lost revenue. Instead of kindergarten, young boys are introduced to factory work watching their fathers or brothers to learn the trade. Such realities have created a significant gap in education. The World Economic Forum ranked Egypt 141 out of 144 countries for quality of education. Nearly 30 percent of Egyptian adults are illiterate, according to the U.N.
The World Economic Forum ranked Egypt 141 out of 144 countries for quality of education.
Even if more families chose to educate their children, access to schools is limited for the Zabaleen. Egyptian schools consider religion in the makeup of their public schools, both in who is admitted and how they assign teachers. Minority groups (like the Coptic Christians of Garbage City) are at a disadvantage. Here in Manshiyet Nasir ingenuity and livelihood abound, though the children born into garbage have little chance to soar.
Like The Pigeons Every Night At Sunset
When dusk falls each evening the gaze of the community shifts upward where flocks of pigeons swoop from lofted towers scattered across the sunset. The flocks weave and swirl majestically though they won’t go far—they are homing pigeons, listening for their trainer’s whistle when it's time to return to their towers.
Pigeon training is an ancient past time in the Middle East and a popular sport within Garbage City yet unless one knew to look for them, the pigeon towers would be easy to miss. Trainers care for their pigeons proudly—knowing each by name. Every night, the pigeons take flight...and come home.
The Aluminum Factory
While workers at the plastic, paper and glass factories endure many hazards, nothing compares to the aluminum factories. They are brutal. Hellish cauldrons burn and embers crackle. Workers heave small mountains of tin cans into the fire where they melt into a silver slurry – as beautiful as it is dangerous. The ash and soot darken everything, revealing the many years they’ve spent working here.
For those without an education, working in factories (even aluminum) is a best case scenario. But in these extreme conditions, one can't help but wonder at a man's motivations for enduring day-in and day-out. We ask and the answers are always some variation of "to provide a better life for my children." Every time, without fail. Even in aluminum hell, it's love that's prevailing.
Love, Dad (Short Film)
The grit and determination of the working poor to provide a future for their children is tremendously inspiring and deeply humbling. Ensuring the availability of quality education is the work and conviction of Stephen's Children.
There are two ideal outcomes for its students: First, that they would live better (healthier, safer, smarter) within their present context. When Stephen’s Children first took root in Garbage City, family homes were mostly made of tin and plywood. Today, most homes are made of brick. Quality of life has improved over time, and it can continue to do so.
The second desire is that the students would be empowered to define their futures and recognize that they have choices. Many Stephen’s Children students have pursued education in another context, whether in Cairo or internationally.
Some children have graduated from the garbage slums to become lawyers and doctors overseas. But it all started with one woman and one visit, twenty-five years ago.
Mama Maggie, A Mother To Them All
Maggie Groban, dressed in all white, has an otherworldly air as she heads towards the community center to visit with children and staff. Just inside the front gate, she sits to wash the feet of the children who have come today.
Three decades earlier, at 32-years-old, Maggie entered Garbage City for the first time—a successful, charismatic entrepreneur with tremendous grace and charm. She was only steps into this new world when movement in the garbage caught her eye: Pushing away loose papers, she discovered a baby.
“That baby had a big impact on Maggie,” recounted Dr. Makary, author of her biography. The children in this slum were the age of Maggie’s own children. She couldn’t imagine how they were surviving these conditions.
Maggie began making her visits to Garbage City more frequent. During another visit in those early years, she met a barefoot little girl. Though it wasn’t her typical practice, Maggie took her to a shop to buy shoes. When asked her size, the little girl requested an adult size—the girl wanted to give them to her mother.
We do not choose our families or where we are born. This little girl didn’t choose to be here. She was born into this situation. So since that time [30 years ago], I cannot forget what I have seen.Mama Maggie
Today, Maggie Groban is known throughout Garbage City and around the world as Mama Maggie. She’s seen as the antithesis of a vicious poverty cycle. She’s been called the “Mother Theresa of Egypt” for the humble way she loves and serves an otherwise overlooked people.
Ever an entrepreneur, Mama Maggie founded Stephen’s Children, named after the first Christian martyr. Stephen’s Children brings hope and dignity to the children of Garbage City through education, health services, and vocational training.
“Nobody is so bad,” said Mama Maggie. “Nobody is complete darkness. There is beauty, there is sweetness in every human, if your eyes are looking for the sweetness, you will find it.”
The Evolution of Stephen’s Children
In the 25 years since those days of small beginnings, Stephen's Children has grown into a vast network of 1,600 volunteers and 92 pre-schools serving 32,000 children every year.
Amongst the poorest of the poor in the slums of Cairo, education isn’t seen as a priority. The most ambitious families teach their children the family business of trash collection and recycling. Children rarely see beyond the garbage heaps they are born into, unless someone comes along to show them the horizon—which has become both the cause and effect of education in this context.
Stephen’s Children opened its first Community Education Center, with an emphasis on children’s whole well-being and later began offering monthly meetings for mothers, home visits, and family counseling for children who came to the centers.
As the pre-kindergarteners began to graduate from kindergarten, Stephen's Children established primary schools, serving six- to fourteen-year-olds. Today the Farah School (which means “joy school”) has an enrollment capacity of 1,000 students.
Recognizing that not all Garbage City families see the value of traditional educational, Stephen’s Children created vocational training centers as an alternative. Here, children learn trade skills and basic literacy: Girls learn to weave and boys learn the craft of shoemaking.
Perhaps most inspiring is that twenty percent of Stephen's Children staff grew up in the slums themselves and/or were children when Mama Maggie first visited them and introduced them to school. To see the generational impact of the organization—where children have now become mentors and teachers—is truly inspiring.
No matter the outcome or life path, it is the daily work of Stephen's Children to ensure the children feel loved, empowered, and cared for. That they would—in whatever way it means for them—take flight.
When we began publishing Bittersweet six years ago, telling the story of Mama Maggie was a dream. Incredibly sweet and soft-spoken, she is a powerful woman of conviction and determination. Ever advocating for the needs of the poor and personally serving humbly, hers is an example of sincere faith and a good God at work in the world.
We want to extend our sincerest thanks to Mama Maggie, Emad, Maha, Marty and the staff of Stephen's Children for hosting us so generously and graciously during our visit. From transportation to translation to toiletries, we appreciate your hospitality and hope that this story feature honors and benefits the continued work of Stephen's Children.
It is amazing to see what one person's heart can spark: A 1,600 person effort to provide quality education in the garbage slums of Cairo. It's phenomenal. And sweet. And I am honored to have told this story.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly