On Thursday, I finally had the opportunity to do something I've been hearing about and wanting to do since soon after my arrival here--visit Mother Teresa's Orphanage. This facility is run by a small group of Catholic nuns and it is much more than just an orphanage, but we'll get to that in a minute.
I had heard about Mother Teresa's from a couple of different sources. Ibrahim, the CSA guide who took us to Saint Macarious monastery and to Anafora, suggested it when he learned that I was more interested in volunteering than in finding a paid job. Then, one month, I forget which, it was the "Gold Basket" charity at the Maadi Women's Guild meeting. At each meeting, a representative from a charity comes and gives a brief presentation on the charity, and then a basket--a golden-colored one--is passed around, and all the money that is placed in the basket goes directly to the charity. When Mother Teresa's was featured, there was no representative of the charity. The sisters don't believe in asking anyone but God for help; they pray over their needs and trust that God will provide, but they don't go out and ask people for help. So the chairwoman of the MWG benevolence committee told us a bit about what the sisters do and a little about their known needs. I also learned at some point that Linda, one of the baby wash volunteers, goes to the orphanage as well. She invited me to go with her once, but I wasn't able to go that day, and then things were crazy with the bazaar and the holidays.
On Wednesday, I emailed Linda and asked her to let me know when she was going back to the orphanage. She replied that she was going the very next day. She had a couple of other volunteers who were going, too, and I was welcome to come along. She agreed to pick me up at CSA shortly after 10 on Thursday morning. When she arrived, in the company of Tami and Debbie, I found out that we needed to make a detour to rendezvous with a driver who would be hauling some cabinets up to the orphanage. When Linda was home over Christmas, she was able to raise some money for the orphanage, and the sisters had told her--after some coaxing--that they needed locking cabinets in which to store the children's clothing, and they need to have the orphanage painted in the spring. So the cabinets were being delivered Thursday, and Linda is holding on to the rest of the money until spring, when she will make it available for the sisters to pay local workers to paint the orphanage.
After our detour to allow the other driver to follow us, we got on the Autostrade for a few minutes. After taking the Al Mokattum exit, we immediately took a sharp left and were in Garbage City's narrow, fragrant streets. Just a few minutes later, we reached a point near the orphanage where the vehicle was blocked by an unwieldy trash truck. We decided to walk the rest of the way--just a couple minutes' walk--and let the other driver bring the cabinets whenever he could get through.
As we approached the closed gates, I was struck by how different the orphanage compound looked, even on the outside, from the surrounding area. The walls were smooth, the gates well-maintained. They swung open at our approach. Once inside the courtyard, the stench of Mokattum was muted by the wall (by the time we got into the buildings, you couldn't smell the trash at all anymore). We were greeted by one of the sisters, a woman who had gone blind due to the amount of time she spent sewing in poorly lighted conditions in Alexandria. After the greeting, we were allowed to roam freely through the compound. Linda had been right when she told me that the sisters don't keep track of volunteers, but rather, allow them to go wherever they feel they can be of the most help.
We crossed the well-swept courtyard and went up some stairs and into one of the buildings. The building seems to have been built without a central hallway. Instead, there are enclosed rooms on the right side of the passageway. On the left, the hallway itself is open to a series of large rooms. The first such room we came to was used as a playroom. A waist-high mesh wall had been constructed to block off the room itself from the open hallway. Around 20 small children, 2 workers, and 2 volunteers were in this makeshift playpen when we came by. We dropped off Debbie and Tami in this room, while Linda took me on a tour of the rest of the facility.
Linda showed me the large room, filled with cribs, on the same floor as the playroom. She showed me a small kitchen, which we walked through to get to an outdoor walkway. We walked down some steep stairs and crossed a small courtyard into another building. Not long after, we entered a large room. Linda walked through it to a smaller room in its corner, but I stopped to chat with the smiling Egyptian girl who greeted me. She was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I learned later that she probably was the daughter of one of the paid childcare workers. She seemed impressed that I was able to ask her name in Arabic, understand her response, and tell her my name. I used the pronunciation that is more common in this part of the world--DeBORah, rather than DEBorah--and she understood me the first time around. (If I use the English pronunciation, I often have to repeat it several times before it's understood.) After a couple of minutes, I followed Linda to the smaller room.
Linda had told me that this room was the handicapped room. You see, it used to be the case that when handicapped children were born to impoverished families, the parents couldn't afford to care for these special children. One or both parents had to work for barely sufficient food, clothing, and shelter, and caring for the special-needs child meant time and money that the family simply didn't have. So the handicapped child would be given to an orphanage. Recently, things have changed to some degree, because the government now subsidizes the care of handicapped children. But nothing changed for the children who already were in orphanages when the subsidies started. When Linda first started coming to the orphanage, there were ten or so handicapped children who lived at the orphanage. Now there are four or five, as some have moved to other facilities and others have died.
I was expecting to find the four or five handicapped children in this room. I was surprised to walk in and find the four or five handicapped children plus an additional ten to fifteen babies. I had thought that all of the non-handicapped children were in the other playroom. Linda explained that the sisters had moved the youngest children into this room with the handicapped children, because there wasn't enough space in the other playroom, and because the toddlers tended to run over the infants. So there were a lot of children in this room, as well as one or two paid workers and three other volunteers, all of whom were feeding the children their lunch.
A word about the workers and volunteers--the workers are young girls, usually in their teens, from the surrounding community. They come from impoverished families, and they are hired by the sisters to provide childcare, as there are very few sisters. These young girls usually leave their jobs when they are married around age 18, although some keep working, bringing their children to work with them. So, much of the care at the orphanage is provided by women who are little more than children themselves. Care also is provided by volunteers--expats who live in Egypt, and college students who come on mission trips. The other three volunteers in the room on Thursday are participating in a 3-month mission trip. If I'm not mistaken, they're housed in or near Garbage City and come to the orphanage every day to help with the children.
The small handicapped room was crowded with all the children and the volunteers. Even with the workers and volunteers, though, there weren't enough adults to attend to all the children. The workers had two or more children clustered around them, and they used a common spoon and bowl to feed the children gathered in and around their laps. Some had one handicapped child and two babies who were being fed at once. Even with this, there were a few babies lying unattended on mattresses placed on the floor. While Linda helped with one of the handicapped children--Paul, whose family comes to take him for visits whenever they can, so that he knows he's loved, even though they can't care for him full-time--I picked up a whimpering infant from a mattress. She immediately quieted; she just wanted to be held. A slightly older child apparently also just wanted to be held; he toddled over to me and tried to climb in my lap as well. As I situated the little girl so that there was room for the little boy as well, he gave up on me. He went to one of the workers and forced his way into her lap beside the other child she held. Meanwhile, Linda reminded me that there was more to the tour. The little girl I held went to one of the sisters, who came in looking for a child to feed, and Linda and I continued the tour.
We went back outside and crossed the courtyard, but instead of going back up the stairs, we entered a large, shady room with 8 or 10 beds in it. This was the room where some older women lived. I'm not clear on exactly why they are there--at least one of them seemed to have some mental problems, but it's possible that they simply are old and without husbands or children who can care for them. Linda spoke with one of the women (the only one who speaks English) to find out if they needed anything, while the woman in the bed nearest the door claimed my attention. This woman, I was told, likes to make people laugh. She made funny shapes with her hands and funny sounds with her mouth . . . she even did the trick where you put your hand under your armpit to make a rude noise. I smiled at her and laughed with her, mimicking some of her motions and sounds.
In the meantime, I kept one ear on the conversation between Linda and the English-speaking woman. The women needed thread to make clothes. They also needed underwear, and the lotion that Linda had brought in the past was gone. Linda assured her that she would bring needles and various types and colors of thread next week, as well as underwear and more lotion. Linda also was introduced to the young Egyptian girl who was working in the room. This girl was 18 years old and was soon to be married. Linda asked a question that never would have occurred to me: Is her soon-to-be husband a good man? To most Westerners, this question is unnecessary, because no woman would marry a man whom she didn't believe to be good--but then, I haven't been in Egypt long enough. Here, young girls often marry whomever and whenever they are told to marry by their families. Girls marry young, both because a woman's purpose is to marry and have children, and because marriage helps relieve the financial burden on the girl's family. The girl's response to Linda's question: No, her fiance is not a good man. My heart broke for her.
We left the women's room and went back to the large playroom where the older children were kept. Feeding time was over, and the new task was to keep the children awake until noon--around 40 minutes away. Their schedule had been changed recently; they were used to going to sleep at 11:30, so we had some very sleepy children on our hands. I picked up one little boy named John and put him in my lap. He leaned his head against my chest and tried to go to sleep, but I lifted him high in the air and gently lowered him, loving the huge smile that lit his face. His face was a sight to behold--from the bridge of his nose to the base of his chin, and all over his cheeks, he was scratched and scraped. One of the volunteers said that he must have fallen, and that is probable, as he could take only two steps before falling down. He must have fallen on rough or rocky ground--which is most of the ground in Mokattum, where I have not seen a single blade of grass--and it looks more like he fell and slid. We can only hope that his wounds are being kept clean and that they'll heal like they should. They didn't seem to be causing him any pain, judging from the smile when I played with him.
As I played with John, Linda told me about the children. Most of them aren't orphans; the orphanage doubles as a daycare for the poorest of the poor. Their mothers drop them off at 8am before going to their jobs mucking out donkey stables or sorting garbage for recycling. The children arrive in filthy clothes and are changed immediately into clean clothes, kept at the orphanage. (That's why they needed locking cabinets; sometimes these luxuriously clean clothes disappear.) They stay at the orphanage until 5pm, when their mothers pick them up. The rest of the children live at the orphanage, but only a few of them came there because both of their parents, or even their father, died. Linda pointed out one child, another little boy named John. He was the youngest of 6 siblings. His mother died giving birth to him. His father promptly dropped off all 6 children at the nearest orphanage, then remarried. There was another little boy, whose name Linda didn't tell me. His mother was feeding him one day--probably nursing him--when her male relatives called her to come and prepare food for them. She didn't follow their command quickly enough, so they beat her to death. Her husband gave their child to an orphanage and remarried. Needless to say, I was appalled at these stories.
My heart goes out to these children. The sisters, workers, and volunteers do the best they can, but there's only so much they can do. They're responsible for so many children that they can meet physical needs only with a great deal of effort; there's no way they can spend the time playing and cuddling with the children as much as they deserve. They grow up in a series of orphanages, moving on to the next one when they reach a certain age, with caregivers who often are loving but exhausted and overworked. During these first formative years, they have little contact with men. One of the mission volunteers was a male college student, and it was amazing to watch the children with him. The children were happy for attention from us women, but many were obsessed with the one man in the room. He held one or more children in his lap at all times, and he usually had another three or four clustered around him where he sat on a mattress, leaning against the wall. Children need men in their lives, and these children sought him out.
All too soon (for the volunteers, not soon enough for the kids), it was time to put the little ones down for their afternoon naps. The workers and sisters took the children, one by one, into the room with all the cribs, gave them a bottle, and left them to sleep. As the last children disappeared, we said goodbye to the mission team--inviting them to Maadi Community Church for some much-needed worship, teaching, and fellowship with other English-speakers--and waved our goodbyes to the sisters and workers. The old blind nun let us out the gate, encouraging us to come back (she speaks English), and we stepped back out into the stinky, ugly world of Garbage City. We walked back to Linda's vehicle, with her driver watching over it, and headed back to the world that, while still foreign to us, has become much more familiar--the expat haven of Maadi.
Update on 12 October 2009:
I now go to Mother Teresa's regularly. John's cuts and scrapes are all healed now, and he's a happy boy. There are several babies who recognize me now when I come in, and I enjoy playing with them. Naptime has been moved back up to 11:30, which is such a relief for the children. We're also now being more sanitary at feeding time--we no longer share bowls or spoons among children. This new practice spreads fewer germs but unfortunately results in confused, hungry babies watching a trusted adult feed someone else while refusing to feed them. They're not used to waiting for one child to finish completely before the others get to eat. Sometimes when I go to the orphanage, I'm the only volunteer there. Other weeks, there are teams, and things are much easier with more adult hands. More volunteers are needed to come on a regular basis.
I stopped visiting Mother Teresa's in November 2010 when I discovered that I was pregnant with my daughter--there was a TB risk that my husband and I found unacceptable once there was more than just my own health to consider. In June 2011, we left Egypt altogether, and now I have no more contacts at Mother Teresa's. However, I still recommend it as a worthy place to volunteer, and I hope that many more volunteers will find their way there.
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