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.
I'm in a huge, sunlit room, and all around me, pairs of girls are busy with markers, scissors, and construction paper. There's a buzz in the air as they assemble models of Egypt's greatest engineering feat, the Pyramids.
Don't worry - it's not a sweatshop churning out junky souvenirs for the tourists who are slowly returning to Egypt. It's Coptic Orphans' Valuable Girl Project, and here at this site in Matay, a town near the city of Minya in Upper Egypt, these are Big Sisters and Little Sisters, some of them pairings of Christian and Muslim girls. And the project they're working on, besides teaching teamwork and artistic skills, is also reminding them of the huge dimensions of all Egyptians' shared cultural heritage.
I'm astonished, this July morning, as we tour this building that houses Office of Human Services of the Coptic Catholic Diocese, our partner in this Valuable Girl Project site. Besides the roomful of girls in their pairs, there's another room zipping with the sound of looms, where young women are producing clothing as part of a community-based development project. In fact, our partner is so well-established that they even make classy shoes - a table of them are on display, for sale, as you walk upstairs.
I'm grateful to have such on-the-ball partners, who are so rooted in their communities. Coptic Orphans is working with seven such community development associations through Valuable Girl, with the goal of academic retention, education, and literacy tutorship of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt. The program uses one-on-one mentorship, through which young women in secondary school, “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, “Little Sisters.”
Coming back to the sunny workspace where the girls are nearly finished with their trios of Pyramids, I'm struck by the tolerance that's evident in the room. Young women in headscarves tackle their project next to young women who are clearly Christian in dress, and there's no discord, only occasional giggling at the sight of the visitors from "outside."
This is what the Valuable Girl Project offers, beyond building the leadership skills of young women in a society that's often hostile to the idea. Creating a safe space for tolerance is a difficult thing in Egypt, given the distrust that flared into violence in recent years. But these girls and young women are defying that distrust and building towards a tolerant society - one friendship at a time. Multiply those friendships across seven sites and 420 participants, and you've got the seeds of change.
Now the girls are beginning to stand up and describe their Pyramids, one pair at a time. I'm excited that they're focused on this enormous feat, this engineering marvel that their ancestors pulled off together. But I'm even more excited about the new foundation they're laying - for an Egypt of tolerance, co-existence, and peace - where young women, Christian and Muslim, can work together.
We're going to move into a new stage of the Valuable Girl Project, and I'm excited to share the details with you soon. Stay tuned!
It's no secret that these are not the easiest of times in Egypt. In places, economic pressures are causing the fabric of society to fray. In these times, the work of the Valuable Girl Project is most important, for it is precisely the values of tolerance that ease social discord that are most needed. The project puts that tolerance front and center by involving both Muslim and Christian girls in Big Sister-Little Sister pairings.
At the same time, the stresses of day to day life can take their toll on both the project coordinators and the girls themselves. For that reason, the project team recently held a session for coordinators on how to relax, achieve a peaceful state, and ease the pressure they're under. The older sisters who took part enjoyed the session so much that they asked that a similar one be held for the younger sisters, but with a focus on nurturing charity.
At the same time, to avoid being blind to the actual security issues and other challenges facing Egyptians today, the team trained coordinators in how to deal with insecurity, how to manage problems as they arise, how to plan meetings more effectively, and how to improve their monitoring and evaluation.
With this focus on balancing inner peace and outward wariness, the actual work of facilitating Big Sister-Little Sister relationships continues. Thank you for keeping the faith, and for supporting the important work of tolerance-building and empowering young women.
Educate a man and you educate an individual. Educate a woman, and you educate her family, her village, and one day, her nation. It has been a said a myriad of ways, from scholars, advocates, and even passed down as proverbs of wisdom. But the truth remains the same: a girl’s education is not only vital to her own well-being, but it is also key to the prosperitystability to those around her and beyond.
In Egypt, 38% of Egypt’s population---some 17 million adults---are illiterate; the majority of those being in the countryside (UN Data 2013). Unfortunately, the rates of illiteracy are largely unbalanced, with far more men and boys able to read than women and girls. The reason for this disparity is rooted in the inherent social roles attached to both women and men. Men are assigned the task of working and bringing income for the family while women are supposed to take care of the household and raise children. By default, the priority to educate girls and young women takes a back-seat to boys’ education.In the 2000 Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey, 38% of Egyptian mothers believe that parents should send the son to university if they can only afford to send one child, compared to 7% who believe that a daughter should be sent (2000EDHS). Consequently, a family may choose to pull the girls in the family out of school after a certain age (e.g. elementary) while leaving the boys to continue their education up to college in many cases.
At the Valuable Girl Project, we work to promote academic retention and greater awareness of the importance of girl’s education. Despite Egypt’s rocky political landscape since the Arab Uprising, we continue to run 8 sites all throughout Egypt where 163 Big Sisters are encouraged to mentor 163 Little Sisters to continue on to higher education. Big Sisters face the insecurities of their neighborhoods to plan and run educational workshops, seminars, and activities. Together, they throw parties to celebrate their Little Sisters and the seemingly mundane but heroic task: staying to move on from one grade to the next.
At Coptic Orphans, we stand behind all of our Sisters. We look to expand our program to 15 sites and to touch the lives of 420 more girls. That is the total of 746 transformed families, villages, and even the Egypt they call home. Help them to continue. Support the Valuable Girl Project today.
This past September, our Executive Director, Nermien Riad, went to Egypt to personally deliver a $175,000 check of donations to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, Pope Tawadrus II. This money was part of an emergency fund for all the Orthodox Christian Churches burnt on August 14th following the deposition of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi. When she asked him what more an organization like Coptic Orphans could do to support their country, the Pope told her simply: “Work towards peaceful co-existence and religious tolerance in our Egyptian villages.” With this news, Nermien Riad returned to the US to remake our Valuable Girl Program.
Today, we are redesigning our program to actively pursue what were the unintentional effects of educational mentorship: interfaith interaction that broke down stereotypes, collective cooperation that created friendships, as well as work that brought together communities divided by sectarian tension and violence. This time around, we aim to intentionally pair up Little and Big Sisters across religious lines, run awareness-raising seminar for Sisters and their families, and have training activities in conflict resolution and mediation techniques.
We invite you, our dearest supporters, to continue this journey with us. More importantly, we recognize that we would not have made it this far without you. Your thoughts, suggestions, and support are what propel us forward. What do you think? Can we make a difference in Egypt through grassroots interventions to promote a peaceful co-existence and community cooperation? We sure think so.
And just so you know: despite the country’s recent upheavals, the Valuable Girl Project continues to run 9 sites all over Egypt and works with over 500 Big Sisters, Little Sisters, as well as Local Coordinators.
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