Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Nuer Tribe Women's Bible Study

In the past few days I’ve learned much more about Sudanese issues and I need to share the knowledge I’ve gained. With each day that I work with the Sudanese, I am finding their situation more and more complex. All I can say is the reality of the situation reminds me of Palestine/Israel—there are so many questions and so many frustrations and not a lot of great answers.

Yesterday I spent 2 hours in a Nuer woman’s bible study. The Nuer population is the second largest tribe (second to the Dinka tribe) in South Sudan, and there are many living in Cairo. Each Wednesday at St. Andrew’s they meet for bible study and reflection. I tried to attend the bible study a couple weeks ago but for the first time in well over a year only two women showed up—the rest were at the sit-in demonstration at Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque (see alternative blog entry). Yesterday we begin the bible study by talking a bit about the demonstration.

Lynn led the group in study, but none of the women speak English so an interpreter was there to help us communicate. We learned that people are losing their flats and their jobs in order to participate in the demonstration. Some of the woman didn’t seem that bothered by this—they said they aren’t even guaranteed money at work (cleaning Egyptian houses). Still, this is frightening, because it means they will continue to demonstrate until they get some type of action, now that they’ve lost so much.

The women wanted to read Psalm 100 (read it now), and they explained that they believe God has turned His back on them as the psalm reads. Still, they believe in Him. “If we die, we are still alive,” said one woman, who clearly believes in a world beyond this life. Lynn asked, “How do you know God is with you?” One woman said, “If I didn’t know God was with me, I would kill myself.” Soon this woman was one of the first to stand up and begin singing Nuer praise and worship songs to the Lord as the rest of us followed by singing (if we knew the language) and clapping.

At this point Mary Anne and I were introduced to the group, and as hospitality has it, we were instructed to go to the front pew as honored guests. The women smiled at us, nodded to us, and shook our hands. As broken as they are, they were all still full of energy and life, excited to talk about God and share “woman to woman” time together. They were more than welcoming and it humbled me.

Lynn then started talking about wholistic health. She explained to the Nuer woman that there are three parts to our health: our body, our minds, and our spirit. You can have a good body and mind but still not feel whole if the spirit is missing. Whenever we have problems in any of these three areas it pulls us away from the center (overlapping area) and we do not have great wholistic health.

This discussion was supposed to lead us into a discussion on forgiveness and the Prodigal Son. We first discussed the deep wounds in life—when we experience acts of disloyalty or acts of betrayal. Lynn then gave the group scenarios that Western people would describe as painful disloyalty or betrayal. One of the first examples was about a husband who had an affair with his friend’s wife. The question was, “Is this a deep wound for you?” The woman began talking amongst themselves and I soon realized they were trying to figure out if it was betrayal or not! Finally one of them asked, “Is the other woman’s husband dead?” Apparently if the other woman’s husband is alive, then yes, it is a problem because that man may come kill your husband and then you are left without support. But if he is dead there is no problem.

Wow. Of course, this led us into a tangent to talk about relationships and marriage. I discovered that Sudanese men can take many wives, more than 7 or 8 even! It is the responsibility of the first wife to make sure all material resources are split evenly between the wives. The last wife is the only one to live with the husband. Getting married is a general mixture of choosing for love and arranged marriage. If you love a man and he loves you, both of you must ask your parents for a blessing. If you do not receive your parent’s blessing, there is no wedding. It’s a very deep wound to have a daughter choose her own husband without going through this process. It is also a deep wound if a man leaves you because he loves another woman but it’s not a deep wound if he takes another wife but still loves you.

We told the woman that in America it is legal to take only one wife, but if you divorce her you can take another. They asked, “Where do the children go?” We said usually with the mother. The woman became all excited and our interpreter explained, “They have an agreement with that.” In Sudan, if you get a divorce (which doesn’t happen often) the father gets the children. The woman then asked, “Do you beat your children?” We explained issues of domestic violence (with both children and partners) and they quickly asked, “Will this lead to a divorce?” In Sudan, if a wife is beaten, it’s no matter. There is nothing she can do. We asked the group of 13 women if they have been beaten by their husbands at some point in their live and they all shouted out, “Yes, of course!” One woman said, “We think a man isn’t a man if he doesn’t beat his wife.”

I was fuming, of course. A man isn’t a man if he doesn’t beat his wife?! Thankfully Lynn then asked, “Once Jesus came into your life, how has your relationship with your husband changed?” (By the way, in this particular group of women, some husbands have run off with another woman, some are dead, and some have not been found.) The women said there is still a bride price, men still take multiple wives, and children still go with the father, but as women they are no longer “treated like a donkey,” literally carrying the burdens of the world as slaves. With Jesus, the beatings either stopped or decreased. To them, Jesus has made a big difference. By the way, Sudan is one of the only countries in the world where it’s still “legal” to have slaves; women and children are often stolen and sold.

Please pray for these women. They need to hear and see Christ in their lives. It is obvious that their faith is the only thing sustaining them right now, but even then it only brings so much comfort to their broken worlds and destroyed hopes.
**Please read the Massive Sudanese Demonstration/Protest blog entry!!

Massive Sudanese Demonstration/Protest!

**Let me preface this by stating that I’m speaking from what I know or have heard and do not claim that all of this is perfectly factual. There, I’ve covered my butt, I hope. J

On 29 September a group of about 20 Sudanese gathered at the UNHCR reception area (a small grassy field area) holding placards reading such things as “No to voluntary repatriation in Sudan,” “We want resettlement,” and “No to local integration in Egypt.” Since then, the demonstration has been growing (around 1,500 people on 9 October) and growing. Thankfully no violence has occurred, and to my knowledge no one has been arrested (yet).

The American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program conducts weekly seminars to discuss refugee issues around the world. Last night’s series was “Sudanese Refugee Sit-In at Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque”. A panel of four refugee speakers explained and discussed the protest and then opened the floor for questions.

Each Sudanese tribe has a community leader (or several) who speak on behalf of the tribe. Community leaders are recognized and respected by the UNHCR. Unfortunately, this demonstration is not led by these community leaders. No one is sure who is leading the demonstration, and that has and will inevitably cause even more problems. Based on Sudanese culture, the fact that someone(s) decided to start this protest without going through the community leaders shows great disrespect and disloyalty to the tribe and its leaders. The community leaders want the demonstration to stop (and are meeting tomorrow morning to discuss what can be done), but those at the sit-in refuse to listen and some have even said, “I’d rather die here than leave.”

So who are the people following? They are following someone(s) with bad intentions, or bad logic, or both. Even though we all want human rights for the Sudanese, the UNHCR does not have the power to do what the organizers are demanding. The UNHCR can only guarantee political protection. They cannot guarantee criminal protection or economic protection, etc. Therefore, the organizers are not so well-informed about what they are going against and it will most likely come back to bite them in the butt.

The more I learn about the situation, the more I see that this is not a UNHCR-is-to-blame deal. Globally, fewer and fewer dollars are being used for refugee issues, especially in light of other disasters such as the tsunami and hurricanes. In addition, immigration laws have nothing to do with the UNHCR. If the USA says no to Sudanese immigration, there is little to nothing the UNHCR can do about it. Contrary to rumors, the UNHCR is NOT forcing anyone to do anything, whether it’s to stay in Egypt or resettle back home in Sudan. And, of course, with the peace agreement in Sudan there is an even greater reduction in resettlement funding. If anything, donors want money to help with repatriation (which, at this point, is completely voluntary).

I’m hoping there will be a good outcome from this protest, but thus far it doesn’t look good. Why? First of all, the Sudanese population already has a negative reputation in Egypt; not because they ‘behave incorrectly’ per se, but because they are ‘different’ and come here looking for jobs in a country already dealing with a huge employment rate. (Think of American’s skewed view of Mexicans in America; this is similar but more extreme.) Even though the sit-in has been peaceful to this point, it will inevitably only make the Sudanese look like troublemakers. The protestors are gathered in a small square outside a famous mosque, and beginning next Wednesday evening thousands of Egyptian Muslims will demand the ground for prayer time (rightfully so). Next Wednesday marks the Eid El Fitr, the end of Ramadan. It’s a four-day celebration including huge feasts and a lot of community and prayer time. People from all over Cairo use the Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque for this occasion and unless the Sudanese find a solution before then and leave, there will likely be big problems.

One thing getting me fired up is that the demonstrators are starting to get the most vulnerable people involved—the children. An “Urgent and Important Statement” has been circulating through the Sudanese population. Dick had the message translated into English and it’s basically asking the parents of the students in the “irregular” school (including St. Andrews) “to join the spirit of solidarity and persistence in joining the sit-in at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office”. It states, “We do not reject education but education should be institutionalized to ensure a future for our children and not a temporary irregular education so that your rights and the rights of your children in education and in an honorable bright future is not lost. We call on you to withdraw your children from the irregular schools and we call on the students to join their peers in the Garden of the Miserable, the citadel of persistence. Do you lose your rights and the rights of your children with your own hands.” Signed, “The Voice of the Sudanese Refugees in Cairo.” Thankfully, we have not noticed a decrease in our attendance at St. Andrew’s and pray we won’t. As frustrated as they are, taking the children away from these “irregular” schools will not solve the problem, since we exist to help them!

This is serious. Based on what I heard at the forum last night and through conversations with Sudanese, it almost seems like children are being put in the front line on purpose. That way, if the situation turns violent, the international media will finally get involved. One thought is that if a few adults die, oh well, but if children die it will cause an international out roar and finally something will be done to help the Sudanese. I pray this is not the true intentions.
In some cases it almost seems as though some Sudanese don’t want real help. There were a great number of powerful and generous Westerners at the meeting last night, and when many of them asked what they could do to help, no answer was given. Thing is, if the lives of the refugees gets better here, they are concerned they will be forced to stay in Egypt because life here would then be ‘just fine’. Sadly, some do not want to cooperate (even though they seem like they do) because they want the world to see their miserable situation and help.

The four refugee speakers (and others?) met with the UNHCR yesterday morning. According to these speakers, the UNHCR would not meet any of their requests and did not take the meeting seriously, as though it was a meeting between a father and a child. They believe the UNHCR came up with unrealistic ideas, such as establishing a group to go to southern Sudan to see what the situation is really like there. The refugee’s response was, “We don’t need to go to south Sudan; just go to Sakakini and you’ll know!” (Sakakini is another church school where many new refugees go to enroll their children in school.) But, as I’ll soon mention, people may very well be lying about their situation.

I know this all sounds incredibly harsh, but I’m presenting the situation as I know it. Of course, working with the Sudanese leaves me with great compassion for their situation and a great desire to help them. What’s so sad about this current sit-in situation is the Sudanese who are participating are so uniformed and desperate that they have lost their jobs and their flats in order to protest. They have been told demonstrating will help them. Misleading rumors are being spread; rumors saying those who participate will receive UNHCR money, or better yet, a ticket out of Egypt. Thing is, so many Sudanese fled to Egypt believing this is only a temporary place of residence until they get a ticket to a first world country. In the past there was much truth to that, but since the peace treaty was signed, there has been little to no resettlement and the Sudanese are left feeling helpless and hopeless.

Unfortunately, there are some Sudanese who are coming to Egypt for economic or medical reasons and truly aren’t feeling as refugees. Of course, in order to get refugee status (and thus some protection) they lie about their reasons for being here. The UNHCR and other organizations have caught on to this and thus are much stricter about who is accepted by the UNHCR. It’s very sad, because there are many legitimate refugees who REALLY need help!

Below is the Statement presented by the Sudanese
1. We, the Sudanese refugees in Cairo, fear that UNHCR or the Egyptian government will impose compulsory involuntary repatriation to the South because we read in UNHCR’s newsletters about repatriation how things have improved there. We have contrary information and are afraid to return.
2. Because of racial discrimination and no protection from it, lack of the right to work, to health and education, we can see no possibilities of our integrating into the Egyptian society, even temporarily.
3. We believe that UNHCR is making unfair distinctions between Sudanese refugees according to their ethnic/geographical origins in Sudan.
4. We ask UNHCR to intervene on behalf of those refugees who have been arbitrarily detained by police and to seek their release immediately.
5. We believe that UNHCR is obliged to consider each refugee’s prospects for the future on an individual basis.
6. We fear the application of the Four Freedoms Act, signed between the Egyptian and Sudanese government, because we do not know how it will affect the refugees who do not have passports, but hold refugee status IDs. There is no guarantee that it will provide us access to work and education and may put us out of reach of UNHCR protection.
7. We fear the presence of Sudanese National Conference personnel in Egypt and ask UNHCR to ensure our protection from them.
8. We request UNHCR register Sudanese asylum seekers immediately on arrival because delays threaten their protection.
9. We call upon UNHCR to help us locate missing the Sudanese refugees that we have identified.
10. We implore UNHCR to reconsider their criteria for assisting vulnerable refugees, in particular elders, unaccompanied minors and women who are currently being denied financial support.
11. Because most files that are now closed were closed when procedures for RSD at UNHCR were faulty, in the interests of fairness, we request UNHCR to reconsider the files of those Sudanese refugees which have been closed.
12. Realizing that Sudanese refugees are faced daily with discrimination and violence and a denial of their human rights, we urge UNHCR to pursue resettlement for as many of the most vulnerable cases as possible.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

workshop for female teen students (menstruation esp.)

At St. Andrew’s today, during the teen program, I held a workshop event for all teenage females. Mary Anne, a retired nurse from Canada serving through the MCC, served as the main presenter while Mariam, one of my fabulous teachers, served as the translator. The goal of the workshop was to talk about health, hygiene, HIV/AIDS, menstruation, sexual reproduction, and the male and female anatomy. As a testament to how much this workshop is needed, we only got through health, hygiene, and menstruation today. (We are planning another session next week to finish.)
Of course, when you gather a bunch of teenage girls together to talk about “their period” it’s assumed you’ll be dealing with a lot of giggles and smart remarks. This was no exclusion, however, I soon realized that these young girls really did want to listen and learn. In the Mid East there is no sex education—it doesn’t jive with the culture or the Islamic religious standpoint. The only time St. Andrew’s has ever had an event like this was in 1999 when approx. 6 different church schools got together one Saturday morning to talk about these issues. Unfortunately, not many people showed up. Therefore, when I met Mary Anne and we started discussing the possibility of this workshop, we decided it must be held during school hours so the students will be able to attend. For most, it was the first time they’ve ever discussed these issues.
We started out by discussing the importance of washing our hands, having a balanced diet, and exercising. As important as these things are for our health, I know it is not so easy for my students. Many of them do not have enough money to have a balanced diet consisting of many fruits and vegetable and meat. In general, they don’t get much exercise, and other than walking around I don’t know what we’d expect them to do. We put up a bunch of posters, one of which described what you need to do to keep healthy. It showed cartoons of young kids eating well, getting adequate rest, and going to the dentist and doctor. When we asked the students how many of them had ever been to a doctor, I only saw three hands out of 35 girls shoot up.
Then we moved on to menstruation and spent a good hour and a half discussing the female anatomy and menstruation. Almost all of the girls in the room have experienced their menarche, but few knew much about what to do with it. After explaining the odds and ends of menstruation, I stood up to talk about my menarche and also to talk about PMS. I was hoping they would feel more comfortable sharing if we would share our stories. Mariam and Mary Anne also shared their stories.
One by one the girls started asking questions, such as, “Sometimes I have my period for two days and that’s it. Is that bad?” or “Sometimes I have a period twice in one month! What’s wrong with me?!” We talked about what’s normal and abnormal, mostly helping them understand that we will each have a different experience with menstruation and that’s okay. We constantly explained that it is not shameful or bad to have your period; it’s normal and a blessing. Most of these girls have never talked about menstruation with their family members, even their mom. They have been confused and frightened by it. One person explained that she wore a pad in the wrong direction (with the sticky side up) for a few months because she was too embarrassed to ask her mother about what was going on.
The most shocking question was, “Is it okay to sit next to a male when we have our period?” My immediate response would be to say, “Of course!” but Mariam quickly explained to me that in their culture (Sudanese) they cannot sit next to a man during menstruation. These cultural-based questions are very difficult to work around. We spent time letting the girls know that they can go on with their normal activities when they are menstruating—there is no need to miss school (as some of them thought, I think). I also found out that for Muslims, at the end of their menstruation when they shower they are to wash the right side of their body completely and then wash their left side. I’m not sure why—Mariam said it was part of the Sharia.
***Wednesday 26 Oct*** When I came to work this morning Mariam came into my office all excited. Apparently one of her students got her period for the first time yesterday--only hours after our workshop! The girl said she felt more comfortable talking with her mom about menstruation and even was quite joyful about her menarche when she approached Mariam this morning for a pad. (We told the girls yesterday that I would keep pads in my office if they need them--looks like they'll use the resource!) Ah, this is so good...SO GOOD!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Fraternity Day--Dialogue Forum

On Friday I spent the day volunteering my photography skills at an event coined “Fraternity Day” led by a group of men and women, Muslims and Christians, and Egyptians and
non-Egyptians who believe diversity is richness. Their ‘organization’ (though not an official organization yet, but they are looking for sponsors) is called “Dialogue Forum.” As their mission statement explains, they are united by the wish to establish a dialogue that aims at spreading the message of fraternity, love and unity through acts of charity and social initiatives. Fraternity day was designed as a day of fun for children during the month of Ramadan. It included games, theatre, film, Sudanese folklore and an Iftar.
The moment I arrived for the event I noticed Fraternity Day was a very well thought-out and organized event. Everyone had color-coordinated name tags! (Name tags, in general, don’t exist in Egypt—it would take way too much planning time to get name tags set up!) Each child was put into a group, and each group was led by a volunteer. Every group had to have these demographics represented: Muslim, Christian, Egyptian, Sudanese, rich, and poor. (Some of the children came from one of the richest schools, while others were orphans or from the Garbage Village.) For most of these kids, it was their first time hanging out with someone of a different economic status or nationality, or even religious background. The whole experience made me feel like I was at camp. The volunteers were so passionate about spreading the idea of love and diversity, and they were great with the kids. The spirit of compassion and understanding filled the air and I felt safe with this group of people. The children felt it too—I’ve never seen a group of 100 + kids cooperate with each other so well. It was such a blessing!
Everything about the event was in Arabic, so I had to get an interpreter whenever I wanted to know what was going on. Throughout the day I kept hearing a particular chanting going on during every down moment or when a certain group would start screaming it out. What was the chant? The kids were yelling “All of us together can do something BIG!” My heart almost stopped when I found out. Amazing. These kids were really learning and experiencing a great community. By the end of the day I could see how they were realizing that we are all people, and in that way we are united. We all play the same games and experience the same goals and dreams and emotions. It’s powerful.
Father Henri Boulad (of the Holy Family School in Faggala I believe) gave a short speech ½ way through the day and the kids just ate it up. He asked the children, “What is the best color? Is it black? Brown? White? Yellow? Red?” The kids weren’t sure what to say. Then he asked them if it would be good if we were all one color. Some of them yelled out, “Yes!” Father Boulad then explained that no, we are made differently for a reason, and that is wonderful. We all have the same God who made us differently for a reason. He used the analogy of a family, explaining how we are different from our grandparents, how our mom is different than our dad, and we are different from our siblings. But, we are still a family and it’s good to be different! The kids really understood this and started yelling “Yes, and all of us together can do something BIG!”
There was also a theme song for the day that the kids learned and sang at the day’s closing. I asked for a translation and even though my interpreter apologized on and on for not really being able to translate well due to metaphors, here’s what I got: One hand alone cannot clap, A bird with a broken wing cannot fly. Take heart, speak without fear. You can rule the whole world. (verse 1) We were children wearing Kastor (a cheap material) Hardly holding onto our dreams by the thread in the light, Our dream grows and grows with every leap over the hurdle, if you search for your dreams you fill find it. (verse 2) If you are determined and persevere you will be whatever you want to be. Inside you there is power that can build the whole universe. Your dream is your country wherever you are. Put your dream in your heart and hold onto it tightly.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Teaching Conversation class at Coptic Cathedral

Besides the Iftar, tonight was my first night of teaching at the Coptic Cathedral! In addition to my job at St. Andrew’s I’m teaching an Advanced Conversation course in English at the Coptic Cathedral once a week for 1 ½ hours. The class was wonderful! I have 10 students, all eager to learn more English in order to get a better job, speak to tourists, help their children’s English studies, or just to “improve their own lives.” I started the class with introductions; sharing info about family, jobs, favorite food, and last weekend’s activity. I also asked them to tell us where they would like to travel if they could go anywhere in the world. Answers included Yemen, Italy, France, and Australia. Only one man said the US—“because it’s a country of freedom and human rights”—but the most interesting answer was from a man named Hisham who said he wants to visit all of the monasteries in Egypt and spend time in reflection and prayer. By the way, all of my students are Christian, probably all Coptic Orthodox Christians.
From there we discussed their ideas of the pros and cons of Ramadan. Pros included time with God, people aren’t smoking, and the special food such as sweet fruit and nuts. The cons included more traffic jams, people are really only thinking about food and not Allah, and the lack of productivity. I asked them if they noticed people being “crabbier” than normal. No one knew the word crabby so I explained that it meant irritated, easily frustrated, acting mean, etc. This encouraged me to try out an American expression with the group, that being, “Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” Expressions are a funny thing, especially trying to explain them to a group who doesn’t see any logical reason for them! I almost laughed out loud as I saw their confused and questioning faces. Other expressions I taught them today were “Okey-Dokey” and “You betcha!” I need to remember to let them know these are NOT good phrases to use in business situations with Americans. I just realized I need to be careful with that!
I wanted the class to get to know each other by getting into pairs and discussing their answers to a variety of questions or instructions I asked of them (switching partners each time). One of the first instructions was to pick an item in the room and describe it to your partner until s/he could guess what it was. The class was really excited about this ‘game’ and quickly started yelling out “Arousti!” One thing I love about teaching is it teaches you to be flexible, because we ended up spending 20 minutes or so playing this game Arousti! One person leaves the room while the class choose a person or object in the room to describe. The man returns to the classroom and either asks questions about the “thing” or we tell him details about it. If he doesn’t know, he says “Arousti!” and we give him more information or he asks another question until he knows enough to guess. They class absolutely loved this game and we had a blast doing it. One of their ‘objects’ was Pope Shenouda III, described as a “very wise and friendly man”. Cute!


I had a GREAT day today experiencing an Iftar and my first day of teaching! First, the Iftar. Essam invited Marion, Anne-Katherine (the two French teachers), Andrea, Jay, Jason, and me to the Iftar held on a side street near RCG. Side note: During Ramadan many wealthy families will block off a part of a street with a mega canopy of blankets and set up tables full of food for anyone who is around and wants to eat. You just show up, sit down, and feast together. Anyhow, we arrived literally 3 minutes before Iftar to 7 long tables full of men waiting to eat the scrumptious meal sitting before them. There must have been around 100 men.
The first thing I noticed was that we were the only women there. Immediately I thought, “Essam, why did you bring us here! We are not wanted here and we are totally disrespecting the culture!” The man who hosted the Iftar came out to greet us and suddenly I noticed a whole row of men standing up from the table to make room for us. “Oh, no!” I thought. “We kicked these men out of their spots! And we are foreigners! And we are Christian! And we are WOMEN! Oh crap!” But, the Head Honcho kept encouraging us to “please sit” so finally we took our spots. I took a slight glance to my left and as far as I could see down the table eyes were on us. Glanced to the right—same thing. I was so embarrassed and decided to just look down. The place was silent. Everyone was eagerly waiting for the call to prayer and the time to eat. Thankfully we were only sitting for about 30 seconds when the call began and it was time to start. I noticed all the other tables of men dug right into the food, but the men sitting across from us waited. They were waiting for us, their guests, to begin. So we did.
The meal was INCREDIBLE. You start by eating a couple figs followed by gulps of water. Then you take your ish balidi (Egyptian bread) and fill it up with the salad mixture (cucumbers, tomatoes and onions) or dipping it into a lentil soup filled with fava beans and beef. You mix rice into the fava bean/lentil soup and take more sips of water. For desert we ate Egyptian-style rice pudding—rice with milk and sugar. It was a feeding frenzy—these men can eat FAST.
By this time I felt at ease. Once people were occupied with their food I felt comfortable enough to look around, and I noticed people did not appear to be upset that we were there. In fact, the boy sitting across from me insisted that I have his bread. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Egyptians are so incredibly hospitable—time and time again I’m being blessed by their generosity and care. I was trying to eat as fast as I could but in the end our group and three other men were the only people still eating. People literally ate and left—mostly because they needed to open their shops.
The Main Dude came out again and brought us tea. I’m not sure if we were offered tea because we were the only people still there or because we seemed to be the honored people this night. We ended up staying another 20 minutes talking with this man and some of the other male cooks. They let me look into the kitchen area and told us they start cooking every day at 2:00pm to prepare for the meal. This is when I learned women sit inside while the men sit outside. We were invited to come back again—“every day please come!”
The best discovery of the night was finding out that not all the people were Muslim. (Well, duh, we were there.) In fact, most of the men around our table were Christian. As I mentioned earlier, anyone can come, and that really means anyone. This really struck me. How beautiful it is to realize I just experienced a great religious feast with both Muslims and Christians sitting side by side getting along. I’ve decided that I will go back. When I go, I will come with an empty stomach and fast for the day. Until tonight, I didn’t feel the spiritual desire to fast all day every day, but after seeing this community, I want to share the entire experience with them.
Another Ramadan experience: When I was visiting Alexandria a few weeks ago to check out Jen and Jennifer’s new place and get some fresh air by the sea, I had an “encounter” with Ramadan. Jennifer, Jay, and I were on the tram around 5:30—Iftar time. As the tram was cruising by I was suddenly whacked in the head. I had seen it coming just seconds before—a boy outside was throwing bags of food into the tram for us to eat the moment the Iftar began. Within a couple minutes the tram stopped three station stops away from our destination and everyone scrambled off. “Oh, this must be the end of the course for this tram,” I thought. Not exactly. The city literally shut down for Iftar. As we walked off the tram there were groups of people (who had just been riding) sitting in circles eating. Okay, we’ll walk! It was the quietest walk I’ve experienced in Egypt thus far. No one was around and only a few cars/taxis passed us. It was almost eerie how fast it changed!

UNHCR, time, and discrimination

19 October 2005
For the past two days I have been handing out over Le 24,000 to the parents of our students who are recognized by the UN. The UNHCR gives each recognized student Le 250 per year to be used in whatever way the parents see fit to keep their children successful in school—whether that be metro passes, more clothes, a book bag, and food. It was such a blessing to be a part of this aspect of the ministry. This money may be little in American standards, but it goes a long way for these families. Almost none of the parents knew English, so Henry worked with me to interpret. Last week I sent a letter home with the students (written in English and Arabic, although the students probably had to read it to their parents anyhow) asking parents to come to St. Andrew’s with their blue cards and sign a paper to document their acceptance of money.
I’d say at least ¼ to 1/3 of the parents are completely illiterate; when we asked them to sign their name they wanted an ink pad to make a fingerprint mark—they didn’t know how to write their own name in any language! We didn’t have an ink pad, so they would scribble or make a zigzag mark or something of the like. It was clear some of them were embarrassed and all I wanted to do is say, “It’s okay! Really, it’s okay!” Although not completely shocking, I had never seen this before and it reminded me of the pure reality of the situation literally unfolding across the table from where I sat. Beyond that, many parents don’t know how old their children are. If they did, it usually took a while for them to think about it, and even then they would state the birth year instead of the age. Some just said, “He was born in the village. There was no hospital. I do not know the birthday or year.” Oh, side note—cool cultural tidbit. Many Africans make a clicking noise to signify, “Yes.” Pretty neat.
Some students came into the office without their parents because they have no parents. This was the hardest thing to witness. Some of these young boys and girls do not even know if their family is alive. Thankfully family is extremely important to the Sudanese and it would “be a curse” (as Henry put it) for an extended family member not to help a person in need.
Time. The concept of time is so different here. There is Western time and there is Egyptian time. If we are going by Western time and a meeting starts at 2:00 pm you are late if you arrive at 2:00 pm. By Egyptian standards you are still “on time” if you arrive around 2:15 or 2:30. Furthermore, if you are on Sudanese time you are “on time” if you arrive around 2:45 or even later. Time has become a joke around St. Andrew’s. When I hold meetings we say, “We’ll meet at 1:00 pm Western time” and you can bet the staff will be there well before 1:00 pm to make sure they are not late. It’s funny. J Understanding the concept of time helps me understand when children and teens are late to class. Coming from Africa, they are not used to the rigidity of our system, even as we try drilling it into their heads daily. I constantly tell myself, “Think like an Egyptian” or “Think like an African” and I know how to better handle situations.
Discrimination. As a white, middle class American from the Midwest, it’s an odd feeling to experience discrimination, but it certainly happens to me here. First and foremost, I’m a woman in a Muslim country. Secondly, I’m a tourist and therefore get treated either poorly or “greatly” because I have money. Thirdly, I’m an American, which adds another level of power and force resulting in bitterness, resentfulness, and anger. Every day I have a not-so-pleasant experience on the street, anything from getting slightly grabbed by a man and being followed to being harassed by people yelling at me in their small vocabulary of broken English. What’s really interesting is walking around the city with my refugee staff members. The Sudanese are discriminated for different reasons. Without going into all the details I can best compare it to the way Americans discriminate Mexicans living in America. So, here I am walking the street as a young, American woman with an older, Sudanese man. I can see that people aren’t quite sure how to treat this situation. Do we charge extra to this American and be friendly, or do we ignore them because we don’t want to associate with the Sudanese? Very odd. (Don’t get me wrong, not all Egyptians react this way!)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Helipolis Community Church and Carrefour

Sunday night Teri and I decided to check out a new church—Heliopolis Community Church (HCC) in Helipolis. We took the tram during the Iftar when the streets were dead and only a few other passengers were heading home. It was obvious the conductor also wanted to get home and eat because we were cruising so fast that we nearly fell off the seats or out the window! Teri actually had to move to her own seat because we were going Boing! Boing! Boing! so much we were tipping over and falling into each other. We looked like the buoys in lakes after a speed boat passes by and they are thrashed all around while desperately holding onto their foundation. We ended up getting totally lost in Heliopolis but thanks to the traveling cell phone we called up a church member and friend, Nancy Collins, and she graciously picked us up and brought us to church.
Being at HCC was wonderful! People actually sang to the Lord! I even knew some of the hymns, such as The Church’s One Foundation. The congregation was a mixture of Egyptians and Westerns who totally welcomed us into their community. During the service they even had us stand up and introduce ourselves and then they prayed for us. Actually, prayed three times during the service, only after the congregation discussed issues to pray about such as specific marriages, health-related issues, Sudanese issues, and individuals members. The current topic is The Purpose Driven Life book and the sermon was based on “Part 3” of the series—including sermon outline notes and fill in the blank sections! Being there made me think of St. Luke’s and realizing how much I miss my home church community. It’s a beautiful and powerful thing to belong to a group of people who worship the same Lord and love one another. That’s a no-brainer of course, but Sunday night I recognized the void in my life without that community and really missed it.You know you are a Westerner when you look forward to a trip to Carrefour! For the past three weeks we have been looking forward to this day when we’d go to the huge supermarket/Walmart-type store called Carrefour. The day finally arrived yesterday and it was not a disappointment! Nancy Collins picked us up at RCG and drove us to the desert edge in order to dip our feet into this truly western/Egyptian experience. Of course, we traveled during Iftar so the streets were nearly empty—when a bustling/hustling/noisy city of 22 million nearly shuts down for ½ hour it’s surreal to say the least. Carrefour is HUGE, esp. in Egyptian standards—like a Super Target size. Immediately the long, big aisles, bright overhead lighting, and incredible cleanliness and organization stopped us in our tracks. I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore! It was a heyday in there! I found zip lock baggies (whoo-hoo!) and frozen peas (funny what you find extraordinarily appealing when you are out of the country) and a box of 12 bars of Galaxy chocolate. The special item was a container of fresh apricot juice—so good! We also found a blow drier to work in Egyptian sockets. Although Carrefour did not have chocolate chips, Doritos, or Wheaties, I almost felt like I could have been home. Then again, it only takes a moment of walking down an aisle stacked with grape leaves in a jar or seeing cow carcasses being stripped in the deli section for you to remember you’re in Egypt. Also, the sweets/bakery section is very different than America. I can’t really describe Egyptian desserts other than to say they are really dry and make you wish for homemade chocolate chip cookies or a moist yellow cake with chocolate frosting! Or DQ…or…okay, I’m going to drive myself crazy.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Dinca Tribe and experiencing Iftar at Egyptian home

A great cultural day today! First, I went to a worship service at St. Andrews led by the Dinca tribe of Sudan. I didn’t understand a word of the Dinca language, but I gathered the service is quite similar to a traditional evangelical service—with song, prayer, gospel lesson, message, etc. Lynn (Dick’s wife) gave the sermon and it was translated into Dinca. Apparently it was a really small congregation today, mostly due to the fact that many of the refugees are currently demonstrating in front of the UNHCR as they have been for the past 11 days. There are so many refugees camping out that the UNHCR officially closed its doors for now (to protect the refugees??) and who knows when it’s going to open. We at St. Andrew’s do not support this demonstration—unfortunately it’s not going to get the refugees anywhere but in jail. We’re not in America here. I saw the protesting, actually, last week when I went to the UNHCR office. Hundreds of refugees smashed on a fenced patch of grass with homemade painted cloth signs on every inch of fence around the area. Most of the ‘posters’ are in Arabic, but the few in English stated something along the lines of “No to repatriation, no to staying in Egypt, yes to resettlement!” Tensions are rising for the refugee population and it’s not looking good.
This evening Jay, Jason, Teri, and I experienced a real Iftar with Dick and Lynn’s taxi driver’s (Saabri) family. We traveled to a community in Cairo completely void of foreigners (just like where I’m living) and ducked into a side alley full of Ramadan decorations and fireworks to steps leading to 4 floors of flats owned by the same extended family. This is very common—families owning flats together and many generations and extended family members under one roof. The floor was stayed on was occupied by Saabri, his wife and baby son Omer, and Saabri’s mother and father. The floor above us was Saabri’s uncle and their family, and above that, well, I’m not sure, but it was family. The bathroom was on the fourth floor and shared by the entire family. (That would be a bummer for me, as I use one in the middle of the night!) No toilet paper, no flushing system. You have to pour water into the toilet to wash the urine/feces down. Also, the bathroom floor was sopping wet due to everyone cleaning off their hands, feet, and face before praying to Allah.
When we first walked into Saabri’s house and took off our shoes we immediately noticed the lack of material things in the flat, other than a few dressers, beds, kitchenware, a TV and a few paintings on the wall. The flat was very small—a small living room, two bedrooms, and a kitchen. We were ushered into one of the bedrooms with a floor table set to the brim with heaving amounts of food ready to be eaten as soon as the cannon went off marking the setting of the sun. The hospitality was amazing. We, the guests, were given great fluffy pillows to sit on during the meal while the family sat directly on the ground. Even though they had been fasting from food and water all day, they wouldn’t start eating until we took our first bite. The food was incredible—and there was A LOT of it! As I said before, about 80% of the meat eaten in Egypt is during the Ramadan month and I don’t doubt it now. We had fried chicken, breaded chicken, lamb, and macaroni with beef. In addition to that was a green bean/tomato dish, hummus, cucumber/tomato salad, spinach dressing dip, potato chips, and ish balidi (the Egyptian bread). We used the ish balidi as our plate at first and then you stuff the bread with whatever you choose—meats, veggies, hummus, etc. We sat with Saabri and his father while the women prepared the food and sat outside. I’m not sure if it was the lack of space in the room or if they just weren’t “allowed” in the room, but they didn’t join us until after we finished eating and started drinking tea.
It was such a blessing to be respected by this Muslim family who knew our Christian faith and still showed us such love and hospitality (as the world should be, but rarely fully expected). The men, especially Saabri, where the only two who knew English, but it’s incredible how much communication comes from gestures and facial expressions. We bonded over Omer, who is the cutest baby boy with huge dark eyes and curly eyelashes. I loved watching the family dynamics. Even though the men are the head of the household it became clear that the grandma was very much “the neck that moves the head.” The love and respect shown between the two couples was inspiring to say the least—it was clear that ‘arranged’ marriages work. I asked Saabri where and when he met his wife, and he said, “In the family--we have a very big family. I saw her and asked her father if I could marry her and that was it.” Another Egyptian thing—it’s very common for people to marry within the family—2nd cousins, even first cousins often get married.
The grandma really seemed to take to me—she kept calling my name, looking at me, and speaking in Arabic to the men about me. The men constantly said to me, “Yes, you look Egyptian, and Sarah is an Egyptian name! Look at your skin—it’s dark too.” Aisha, Saabri’s niece (12 years old), was totally smitten by us and hung around the whole night smiling and giggling. She wore a veil for most of the evening and when she finally took it off I reached out for her hair and braided it. Although most Muslim women are veiled in public, the veil comes off in the home. That’s when I really notice their beauty! Saadri’s wife is gorgeous! Initially I had not realized she wasn’t wearing a veil until it was time for her to leave for her father’s home and she put the veil on before heading outside.
One more thing--I complimented Aisha on her huge plastic heart ring (a very girly junior high-style ring) and she soon offered it to me. Oops! Another Egyptian cultural thing—if you say you like something people will normally give it to you and you should accept it. Thankfully this time I managed to explain to her I just wanted to get a closer look at it and see that there was a little turtle in it—cuteJ

Thursday, October 13, 2005

--Ramadan: First background info then Egyptian style

Ramadan falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar—the month when the Qur’an was revealed to Mohamed through the Angel Gabriel.
The new month begins when the new moon can be sighted (different days in different countries). There’s an observatory in the Moqattam hills to view the moon. In general, Ramadan is about 11 days earlier each year.
Ramadan is celebrated by fasting from sunrise to sunset. This tradition was started by Mohamed with the purpose to be more focused on God. The signal that the daily fast is over is the shooting off of a canon. The biggest canon is in Cairo at the Citadel (named Hagga Fatma).
During the Fatimid (Shiite) period (early 900s?) the laterns (fanous) became an important part of the celebration. They were used as part of the procession going to view the moon to start the month and also to announce the beginning and ending of each day’s fast. The fast began when the lantern was extinguished. In the 1400’s the governor of Cairo ordered everybody to put a lantern in front of their house for the entire month.
From sunrise until sunset—no food, drink (including smoking or swallowing own saliva), or sex (including thoughts—so women wear no makeup)
A child usually starts to fast around the age of seven. The child starts gradually—usually a few hours a day. The next year it may be a half day. By the age of twelve the child will be expected to do a full fast.
Pregnant woman, nursing women, and the sickly are excused. Those in temporary sickness are expected to make up the time later.
The fast is broken at sunset by the Iftar. Mohamed broke his fast with a few dates soaked in milk. Then he prayed before having a main meal. Another (lighter) meal was eaten shortly before dawn.
In Egypt it’s party time. Estimates are that 75% to 90% of the meat eaten in Egypt is during Ramadan. Most people gain a lot of weight this month. The iftar begins with a sweet juice such as Amareddin (apricot) followed by soup, meat dishes, rice, and salad. A lot of sweets are eaten during the evening. Over a million sheep are butchered each day in Cairo. 1/3 of the meet goes to the buyer, and he gives 1/3 to his family and the other 1/3 to the poor. Streets will literally shut down as trucks come in and unload tables and chairs as the wealthy cater in tons of food.
Before dawn another meal is eaten. In the villages (and city sections on the edge of the desert) a “messaharati” comes around beating on a drum to wake everyone up to eat before dawn. The before dawn meal is called “sohour”. It’s a more balanced meal of fuul or lentils, bread (perhaps with molasses for something sweet), salad (tomatoes and cucumbers), and yoghurt.
At the end of Ramadan is a feast- Eid el Fitr. Mohamed celebrated this by putting on his best clothes, giving charity to the poor, and going to the mosque to lead the prayer. The feast lasts for three days. Children receive new clothes and presents. The family picnics in the park.
Ramadan in Egypt (and what I’ve noticed)
· The workday is shortened (although not at St. Andrews). People go into work later, end earlier, and often fall asleep working. Despite what Egyptians might say, there is much less productivity this month.
· Traffic is normally awful all the time as people, especially between 3:30 and 5:30 while people go home to break the fast. Right after sunset there is no traffic except maniacs who use the time to speed race on the empty streets. The worst accidents often occur during this lull in traffic.
· People are cranky almost the whole month. No joke! I’ve seen so many more arguments and fights this month it’s pathetic!
· Spit is everywhere! Everyone is spitting all the time, even I do it now.
· During any free moment you see many people pulling out their Qur’an and mumbling the prayers to themselves. Sometimes one person will yell out the prayers and others around will repeat. Happens all the time on the Metro and tram.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

interviews, hiring, teaching

In only 5 days of working at St. Andrew’s I’ve experienced so much it is nearly unbelievable. Today, for instance, I interviewed and hired a man who will teach our teen math and science class. Before I went into the interview Dick asked me if I wanted him there, but I felt prepared for it and it went so well! Like I said before, we almost always hire experienced and/or professional refugees as our teachers. They need the jobs, they understand the children, and they care so much about the ministry. I had a list of questions for the prospective teacher and walked him through our policies, procedures and duties. Now he’s on a 3-month probationary period and I will observe and evaluate his performance to determine if he will be permanently hired for the rest of the year.
I also taught a class today! One of our teachers called in sick, and without the great sub system we have in the US, we have to improvise. Henry, my assistant, stepped in before I even arrived at work, and then I let him go and jumped right in! Today the students were studying Parts of Speech—nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. It was such a blast to teach this group of kids. I can’t pronounce more than two of their names (and forget them as soon as they are said because they are so different) but they welcomed me into the class. I found myself improvising well and making the lesson engaging and funny. Maybe teaching is a good idea for my future…
Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on student interviews for the adult program. In the conference room sits Ahmed (the translator) and an interviewer. We bring in prospective students and ask them questions. We ask for identification (a green card is especially helpful) and discover what they want to learn, how much education they have had thus far in life, how they arrived in Egypt (and if they have gone home since arriving) and a bit regarding “when did your troubles begin?” I listened to one applicant after another tell stories about the mistreatment and abuse in Sudan, their current struggles, and their desire to get an education here so they can move on in life.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

RE: St. Andrew's mission and brief Sudan history lesson

***Before reading this, please read my previous post about my first few days at St. Andrews.

St. Andrew’s United Church as been working with refugees since the late 1970s. The program has grown over the years to meet the needs of the refugees and evolved from a small English program taught by a number of church volunteers to a comprehensive program of services for refugees. The school aims to provide refugees with classes to improve their skills so that upon resettlement or repatriation their opportunities for successful integration will be improved. Students study English, math, science, art, computer and sport using a culturally diverse curriculum taught in English. Approximately 85% of refugees served by St. Andrew’s Ministry are from Sudan, with the remaining 15% from other countries in the Horn of Africa. The mission of the ministry is to serve refugees who have fled their country due to war or disaster, who have well-founded fear of return due to persecution or loss of rights, or who are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR.
A bit of Sudanese history: Sudan has been continuously plagued by violence since it gained independence from Britain in 1956; most recently due to the civil war between a southern province inhabited by African, Christian Sudanese and a Northern area run by Arab, Muslim Sudanese, that began in 1983. At the beginning of 2003 violence erupted in the Western province of Darfur where two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attacked military installations. Now the number of displaced civilians continues to increase and most of them are without shelter or live in over-crowded refugee camps around Darfur’s major cities. Janjaweed (Nomatic Arab tribes) reportedly kill men and rape and abduct women seeking water and wood. Darfuris are increasingly dependent on food aid, although most aid organizations are unable to reach Darfur and its surrounding areas. The government is beyond corrupt and adds to problems.
However, in January of this year a peace treaty was singed between Sudan’s first vice president Ali Osman Taha and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA) leader John Garang. The core of the agreement is the SPLA’s right to six years of self-rule in southern Sudan and to half the revenue from Sudan’s oil wells and other resources. However, John Garang was killed in a helicopter accident on July 30th, making the continuation of peace much more difficult. I’ll research more about how well this “peace” is coming along, but from where I stand today, it’s not working.
It’s a VERY DIFFICULT time for refugees right now. Last year the UN helped approx. 41,000 people relocate, which is great! Now, the program as essentially ceased to exist due to the peace treaty. The world is now putting money into the ‘peace keeping’ instead of resettling refugees around the world. Money donors now say, “Well, there is peace, so this money should be used to send refugees home.” Of course, the UN and other donors have good intentions, but the reality is different. Since there is “peace” in Sudan, the UN assumes people who are still coming to Egypt from Sudan are here for economic or medical reasons, not for fleeing violence. Yet there is no real peace in Sudan.
The refugees feel so frustrated and hopeless; because the resettlement program is basically over, they can’t go forwards, yet they can’t go back home. Even though live in Egypt is very poor, they rather deal with life in this country that doesn’t want them here than go home to war and greater famine. St. Andrew’s has an even greater roll to play now. Even when the children don’t understand everything that’s going on in Sudan, the parents are fully aware of how stuck they are right now. For some children, life in Egypt isn’t so bad—for instance, at St. Andrew’s they have education and friends. But, many parents are generally miserable. With this new feeling of hopelessness, tensions are rising and it’s affecting the children. St. Andrews is now, just as ever, committed to keeping the grounds peaceful and hopeful. For so many kids (and adults!), St. Andrew’s is “it”—their social life, their school, their playground, their sanctuary from the outside world. As Dick explained to our staff, these children are the future. They will either continue the war or stop it. Please pray that the Sudanese are filled with hope and joy, and that these emotions stir more motivation for peace in the future.

Work Begins--MUCH info about Refugee Ministry!

4 October
Yesterday was my first day ‘on the job’ at St. Andrews, so I am officially Sarah M Sevcik, Director of Children’s Ministries! I have a lot to learn about what this position entails, but to keep it simple, I’m basically a principal at a school at St. Andrew’s United Church established for refugees who want/need to learn skills in English, science, math, computers, etc. The program is funded primarily by donations from incredible donors (like you!) and the UN. I work with kids 6 years old through “Teen 4” (high school aged) for a total of 150-180 kids. There is also an adult program in the evenings with about 300 enrolled students. Although it’s only been two days I can tell you this program is wonderful! Already I see how incredibly faithful God is for this ministry to exist. I’ll do my best to explain a bit about the program, and at a later date I’ll write more about Sudanese history and Sudanese people so you have a better idea of their situation. Frankly, I still have a LOT to learn about their situation and can’t justify speaking on their behalf. Oh, and although most of our students are Sudanese, we also serve refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Congo. Almost all of our staff members are refugees as well.
I can say this however; one very important concept in African culture is the idea of tribal membership. Tribal clans are thicker than skin—generally more important than family ties—a concept Westerners don’t fully understand. This means a variety of things for our ministry. First of all, when a tribal member asks a favor of you (another tribal member), you must do everything you can to fulfill it. You can never say no to someone who asks for your help. Therefore, we’ll have teachers bring in their tribal member friends and ask that they be accepted into the program. Of course, they know the answer will be no (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment) but they must try.
Tribes take care of one another and are extremely loyal. Dick explained that the Egyptian government goes through Cairo neighborhoods to do a “sweep”—basically they arrest any African person in the area, no questions asked. Sometimes it is our students or teachers who are captured and put into jail. Treatment in jail sounds horrible—they are not fed food or water, so their friends need to pay baksheesh (tips) to the guards in order to get into the jail and bring food to their friends. St. Andrew’s helps out by paying for the release of the captured refugees and giving some extra cash to the friends who are helping out. You may wonder why the government is doing a sweep in the first place. Well, there are many levels to this issue. First of all, there is a HUGE unemployment rate in Egypt (the poverty rate alone is over 30%) for both the uneducated and educated, which of course affects every level of societal living you can think of (a whole other topic I won’t get into right now). So, here come refugees who are also without jobs and extremely poor, which, of course, threatens Egyptians. Refugees will do almost anything for work. They are lucky if they can get any job at all, and usually that means house cleaning or vending. Some go digging for scrap pieces of metal and sell it for a ‘profit’ of $5-$50 pounds, on a good day.
As I just mentioned, you may wonder why we can’t just accept more people into the program; I find myself frustrated with this as well. The short answer is that we don’t have the resources—space, people, and money. The waiting list to get into our program continues to grow, and politics are only making it worse. Until recently, refugees were protected pretty well under the UN and were placed in countries like Canada, the US, Europe, or Australia. Since 9-11, however, our world has been so governed by fear and it is negatively affecting most every refugee program. The US has such strict security that the arrival of refugees has essentially ceased. On top of that, “peace” has been declared in Sudan which means the UN now focuses on how to get the refugees back home. Humbug. There is no peace, and the declaration of peace is only making it worse. In only two day of working at St. Andrew’s it’s already clear to me that despite how horrible the Sudanese have it in Egypt, most of them have no desire to ever return to Sudan, even if their family is still there!
What are the first two days of work for a new CEP (Children Education Program) Director? Walking into work yesterday I really didn’t know what to expect, and what I found was certainly a surprise. First of all, on my first day I spent the morning getting to know more about Sudanese issues, meeting some teachers and staff, and getting to know the compound. By the afternoon, however, I was in a whole other ballgame. A few teens had gotten into a fight after school (one girl has been calling the other girl a “saucepan”) that ended up causing a big scene with a half dozen Egyptian men coming into the compound and getting involved. Henry, my incredible assistant (who is also a Sudanese refugee), brought two of the young women to my office for discipline. YIKES! Day One and I’m already put into the “bad guy” position. Thankfully Henry took care of most of the talking, and between Henry, Dick, and me we decided to get the student’s parents involved.
I typed out a letter for the girls to bring home asking for their parents to come to school today and discuss the issue. This in itself was a big task for me. What on earth do I write? I wouldn’t know what would be acceptable to write in America, nonetheless the first day in on the job in Egypt dealing with the Sudanese and Somali! How do I address the parents? What is respectable in their culture? What would be culturally inappropriate or insensitive? How much detail should I write? Do I write a letter in Memo format? Ah! Well, I eventually wrote something that was satisfactory, printed it out and had another staff member translate it into Arabic. Then the letter was signed by me. That’s right, as the Director, I have the responsibility, and oh boy is it strange.
Today when we were supposed to meet with the parents, one girl didn’t show and the other brought her brother in place of parents. The student, her brother, Henry, Dick and I gathered into the conference room to discuss the problem. Thankfully Dick and Henry took care of most of the talking again. I learned so much in that hour. It was very clear that the girl felt horrible about the situation and she had shamed herself and her family. It also became clear that in the long run, this incident would be helpful for her. Among other things, Dick and Henry explained to her that we do not tolerate any kind of violence at St. Andrews. We realize that she has grown up understanding that fighting is a way to ‘solve problems,’ but it doesn’t work, as demonstrated by her country. We told her she’s a great student, we want her to learn so she can make something even greater of herself, and we challenged her to be a role model for the other students as well as her country. We don’t solve problems with violence, but through peace.
It is so odd to be in a position of so much leadership when I feel so completely unqualified. I realize this program doesn’t need me and survives just fine without me (thank goodness!) but still, it’s odd. Every other job I’ve had I started from the bottom, or I was taking a position I had worked up to and knew I was capable of my job description. This time I’m being welcomed into an already thriving system and being looked to as a leader. I am certainly feeling very blessed and humbled at this, and I hope I can do some justice. As I walked around the compound today visiting some classes the teachers would stop what they were doing, get the kids to quiet down, and very respectfully honor and welcome me. Wow.
As I stopped by the music class today the teacher asked the children to sing a few songs for me. I recall hearing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But it was the song “The More We Get Together” that struck me the most. “The more we get together, together, together…the happier we’ll be! Cause your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends…the more we get together the happier we’ll be!” There I was, surrounded by refugee children coming from all parts of Sudan and other nations and realizing the irony of this situation—back home, these children could easily be enemies, but here we are teaching them about peace and forgiveness and hope. Insha’allah! (God Willing)

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Arabic class and my diploma!

Today marks the conclusion of Arabic class!! I can’t believe the day has arrived. Not counting personal study time, we have spent 88 hours wracking our brains, sounding out Arabic symbols, listening to this foreign “it’s Greek to me” language, getting frustrated, trying again, learning how to conjugate nouns and verbs, realizing every other noun and verb tends to be irregular, thinking about present perfect vs. future vs. future continuous vs. past vs. present simple vs. present subjective, trying to remember what indefinite adjectives, definite articles, and pronominal suffixes are and when and how to use them. Whew. Yesterday we had our final exam lasting three hours—one hour with each teacher. It was intense, but, hey, it was great because we knew what was coming after class—a celebration at Chili’s on the Nile! After being drilled we gorged ourselves with big, greasy, fatty cheeseburgers, French fries, and devilish brownie and ice cream desserts. It was heaven on earth.
Today in class we received our Arabic diplomas (yes, a really nice certificate!) and our grades. I passed at the 73 percentile. The last time I did that poorly…well, let’s not get into that. The point is that I passed! Ibrahim, one of the teachers, told me that at the beginning of our course he was afraid I wouldn’t be good, but in the end he’s been very happy with me and I did well. I nearly laughed out loud—in my mind I did horribly! In fact, another teacher, Ashraf, told me I’m a troublemaker. That really makes me want to laugh. Mom and Dad, I’m “that kid”! You know, the one who holds the class back and tends to mess up and just laughs all class period and can be distracting and tends to go off in his own world for awhile. Yes, that one. Despite all this, I can honestly say I am so thankful for the experience. I learned so much about humility this month. I have such a different perspective of teaching and what it means to be a student. I know this experience is invaluable in so many ways---when I teach in the future I’ll know what it’s like to feel dumb, to become so overwhelmed and frustrated you don’t even want to open the book to study, to desire more encouragement and support from the teacher while also not wanting her/him to expect too much out of you so you won’t be a greater disappointment!
Despite the struggles, I really enjoyed Arabic class. I loved the teachers and my classmates. As we studied we would imitate our teachers for comic relief. For instance, Ibrahim often says (after one of us butchers the language), “What?! What language is zis? No, no, zis is not the way! Zis is the way!” We also laugh at each other and ourselves and it became such a bonding experience. One of our favorite stories involves Jennifer, who was trying to sound out a sentence in class. It’s ridiculous how long this can take, because the Arabic language does not use symbols for short vowels (only for long vowels) so unless you are fully aware of the word you are trying to say it’s nearly impossible to know if you want to say “ah” or “oo” or “eh” in between consonants, if at all. Not to mention that some of the long vowels can also serve as consonants. On top of all that, the Arabic language stresses different syllables, requires you to use different parts of your throat to speak the three different “h” sounds (for instance), and you must roll your “r’s.” Anyhow, Jennifer was sounding out the word for “taxi” which in Arabic is “taxi.” Yes! These are the words we love, of course, because we already know them! So, here’s Jennifer: “T…ta….ta….taaaa…si…ta-si…taaa-seee…taaaaaasi….TAXI!” Light bulb on. Okay, maybe you have to be there, but trust me it’s funny.
And know what’s so amazing? We really have learned a lot. Even though I’ve been behind since Day One and never caught up, I still learned. This evening we took 20-minute taxi drive home. Stephen and the taxi driver spoke in Arabic the entire time, and I understood about 90% of what was being said! I could even add to the conversation. Not only was I very excited, it really motives me to want to learn more!
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