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 10, 2015

Two Blankets in Wintertime (Aren't the Most Wondrous Thing)

Imagine the sense accomplishment you'd feel at being able to buy blankets for your children when before they'd shivered on chilly nights. Furthermore, imagine being able to buy your kids a new mattress to keep them off the cold tiled floor of your home.

That's the sense of accomplishment that Salma has — and she's a widow who's never before experienced economic empowerment.

Salma, a mother of two young children, lost her husband eight years ago in a traffic accident. Her troubles were compounded by health problems.

I met Salma in the Upper Egyptian city of Sohag, where up until recently, she and her family endured the brief but chilly winter nights as best they could. Her sense of what she had to put up with in life, though, has changed since six years ago. That's when she got involved with B'edaya.

Using a small loan provided by the project, she started a hairdressing business in her home. B'edaya allowed her to develop her enterprise by buying modern equipment. With that boost, she went from having to travel to her clients, to having them come to her house for appointments.

"The equipment is what attracts the ladies to come to me," she told me, showing off the neat wooden shelves where she stacks her hair dryer, combs, and hair care supplies.

"Salma is very wise in how she manages the profits from her business," said Susan, the Coptic Orphans staff member who oversees Salma's loan. Indeed, the money from styling her neighbors' hair has purchased the new mattress and blankets that keep Salma's kids warm at night.

This is all part of the B'edaya strategy, which emphasizes empowerment over handouts. For all of the widows who take out loans, the capital and the income it helps generate are good things. But the loan is only a catalyst — a means for Salma to harness her inner drive and latent abilities, and in the process, be transformed.

It's especially important to focus on transformation in the society where Salma is from, because traditions about widowhood in Upper Egypt are piled on top of other patriarchal constraints. The end result is that widows are often house-bound and kept helpless. To see a widow in this situation evolve into a businesswoman, therefore, is quite extraordinary. The blankets and mattress, in this context, are the smallest wonders I can see in Salma's home.

As is proper, B'edaya can't take credit for this transformation. That credit goes to Salma herself. And that's how it should be.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of B'edaya participant.

Oct 30, 2015

Giving Girls Education and Respect: It Works

The project creates a safe space for learning.
The project creates a safe space for learning.

This time last year, I wouldn't have expected to be able to deliver an update like this one. But here it is:

Not only did Samia get excellent grades, but her Big Sisters improved the literacy rates in her hometown!

You may remember Samia from my letter last November. She's the kid who entered the Valuable Girl Project with a chip on her shoulder — cursing, stealing, and hitting the other girls.

The project's Big Sister-Little Sister model, which creates one-to-one mentoring relationships, seemed to do Samia a world of good. She stopped hitting people, learned social skills, and started making friends.

Samia's transformation, which I mentioned last fall, reached another milestone this summer. During my visit, one of the project coordinators handed me Samia's report card, which she'd proudly shared with her role models.

"EXCELLENT" grades in Arabic, math, and science!

When I saw those grades, I wondered if Samia's father knew about this huge achievement. Her dad is behind bars for life, more or less. Would he be proud that Samia is making progress toward escaping his generation's cycle of violence and poverty?

Seeing Samia's grades confirmed for me, once again, that kids from the poorest households (even those where they're more likely to be hit than hugged) can be transformed by education, love, and respect.

But girls can't flourish in a community that's crumbling. That's why the Valuable Girl Project also aims to be a resource to the cities and villages where it operates.

It's a good start to provide, as the project does, a safe space for the Big Sisters and Little Sisters to learn together, particularly when the pairs are Christians and Muslims.

But to really have an impact, other effects have to ripple outward from the project's five sites in Upper and Lower Egypt. This summer, I found out about an exciting way that this aspiration became a reality.

Here's what happened: The community development association that hosts Samia's site discovered that many students in the area couldn't read or write, despite being enrolled in school. In response, they organized a special training program in literacy tutoring skills.

The association approached the project's Big Sisters, and 18 of them participated in the training. Next, the girls volunteered in a local literacy initiative. Together, they taught reading and writing to 200 kids! A pre- and post- evaluation of the children’s reading skills showed an average improvement of 60%.

It felt good to hear this, knowing that literacy has a huge positive impact on a child's life chances. Not only that, but the Valuable Girl Project had benefited not just one girl, Samia, but an entire community.

I love that the Valuable Girl Project's effects are beginning to radiate outward, from individual lives to communities. That's the power of education and respect. When we give them to girls, they shine!

Aug 14, 2015

A Woman Who's Not Waiting for Handouts - And Proud of It

Susan - a proud entrepreneur - and her daughter.
Susan - a proud entrepreneur - and her daughter.

A giant drawing of St. George looms over visitors to Susan's home, but she's not waiting for heroes on horseback to save her family. She's taking her fate into her own hands — she's had to, since the artist, her husband, passed away two years ago.

When I first met Susan this August, she was still grieving for her husband. But, as she says, the time came when she had to decide how to support her 8-year-old daughter.

It wasn't going to be easy, there in her marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of Minya in Upper Egypt. From an already hardscrabble existence, her husband's death dropped her down even farther on the economic ladder. For Susan's family, some necessities quickly became luxuries.

Added to the economic blow of widowhood came the restrictions imposed on her by Egypt's male-dominated society. Expectations are that widows will stick to the home and rely on charity to survive.

Certainly, the last thing anyone in Egypt expects a widow to do is to go into business. Better, the thinking goes, that they live on handouts. Yet, says Susan, "I knew I had to do something productive."

It was an uphill battle to scrape together what remained of her savings, borrow bits and pieces here and there from family and friends, and turn a room of her house into a dry goods store. But Susan did it.

Today, people from the neighborhood pop in for their bags of detergent and other household needs. Their small purchases earn a thin margin of profit that helps put bread on the table for Susan's daughter.

Talking to Susan, I came to understand the pride she takes in this achievement, and the depth of her drive to succeed despite huge, huge obstacles.

It's for people like Susan that B'edaya, Coptic Orphans' microfinance project, exists. I'm proud that we've begun the process of selecting a new group of 50 mothers to receive B'edaya loans of up to 7,000 Egyptian pounds (around US$1,000).

For those who have already started a business, the money may foot the bill for improvements that offer a competitive advantage in the market. For others, the loan may be the first step towards financial self-sufficiency, and fund the foundation of the enterprise they're envisioning.

B'edaya mothers — all of them the widowed mothers of orphans in our program — have successfully run everything from feed stores to photography studios to home furnishings outlets.

This next round of B'edaya builds on the achievements of 30 mothers in Sohag, Minya, Alexandria, Monofiyya, and Cairo who received the most recent round of loans in 2014. So thanks to generous support from all over the world, we're getting closer to our goal of empowering 200 women through microfinance!

The next round will begin in March 2016, and the widows selected to participate will receive ongoing coaching and skills-building to ensure that they can use their loans to best effect.

We hope that all of the Susans of Egypt will apply for B'edaya's next round, and we're encouraging them to do so. Because as she can tell you, there's a difference between waiting for a handout and being your own boss.

The difference is pride.

 
   

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