The ‘Angel’ Among The Garbage-pickers

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).]

Washing and kissing feet: Mama Maggie’s attention is always focused on the children

Washing and kissing feet: Mama Maggie’s attention is always focused on the children

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*

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38 Responses to The ‘Angel’ Among The Garbage-pickers

  1. toadspittle says:

    “We thank ISIS. Now more people believe in Christianity because of them. ISIS showed what Christianity is.”
    Yes, Good Old ISIS. Doing God’s work – indirectly, of course.
    And what a splendid, and ennobling, amount of suffering so many of the people in this story have been blessed with.
    …Must make some of us quite envious.
    Not Toad.
    “God is love. Everything works out for the good.”
    No need for anyone to get upset, then.
    Whatever happens, happens.
    Apparently.

  2. toadspittle says:

    “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.”
    Cowards? How do we know that? Lunatics, bestial religious fanatics, and murders, yes.
    But how is murdering someone “cowardly,” necessarily?

  3. johnhenrycn says:

    You’re ever-so-world-weary and wise are you not? I’d be ashamed to post a comment like that. It speaks of callous disregard for the poor and persecuted, and flippant disrespect for people who give up comfortable lives to share their plight, bringing much good out of evil in the process.

  4. johnhenrycn says:

    I was responding to your first broadcast above. The second was a waste of screen space, so I’ve put white-out all over it.

  5. kathleen says:

    This moving story of Mama Maggie that we publish today makes this quote by Ralph Martin (Catholic apologist and author) seem highly appropriate:

    “Since all our love for God is ultimately a response to His love for us, we can never love Him in the same way He loves us, namely, gratuitously. Since we are fundamentally dependent on God and in His debt for our creation and redemption, our love is always owed to Him, a duty, a response to His love. But we can love our neighbour in the same way that He loves us, gratuitously—not because of anything the neighbour has done for us or because of anything that we owe him, but simply because love has been freely given to us. We thereby greatly please the Father. God the Father tells Catherine [of Siena]: ‘This is why I have put you among your neighbours: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me—that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me’.”

  6. geoffkiernan says:

    JH: On reading your mention of whiteout and its benefits I went straight out and bought a bucketful…seems that is the only antidote to Mr Toadspit’ unthinking rants…

  7. toadspittle says:

    “Rants,’ they may be, if you like, Geoff – but not “unthinking,” whatever you, JH, and Burrissimo think. But then, the definition of “unthinking” on CP&S – is not thinking the way everybody else on here does. Think how dreary it would be, sin Toad – you lot all doing nothing but endlessly agreeing with each other. A Massive and Moribund Mutual Admiration Society – that’s what.
    Doesn’t the idea of “thanking” a gang of insane Muslim terrorists seem worth an acerbic comment? Oh, well. Takes all sorts, of course. We should all bear that in mind.

  8. johnhenrycn says:

    “…you lot all doing nothing but endlessly agreeing with each other.”

    Toad, you silly man.

    Is that what you really think? There is not one regular contributor on this blog who has not disagreed with me or who has not taken me to task, and vice versa. Ha! The first time I remember Geoff Kiernan commenting here was to criticize me for linking a version of my national anthem as an irrelevancy on a Catholic blog. Tom Fisher and I engage in fisticuffs regularly. Kathleen is the scold of my life.

    I’m a contrarian by nature which is why I eagerly anticipate your comments, but you are a low down son of a gun who refuses to ever, ever respect the ethos of this blog whilst never leaving it. Why is that? Not that I want you gone, but why is that?

  9. toadspittle says:

    Why do I persist? Selfish therapy, is my guess, JH. Freudian, most likely. Authority figures and what-not. And it is indeed very charitable of everyone to indulge me. Your rewards will not be on this earth.
    Of course I exaggerated above about the mutual harmony on CP&S – lied if you like. Friendly and loving bickering is the norm, as it should be.

    …But I see Limbo’s slid back under the bar again. To work! To work! The strongest sword I ever forged…, etc. etc.

  10. johnhenrycn says:

    Okay. Whatever. Lie if you like.

  11. Tom Fisher says:

    Cowards? How do we know that?

    We know little about the masked men in the video, but butchering bound and unarmed innocents is hardly a profile in courage is it?

    I remember just after the 9/11 attacks talking to someone who said that the men who flew the planes into the twin towers were cowardly. I was sceptical then, and still am, that ‘cowardice’ was the quite right word for describing those wicked men. It was evil, but not strictly speaking cowardly.

    Not all evil acts are cowardly, but I think the butchery on the beach can be described as cowardly. — Pointless slaughter of people who could not fight back, and requiring no courage or sacrifice from the perpetrators.

  12. johnhenrycn says:

    …but if my particular pal from Perth prefers, here’s another song: Ma Cabane Au Canada… that won its singer le Grand Prix du Disque many years ago. Nowhere near as reflective as that Cage piece linked by Brother Burrito on the Holy Quietude post yesterday, but very nice nonetheless, I think you’ll agree:

  13. Tom Fisher says:

    They looked up, their eyes on heaven, and died whispering the name of Jesus.

    That isn’t just pious rhetoric, it was apparently the conclusion of U.S intelligence analysts (using various techniques including lip reading) that they were indeed saying the name of Jesus.

  14. kathleen says:

    Dear JH, I’m not at all happy to be told that I am “the scold of [your] life”! Especially as I really do enjoy reading your entertaining and imaginative comments, that often make me laugh.🙂

    I was the one who re-blogged the above article, thinking to myself that not even Toad could find something to disagree with in this amazing story of true Christian witness of love and goodness.

    I was wrong!

  15. toadspittle says:

    There is nothing Toad disagrees with in the story. The woman Maggi is clearly a saint. Tom’s right – it’s immaterial whether the ISIS religious maniacs are cowards or not.
    And pointless of me to raise the point.
    …Although I do rather question thanking a gang of crazed murders. Going a bit far, I reckon.

  16. kathleen says:

    Yes, those are fair points Toad.
    I too would definitely have difficulty “thanking” these “crazed” murderers of ISIS (and all the other Islamic groups of terrorists) for the satanical deeds they continue to commit against innocent and defenseless Christians. Probably a sign I sorely lack the outstanding faith, mercy and humility of these heroic witnesses to Christ.

  17. toadspittle says:

    Yes, It’s hard, Kathleen.
    As one ( that is to say, me) grows more aged, the sheer horribleness, and built-in insanity, of the human race becomes more and more apparent, and more depressing.
    That’s why old people are often bad-tempered. That, and the fact that as the ancient Leonard Cohen puts it,, “…I ache in the places where I used to play.”

    I suppose we should also consider that ISIS is killing, as far as we can gather, even more Muslims than Christians.

  18. Tom Fisher says:

    I suppose we should also consider that ISIS is killing, as far as we can gather, even more Muslims than Christians.

    That is true. Peaceful communities of Muslims have been among the first targets of the ISIS death squads in areas they have conquered. The shrines and holy places of ancient Muslim communities have also been destroyed.

    And the Christian communities of the Middle East are being annihilated,

  19. GC says:

    I see Mama Maggie is a bit of a hit with Brazilian evangelicals.

  20. toadspittle says:

    ..And, as we see, ISIS also delights in destroying objects of art.
    Of course, even the finest of these objects means far less than the life of the most squalid human being.
    But.

  21. Frere Rabit says:

    Regarding ISIS and liberals and the way they mutually target Christians, there is an excellent article by Juan Manuel de Prada, originally published in the Spanish ABC, and now translated by Rorate: http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2015/04/liberal-world-order-and-jihadists.html#more

    On a purely general note, nothing to do with the topic (or the usual weird exchanges above), there is a really good new Catholic online magazine, “Regina”. The current edition is all about Catholicism in Spain. http://reginamag.com/downloads/spain_10-04_2.pdf

  22. johnhenrycn says:

    An inspiring video, GC. So glad Christopher Hitchens (RIP) never got around to trashing Maggie Gobran like he did Mother Teresa.

  23. GC says:

    Powerful stuff, you norty rood rabit.

  24. Frere Rabit says:

    Thank you, GC, but in the contrarian spirit of these comment threads I must point out that the adjective rood should be placed before norty.

  25. GC says:

    Yes, I myself was in two minds about that, Lapin.

  26. toadspittle says:

    Having a spot of bother loading Rabit’s lovely Magazine – but am delighted to see – so far – that it leads with a stunningly beautiful babe in a mantilla.
    Just what Toad would have have done if he’d thought of it – and thought he could possibly get away with it.
    Now to content dreary old “content,” which might take a while.

    (I remember a very similar magazine in London, some 50 years ago, also named “Queen.”
    Can they be related, I wonder?)

  27. GC says:

    JH, I think what Mama Maggie said was what a lot of western Catholics also feel deeply, but are far too stiff-upper-lipped to say in public or in polite circles. In countries where religion is almost everything, like Maggie’s and mine to a great extent, not so.

  28. Frere Rabit says:

    Toad, if the PDF version of “Regina” is too cumbersome, there’s a very smart page-flip alternative: http://reginamag.com/current-issue/

  29. GC says:

    Really interesting, rabit.

  30. johnhenrycn says:

    Reading this piece and watching GC’s video brought to mind an Economist article from a few months back (which I may have linked here before) about the possible existence of an altruism gene:

    “[Dr Marsh] and her team used two brain-scanning techniques, structural and functional magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI), to study the amygdalas of 39 volunteers, 19 of whom were altruistic kidney donors. (The amygdalas, of which brains have two, one in each hemisphere, are areas of tissue central to the processing of emotion and empathy.) Structural MRI showed that the right amygdalas of altruists were 8.1% larger, on average, than those of people in the control group, though everyone’s left amygdalas were about the same size. That is, indeed, the obverse of what pertains in psychopaths, whose right amygdalas, previous studies have shown, are smaller than those of controls.”

    http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21618676-self-sacrifice-it-seems-biological-opposite-psychopathy-right

  31. GC says:

    It may seem a very wrong thing to say, but many of the slum-dwellers of the cities of “the developing world” resist attempts to move them out. They are generally referred to only as “squatters” in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, although it is less a phenomenon now in Malaysia than 20 years ago, except perhaps in Borneo. In the larger cities of the Philippines and Indonesia it is still very obvious.

  32. johnhenrycn says:

    “…a stunningly beautiful babe in a mantilla…” quoth the Toad as he shaved in preparation for attending this evening’s Vigil Mass in the hopes that SHE might be there…

    …and I, who have always preferred raven haired feminine pulchritude to blondes, must agree, although your “babe” in a mantilla doesn’t match the epitome of mystery iconicized by this young lass in a hijab:

    That photograph was taken 30 years ago. I wonder if the Lady in Spain’s photo will be remembered that long?

  33. Frere Rabit says:

    That’s a very good video resource for the next time I teach LEDC settlement issues for GCSE Geography. There are various resources for GCSE, looking at slum cities in developing countries, but I hadn’t looked at Manila before. Have put it on my teaching website already: https://geogblogcostablanca.wordpress.com/gcse-links/5-urbanisation-in-ledcs/

  34. toadspittle says:

    “It may seem a very wrong thing to say, but many of the slum-dwellers of the cities of the developing world resist attempts to move them out. “
    Not at all, G.C. It depends, of course, on where the “authorities” attempt to move the slum dwellers to – if anywhere.
    Often they simply say, “You poor people must get out of here. we are going to redevelop the area for rich people, and make lots of money for ourselves. Where can you go, you ask? Wherever you can afford.” That’s what’s happening in London.

  35. GC says:

    Lapin, AlJazeera (Qatar satellite TV) had a whole series on slum-dwellers. I’m afraid it’s a bit more graphic than the Beeb.

    Toad, exactly.

  36. toadspittle says:

    “I wonder if the Lady in Spain’s photo will be remembered that long?”
    Most unlikely, JH. Beautiful girls like her are pleasingly – and highly gratifyingly – commonplace in Modern Spain: Unlike, I suspect, Afghanistan.
    …Kathleen will gladly confirm this.

  37. Frere Rabit says:

    Thanks, GC. Next time we do the unit on slum dwellers, I’ll switch the focus to Manila. It makes even the slums of Sao Paulo look like luxury living!

  38. johnhenrycn says:

    Toad (20:05) – Although I could only watch about half of GC’s Manila video (for some reason, every video I’ve been watching online these past few days is seizing up) I think that’s a good point. The rich lady in Manila who founded the River Warriors seems more interested in property values than human values.

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