Amid the filth and despair of Cairo’s worst slums, a middle-class ‘lady in white’ feels called by God to protect the children who must sort rubbish to stay alive.
[This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine – 3rd April, 2015).]
It’s a place that feels as though it’s beyond hope. It has existed on the fringes of Cairo for generations, a maze of crumbling, dark dwellings and narrow streets of packed dirt, trodden by emaciated donkeys pulling wooden carts towering with stacks of rubbish.
This is the place where the “garbage-pickers” live. Fifty thousand of them. They pick up and sort greater Cairo’s waste – the rubbish of 22 million people – and recycle what they can for a few coins a day. They separate rotting food, used nappies, hypodermic needles, broken glass, plastic, metal and crumpled paper. They live in sewage, disease and stench. There is little clean water. Among many families, violence, addiction and abuse are a way of life. Electricity is scarce and the nights are full of dangers. Many of the children born here will die before they are five years old. Some starve; some succumb to dysentery. The residents of this place are known in Arabic as the Zabaleen: garbage people.
A little boy named Anthony came with his family to this place when he was three years old. He was too young to know that, as a Christian in a country where everyone’s religion is listed on their identity card, he was part of a religious minority. He was too young to understand that his parents had fled from their village in southern Egypt when radical Islamists had burned down their home. He didn’t know that the teeming garbage village of Mokattam was one of the few places his parents could find work.
Anthony grew up in the stench, relentless activity and remarkable resilience of the garbage village. He and his four siblings lived in a small room under the stairs in a crumbling multi-level building. As a young boy, he helped his parents gather and sort rubbish. By the time he was 10, he had left school and had a job ironing clothes in an area where people could actually afford such services. But there was a problem. The man in charge of the laundry shop took a liking to Anthony. He pressed in on him. If Anthony refused his advances, the man would burn him with the iron. Anthony dreaded the dark evenings, when the man would come after him. He had burns all over his body. He knew of no way out.
But a determined woman came to help. Dressed in a white T-shirt, plain white skirt and white scarf, this lady had heard of Anthony’s plight. One night, when he was in a fever and a haze, lying miserably on the dirty floor, resigned to hell, she and her friends appeared. She took him to her own home, far beyond the slum. She brought a doctor to see him. The doctor came every day for a week and dressed his wounds. The lady hand-fed him so he could gradually get stronger … stronger than he had ever been.
The lady talked to him as he lay in bed. She put cool cloths on his forehead. She wept. Anthony felt as if her tears matched his own. Then she said something astounding. She held his hand tenderly and asked Anthony to forgive her as a surrogate for the man who had attacked and abused him. He didn’t know what to think.
The lady in white was like an angel, showing him things he had never known. Dignity. Hope. Forgiveness.
I first met this “lady in white” in the early autumn of 2013. She is Maggie Gobran, an upper middle-class Egyptian businesswoman and university professor who felt called by God to trade her upwardly mobile lifestyle for a life of helping, protecting and energising the poorest of the poor.
Years ago, as a socially conscious Christian, Maggie had visited Cairo’s garbage slums at Christmas and Easter with other friends from her church. During one such visit, she saw movement in a pile of shredded paper and plastic. She gently dug in the rubbish, and found a tiny child. Her heart broke. She began to spend more and more time in the slum, building relationships with children there. They started calling her “Mama Maggie” – and Maggie’s comfortable, conventional life began to change.
In the late 1980s, Maggie and her husband, Ibrahim, started a ministry called Stephen’s Children, named after the first martyr recorded in the New Testament. Today, Stephen’s Children helps poor children in the garbage slums of Cairo and far beyond, bringing spiritual and physical food, education, training, medical services, love and care to children like young Anthony, kids who had never known hope before. Today, Stephen’s Children has helped more than 30,000 children and families. Twenty per cent of the ministry’s 1,500 workers and volunteers were served by the ministry when they were young.
When I first met Mama Maggie, Egypt was in turmoil. President Mohammed Morsi, who was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, had been removed by an incredible outpouring of 30 million Egyptian citizens demonstrating on the street. A temporary government was in place.
Egypt is about 90 per cent Muslim and 10 per cent Christian. Those proportions were represented in the demonstrations against Mr Morsi’s government. But in the chaos after his departure, it was Christians who took the brunt of his extremist supporters’ rage. Christian churches, schools, convents, bookshops and businesses in Cairo and other cities were attacked, looted and burned, including one of Mama Maggie’s kindergartens.
But something remarkable happened in the smouldering ashes of Egypt’s burned churches. In one town after another, banners were raised over the ruined buildings. Charred walls were scrawled with messages for the attackers.
The messages? “We forgive!” “We still love you!” And on the burned wall of the ruined orphanage: “You meant to hurt us, but we forgive you. God is love. Everything works out for the good.”
Mama Maggie Gobran comes from a culture that astonishes many of us. Drawing from centuries of opposition and martyrdom, it is a mindset of forgiveness, hope and courage. We in the West can learn much from our sisters and brothers who are persecuted, simply because of their faith. Mama Maggie’s mindset turns Western values upside down in another way. The former marketing executive is devoid of any sort of advancement or public relations mindset for her ministry. She does not entertain Western donors who visit Cairo. Her attention, whether foreign visitors are with her or not, is always on the children.
One such child is a little girl I’ll call Gigi. One day Gigi came to a Stephen’s Children outreach in the garbage village. She was full of bright promise. As is her habit with all the children, Maggie washed Gigi’s filthy feet and kissed them tenderly.
Two weeks later, Gigi was at her home. Some families are fortunate enough to have both electricity and shredding machines that reduce the sorted waste. Gigi was helping as rubbish was being fed into a big shredder. Suddenly her small body was being pulled into the machine. As she screamed in terror, her brother pulled her from its jaws. Her life was saved, but only just. The machine ripped off her right arm at the shoulder.
As you can imagine, this tiny, maimed girl was full of fear. She was scared of everything. So young, bloodied and wounded. She was the first child Mama Maggie had ever met who was scared even of Mama Maggie.
“I wept all the time,” Mama Maggie says. “It was so awful to think of how the enemy of human souls wants to rob, steal, and destroy, and would even cause this poor child to lose part of her body, so she would feel a complete absence of protection and security.”
Mama Maggie prayed earnestly for Gigi. Then she unexpectedly saw the girl again at a day camp. She called Gigi to the front of the group and put her arms around her. I saw a tiny girl with fuzzy hair and a stump, now healed. Mama Maggie saw much more. She was beside herself. “It was the best gift I could ever receive to see her listening as I talked, smiling at the rest of the kids and looking up at me,” she said.
“I wanted to hug her and kiss her in front of everyone, and say, ‘Oh! I have dreamed and thought of you every day! And here you are!’ Finally, I felt Gigi could feel my heart. She could feel the love that conquers fear.”
Mama Maggie believes that if you train up a child in the principles of the Scriptures, the Word will stay with them for the rest of their lives. All the children in her schools memorise Bible verses, with great fervour.
I heard classrooms full of children shouting out, first in Arabic, and then in English, lifelong truths such as: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me! Philippians 4:13!”
Though most people have never heard of Gigi, or Anthony, or any other of Mama Maggie’s children, many around the world have now heard about some of her boys. Of the 21 young Coptic men who were murdered by ISIS forces on the beach in Libya in mid-February, seven were loved and trained by Mama Maggie’s ministry when they were young. They learnt the great, ancient truths of the faith. They learnt, like Anthony, about dignity, hope and forgiveness. They learnt about the love of God. They memorised Philippians 4:13. Two of the martyrs went on to teach in Mama Maggie’s schools when they got older.
So, when their time came, on that beach in Libya, they did not cower in fear before the black-garbed cowards who would kill them. They looked up, their eyes on heaven, and died whispering the name of Jesus. And in that moment, they learnt the utter, enormous reality about how human beings can indeed do all things, through the eternal power of Christ who strengthens us.
As the mother of 29-year-old Samuel Abraham said: “We thank ISIS. Now more people believe in Christianity because of them. ISIS showed what Christianity is. We thank God that our relatives are in heaven.”
Mama Maggie came to Washington DC in March. She spoke at a gathering of our friends. She described the 21 young men who died because they would not deny Christ, and gave a challenge to us all.
“It is not the length of our days that matters,” she said in her characteristic soft voice. “We have no control over how long we live. No, it is the depth of our days … and we do have control over that, as we decide to truly follow Jesus.”
Ellen Vaughn is a Senior Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, and author or co-author of 20 books. Her latest is Mama Maggie: the Untold Story of One Woman’s Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt’s Garbage Slums, written with Marty Makary, published by Thomas Nelson. Parts of this article are extracted from the book. To support the work of Stephen’s Children, visit stephenschildren.org. To find out more about the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and its work for persecuted Christians abroad, visit 21wilberforce.org*