Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, October 20, 2005

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!)


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