Poverty, Addiction and Illiteracy: Why Egypt Needs Your Help

With a population of over 19 million people, Cairo is a city that teams with life. Cars, trucks, minibuses and small motorbikes, often overloaded with passengers, compete with each for dominance on the congested highways that crisscross the city.

Street vendors cram the pavements with their wares selling everything from hot roasted corn to handbags and the air holds the permanent tang of pollution and dust. Amidst the cacophony of sight and sound, the majestic Nile gleams and shimmers in the sunlight, offering a promise of peace and quiet that always proves to be just out of reach. The city’s architecture reveals the deep disparity between the rich and poor.

The wealthy shopping districts of Heliopolis, the majestic colonial Marriott hotel and the smart restaurants that cradle the Nile reflect the lives of those who can afford to buy the luxury goods so prominently displayed on the adverts that line the highways. These adverts tell their own story of the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

After coming to power in 2014 President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi promised to tackle the impact Cairo’s overcrowding and congestion is having on the country’s economy by building a new capital. The New Administrative Capital already boasts Africa’s largest cathedral and 34 government ministry buildings.There are plans to construct the largest opera house outside Europe and create a park that will be twice the length of Central Park in New York. It is envisaged that the new city will become home to 6 million people and the advertisements along the roads are encouraging the wealthy elite to invest in the smart apartments, duplexes and villas that currently sit on the architects’ drawing boards.

What is really telling about these advertisements is that they are all presented in English, making it clear that the new capital is for the wealthy, educated elite. It’s all a far cry from Ezbet El Nakhl a suburb of 1 million people that the Zabaleen (garbage pickers) call home. Struggling to make a living from collecting and sorting Cairo’s rubbish, they live in cramped, dark, insanitary buildings that are built so closely together the light is blocked from the streets.

The sickly, sweet smell of decaying rubbish is gut wrenching and it’s hard not to gag when you’re not used to it. With no protective gear, men, women and children sort through the Egyptian capital’s trash. Material that can be recycled is piled high, food waste is fed to their pigs and anything that can’t be reused is burnt. Acrid smoke fills the air and amidst the piles of rubbish stand out the red bags of hospital waste containing – who knows what. Life expectancy amongst the Zabaleen is short, particularly amongst the men who are lucky if they make it into their late fifties.

A total lack of Health & Safety means that industrial accidents are common and many young women find themselves widowed by their mid-twenties. Drug addiction is also a major problem. Working such long hours at hard manual labour takes its toll on the body and Tramadol eases the discomfort and makes it possible to continue earning a meagre wage. But, Tramadol is also highly addictive and the dealers make it ever more expensive, trapping addicts into a cycle of criminality and violence in order to fuel their addiction. The people of these communities are trapped by illiteracy, poor nutrition, drug addiction and the gang masters that control their lives.

Most will never see the Pyramids, as they remain incarcerated by absolute poverty and ignored by wider society. However, in the midst of this bleak cityscape Christ’s presence is tangible. Embrace’s partner, the Salaam Centre provides healthcare, education, training and support to the Zabaleen and much of this work is done by an impressive team of volunteers. Agiya is one. She grew up sorting out the rubbish like everyone else in her family but she attended literacy classes at the centre and learned basic numeracy.

This opened a whole new world to her, where she couldn’t be swindled in the market or made to place her thumb print on a form that she couldn’t read or therefore understand. She was encouraged by the Coptic Church that sits in the heart of the rubbish to continue her education and to use her skills to help others.

She has a particular heart for other women and she encourages them to attend classes and build a better future for themselves and their children. Walking the dark, narrow streets with Agiya it is immediately obvious that she is loved and respected.

Helping women to escape from abuse and poverty has become her life’s work and so she has remained living and working amongst the squalor and filth in order to lift others into a better life. When Agiya discovered that she had cancer 5 years ago the church raised the money to pay for her treatment so that she can continue her life changing work.

It’s challenging to raise funds for Embrace’s partners in Egypt. When most of us think of the land of the Pharaohs we imagine a holiday destination and cruises down the Nile, but the country’s beauty and history hides a dark secret of grinding poverty that is, quite literally, kept out of the sight of visitors.

The government is building walls along the highways to hide the slum areas from inquisitive eyes. Corruption and injustice keep the Zabaleen poor but by supporting amazing projects like the Salaam Centre and volunteers like Agiya we can all play our part in transforming lives and giving the hidden communities of Cairo the chance to flourish.


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