Coptic Orphans

Coptic Orphans is an award-winning international Christian development organization that unlocks the God-given potential of disadvantaged children in Egypt, and so equips them to break the cycle of poverty and become change-makers in their communities. Coptic Orphans works through grassroots partner and volunteer networks to strengthen local communities for sustainable impact. Since 1988, Coptic Orphans has equipped over 30,000 children throughout Egypt.
Feb 10, 2015

The Next Big Reality TV Show? Real Businesswomen of Egypt!

Egyptian businesswoman Samah in her showroom/"set"
Egyptian businesswoman Samah in her showroom/"set"

Some days, in Egypt, you just wish the TV crews were there to record what you're looking at. Great material for reality shows is everywhere. Who needs the Kardashians when you have real live Egyptians doing the most amazing stuff, often while talking on their cell phone and driving 77 mph?

The most amazing Egyptian I've met lately is Samah. She's perfect for a reality show in the style of The Apprentice, that goopy drama where Donald Trump eliminates his protégés by shouting "You're fired!" Samah is an up-and-coming businesswoman herself — although she's a widow raising a young girl, she's paying her bills by retailing blankets, bathmats, and other household goods.

But really, Samah could have a show of her own — Real Businesswomen of Egypt ? — because she needs no Trump to hire or fire her. She's doing it her way, with the help of a loan from Coptic Orphans' B'edaya microfinance initiative.

In fact, the closest person to a Donald Trump in Samah's life is the Coptic Orphans "rep" who works with her. Reps, you'll remember, are the Church-based volunteers who guide and mentor the orphans in our Not Alone program, and who support their mothers in acquiring life skills. This particular rep, whose name is Isis, has been a source of inspiration and coaching for Samah.

From the moment you meet Isis, you know she's no Trump-style caricature of what a mentor should be. She's not looking to create a money-making empire; instead, Isis is all about building strong, faithful, self-sufficient families by serving the Church and "her" orphans. She exudes patience and kindness, qualities she has used to walk Samah through the process of starting her business. She's also got two other essential ingredients: determination and business savvy.

With Isis's help, and lots of hard work, here's the enterprise that Samah has gotten up and running. After looking around her neighborhood to see what her customers really need, Samah buys a load of household goods from a wholesaler. These, she sells out of her own home, which doubles as a showroom. The income she generates is of enormous benefit to raising her daughter, and allows her to keep them — and her home — in a healthy state. She's even sewed new curtains for her windows.

Samah, who credits part of her success to good people skills and strong business ethics, is a "graduate" of B'edaya now. She's paid off her loan, yet she continues to receive income from the business she's built. It's steady money — something she can rely on. Not only that, she reports that her income from the business has increased sevenfold since 2010. For B'edaya, that's right on target, because the goal is to foster family independence and self-reliance.

Things have not always been so rosy, especially in 2004, when Samah's husband died after five years of battling liver cancer. The illness was emotionally and financially draining; the family spent every pound they had and borrowed more to pay off medical bills. It has taken a long time to get past the initial stages of mourning and recovery.

But handling these challenges, and encouraging a move to family self-sufficiency, is what B'edaya is all about. It's a microfinance initiative that tailors small no-interest loans to the needs of widows in our Not Alone program, giving them an income, more skills to feed their children, and more control of their lives. In the second round of loans, from the beginning of 2013 through January 2015, B'edaya disbursed US$14,067, with 29 of an initial group of 37 mothers seeing the process through to fruition. The loan recipients are in Sohag, Minya, Alexandria, Monofiyya, and some less well-off areas of Cairo.

When I visited Samah this month, I met her daughter Amira. She's at the top of her 12th-grade class and doing exceptionally well, with all kinds of honors. She's well-positioned to be accepted into a competitive university.

"She's the angel who God has sent me," Samah tells me.

I have to think: Wouldn't that be a much better ending for a reality TV show than Donald Trump yelling "You're fired!"?

Feb 4, 2015

It's On! (Young Women Teaching Tolerance in Egypt)

The Valuable Girl Project creates a shared space.
The Valuable Girl Project creates a shared space.

I'm in Mattay today, watching a puppet show with a crowd of girls. They're Big and Little Sisters in our Valuable Girl Project, and they're doing normal girl things: A couple are giggling, and one is filming the puppets with her smart phone.

What makes this crowd stand out, here in Upper Egypt, is the mix of headscarves and uncovered hair. In fact, when I arrived here, many of these girls were bent close to each other in Big-Little Sister pairs, hijab and hairstyles together, talking at tables draped in bright blue. I could hear soft dialogues: one asking, the other answering. Often, they smiled at each other.

That's the essence of the Valuable Girl Project, if you're not already familiar with it. At five sites like this one, in Minya, Sohag, Quos, and Armant, 142 Little Sisters and 142 Big Sisters meet twice a week for mentoring in schoolwork and life skills. Many pairs are Christian-Muslim. Site coordinators teach them the value of teamwork, creativity, planning, and accepting others.

Tolerance is a concept that's conveyed in many ways — including the puppet theater I'm watching:

Pow! A little puppet with a scruffy crew cut is getting stomped by a bigger guy-puppet. When the little one finally escapes, he runs into a girl-puppet who he used to harass for being different. Seeing her former tormentor all banged up, she tells him: "Look, being disrespectful to others can cause as much pain as a broken arm, and all human beings deserve to be treated with respect." For once, the beat-up puppet doesn't interrupt or harass her; he just listens.

It's a happy ending to this puppet smackdown. But the puppets don't clobber the audience over the head with their message. The idea conveyed — tolerance — is crystal clear.

The puppets are great, but it was another "stage production" I saw during this trip that really blew me away. At the site in Quos, a group of Big Sisters got together and decided to write a play about their lives "before and after" they joined the Valuable Girl Project.

Their play unfolds as follows: Before joining the project, one character sleeps all the time, another can't stop eating, and a third fritters away her time gossiping and fooling around. The lone girl who wants to study for an exam is led astray by the others, who advise her to bribe the teacher with a sandwich (or cheat, because, hey, "everybody does it.”) Neglected at home and at school, even the "good girl" ends up a delinquent.

Then the girls hear about the Valuable Girl Project. At first, they're hesitant to take part in anything that involves mixing Christians and Muslims. In fact, they only decide to give it a try when they hear there will be free snacks. (OK, that's not the ideal reason, but whatever works.)

Once they're in the Valuable Girl Project, the girls find what was missing in their lives: a community to belong to, and a positive role model and mentor they can learn from. New friendships bring out the best in each of them. They became responsible, understanding, and find happiness in their ability to help "the other."

Can you see the tolerance theme running through, from the puppets to the play? I could. I wish you'd been with me, to see how these girls are beginning to be on the same page on this issue.

It's not an easy process, starting dialogues about tolerance in Upper Egypt. It takes careful planning, dedicated and heroic site coordinators, and patience and goodwill among the girls themselves. And puppets and snacks. Whatever it takes, we're getting there.

I have a lot more to tell you about this trip, but it will have to wait for next time. Until then, thank you for your faith that we can make change even in the most difficult situations.

Nov 25, 2014

Ambition vs Tradition: Egypt's Widows Stand Up

A small business is no small undertaking in Egypt.
A small business is no small undertaking in Egypt.

Every day in Egypt, smart women — aspiring entrepreneurs — face challenges that would shred most people like a dry leaf in a wood chipper. For starters, most women there contend with crushing sexism and soaring inflation.

But Egypt's widows face even huger challenges. Traditions restrict how they dress, who they speak to, where they go. Often, they can't leave the house to work for a living. That's even if their children are malnourished.

B'edaya is a microfinance initiative designed to handle exactly these hostile conditions — the everyday life of a widow in Egypt. It tailors small loans to the needs of the mothers of orphans. The aim is to give them an income, more ability to feed their children, and more control of their lives.

Of the 30 women currently taking part in B'edaya, from mid-January to October 2014, only one (because of severe illness) was unable to make her monthly loan repayments. In the harsh climate I just described, how is that possible?

In answering, I want to share the story of one of these women. Some details of her life are unique among the B'edaya widows. But her fighting spirit and will to secure a better future for her children are not.

Warda is a 30-year-old who lives outside the city of Sohag. In this region, where the searing-hot desert is split by the Nile's waters, her husband died on the roads while transporting stone.

Since 2012, she's run a grocery out of her house — since tradition dictates that she can't leave it. She feeds her two children with the profits she makes selling sugar, rice, cheese, oil, and some canned goods to her neighbors. 

Warda started her grocery with a loan of 1,700 Egyptian pounds that predated B'edaya. It came through Coptic Orphans, with the encouragement of the volunteer representative who mentors her children.

So far, the income she sought is arriving — not all she hopes for, yet, but enough to put food on the table. Today, she's part of B'edaya, and makes regular repayments on her loan through the program.

Why has her business succeeded so far? Warda attributes it to her own:

  • Courage and lack of fear of the situation surrounding her
  • Ability to take into consideration the culture of the people and their needs
  • Selection of a project that fits the nature of the restrictions imposed on widows in her region
  • High ambitions and desire that the project become her main source of income
  • Basic knowledge about reading and writing
  • High level of organization and awareness of her business environment

Michael, the B'edaya staff member who works with Warda, says her success is a function of her:

  • Drive to secure a sustainable monthly income
  • Courage and determination to change her status as a widow
  • Ambition to use her personal abilities to become self-reliant
  • Flexibility in the face of shifting conditions
  • Ability to search out alternatives and solutions
  • Awareness of how to properly manage her project

To these factors, Michael adds the encouragement Warda has received from both him and the Coptic Orphans "rep" who helps meet her children's education, health, and other needs.

Lastly, mixed into Michael's list, among many other factors, is the B'edaya loan. In other words, this is so much more than "take one entrepreneur, add loan, watch the results." The widow herself must bring positive qualities to the table.

At the end of the day, this last aspect of B'edaya is what sets it apart from so many other approaches to charity and development.

Unquestionably, the loan and the income it generates are good things. But the loan is only a catalyst — a means for Warda to harness her inner drive and latent abilities, and in the process, be transformed.

This aimed-for transformation from helpless, house-bound widow to self-sufficient businesswoman is the opposite of traditional charity, which (even if well-intentioned) creates a dependency on handouts. 

Which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning: "How is that possible that 29 out of 30 widows made their B'edaya loan repayments over almost a year?"

I would say the critical answer is this: The loan program does not focus on these women's weaknesses — instead, it harnesses their strengths. It unlocks what's within them. And that's the key to success.

*Image and names changed to protect the privacy of B'edaya participants

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