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.
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

Nov 11, 2014

'Breaking the Cycle'? - These Girls Are Doing It

Paper crowns and graduation caps — bright orange and red, they decorate this airy, sunlit room overlooking the dusty streets of Upper Egypt. Hand-written on each, in black marker with silver flourishes, are the words “Valuable Girl!”

I’m back here in the town of Matay, at this site of the Valuable Girl Project. Here, Big Sisters and Little Sisters ages 7-22 learn together in a safe space. Both Christians and Muslims are paired in these Big-Little mentoring relationships, and at the moment, there’s mayhem as they get set to play a game.

A moment later, though, order is restored. The 20 or so young women and girls get themselves arrayed in a circle, and all eyes are fixed on one young woman, Maryam. She leads the group into a mathematics game, soaking up all their youthful energy in hopping, gesturing, and laughing.

Once the game winds down, Maryam joins me on a balcony to bring me up to speed on the site’s accomplishments and challenges. It’s private there, so she’s able to be frank about some of the more difficult things she’s encountered here in Matay.

As manager of this Valuable Girl Project site, she says, she deals with the hard cases. Not every girl who walks through the door is an angel. But Maryam still has to bring out the best in them.

One young woman comes to mind — Samia. “She used to hit,” says Maryam. Her father, a known criminal, was behind bars for what amounted to life. For her part, Samia seemed to be following in his footsteps, in a cycle of violence and poverty passed from generation to generation.

“She cursed a lot, stole, and was pretty violent,” Maryam says. “She didn’t have any friends.”

As Maryam tells it, she decided to tackle Samia’s problems — but without singling her out for shame. Instead, she did things like involve all of the girls in an activity on the importance of honesty. She gave Samia opportunities to practice not stealing. And she kept Samia close to role models, the kind of teens who would introduce her to healthy behaviors.

In short, a community of sorts was surrounding Samia, perhaps for the first time in her life. The young women of the Valuable Girl Project were opening her eyes to a way out of the cycle she was trapped in.

And these days? Samia’s not an overnight miracle, Maryam observes. There are still times when old habits creep back. But overall, she’s a happier girl, she’s stopped hitting, and she’s holding onto friends.

“The other day, she saw one of the girls return something that had been lost, and get praised for it,” says Maryam. “Not long after, she found 300 Egyptian pounds and brought it to me. I started to thank her, and do you know what she said? “Miss, this is my responsibility. I shouldn’t be rewarded for it.'”

It’s not a small thing to break — or even bend — the cycles of violence and poverty that afflict families, in Egypt or anywhere. But I was seeing just that in Matay. Consider Samia’s transformation through the multiplying effect of seven sites and 420 Valuable Girl Project participants, and you’re looking at many lives changed.

Lots of people talk about breaking the cycles of poverty and violence. As I stand there talking to Maryam, I think to myself, I’ve caught a group of young women who are doing it.

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Aug 27, 2014

She's Not on the Cover of Forbes. Yet

Ice-cold orange juice crackles through my taste buds like lightning, taking the edge off the fiery Egyptian heat. Thank goodness for our relentless host, who's deaf to our protests of "No, please don't bother... no, really, we just had something to drink..."

Defeated by Egyptian hospitality, I settle back comfortably in a folding chair as our host, Ireney, explains how a widow like herself could beat the odds to become a prosperous trader.

It's a vast, shady room attached to her house here on the outskirts of Samalout. All around me are great, heaped-up sacks of animal feed. A heavy handful of pellets trickles through my fingers and tickles my nose, sweet and musty.  

Standing by the street door, her children bustling underfoot like loose chicks, Ireney describes how a microloan from B'edaya gave her the boost to get started as an entrepreneur.

It's been a lot of work to break into the animal feed business, she concedes, and it's taken her time and sweat and persistence to stay afloat. She started small, built up her inventory in the last few months, and has begun to welcome more customers. Now she sees a monthly profit - not a huge amount, but enough to cover some of the costs racked up by her three small kids.

I listen and contemplate what Ireney's been up against. Traditions are strong here in Upper Egypt, and while some of them promote community and cooperation, others box in widows, limiting their options and even their ability to leave the house. Many mothers, lacking a male breadwinner, end up taking charity for life.

But Ireney has politely but firmly refused to follow the script: stay hopeless, stay helpless, stay house-bound.

What does she hope to do instead? Grow the business. 

This is what B'edaya was meant to do.

"With my own hands." That's the meaning of "B'edaya,"and the program demonstrates what the hands of widowed mothers can accomplish if they have access to start-up money. As a microcredit initiative, B'edaya funds these women's income-generating projects from the ground up until they become self-sufficient. Donations cover all aspects of the loan process from beginning to end, and the money is reinvested over and over to help multiple families. 

As I listen to Ireney, I can run the numbers in my head. In the last six months, of the 29 mothers who've taken out loans, only one hasn't been able to turn a profit. Bad luck with the livestock she bought. The other 28 mothers generated about 40,165 Egyptian pounds (US$5,617) as a net profit.

What were the widows able to do with their profits? I know that our team in the field has asked that very question, and the answers have come back: Buying new goods to build up inventory. Paying their kids' expenses. Socking away cash in savings accounts.

And this in the face of power failures, soaring inflation, and other challenges. Can you imagine? These women are overcoming things each day that would give Fortune 500 CEOs various kinds of cold sweats. They're not on the cover of Forbes. Yet. But for courage and ingenuity, they could be.

I turn my full attention back to Ireney, who's been providing some details on the animal feed market. Probably nuances I can't begin to grasp, but that's OK. What's happened here is not an organization taking responsibility for Ireney's life. On the contrary, she's taken responsibility for her own family, her own fate. I get a kick out of that. It's an incredible thing to see. It's transformative. 

In my next report to you, I look forward laying out some of the obstacles that have faced widows in the B'edaya project, as well as some of the training needs they've expressed.

* Image and name of B'edaya participant have been changed in this instance to protect her privacy.

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