Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, November 24, 2005

a bit of this and that...

A wonderful woman reminded me that when we are doing crucial work for the Lord the devil is also working very hard to keep it from happening. Ah, yes, I agree. However, good always prevails and when you look around it’s easy to see how beautiful life really is! Today, being Thanksgiving, I thank God for the gift of sharing this experience with you and the blessing to be here in the first place.

Yesterday started like any other day. I woke up, got ready for work, had my bowl of bran cinnamon stars (the closest thing I can find to Wheaties…yeah, not really close ;-) with a banana, and headed out the door for work. Since I walk against busy traffic in one of the dirties parts of one of the most polluted cities in the world, the walk to the metro station always leaves me feeling dirty and coughing. I now wear sunglasses to shield my eyes and wrap a scarf around my mouth as a filter. It looks funny, but it’s worth it J
Being in one of the most populated cities in the world, the metro is always PACKED. Sometimes I have to wait for a couple of trains to go by before I even attempt to push my way onto the tram. When one finally attempts to get on the Metro she is shoved and pushed all over the place. People are trying to get off the tram just as desperately as you are trying to get on. If you ever just sit and watch this scene it’s really quite hilarious; thousands of people crammed so tightly that there is rarely a need to hold on because everyone just falls into each other when the tram starts and stops.
Yesterday was such an experience, with one main difference. When I got off the Metro at Nasser station for work I immediately noticed that my purse felt lighter than normal. “Oh, crap,” I thought. Yes, crap. My wallet and phone was stolen. Boo! Of course, I was upset, mostly at myself. Then I was upset to realize that it was one of my fellow female human beings who stole it (I was in the woman’s car). Ah, punk woman, why can’t we just stick together in this world?! Anyhow, I spent the morning trying to stop the phone line, figure out if I had anything incredibly valuable missing, and really hoping that I had my address somewhere in that wallet so that at least my IDs would be returned (no luck). Carole immediately typed out an “emergency contact” list that includes our address for each volunteer to put in our wallet and purse in case this would happen again.
So, word quickly spreads around work that I had things stolen, and I had so many people approach me with such support and empathy—it was so sweet! But what I really thought about was what was missing and how it’s really nothing. Sure, I’m out a decent amount of money, a phone, and my International Student ID card (which costs quite a bit to replace), and a few other things, but that is nothing. Being approached by people who go hungry daily and listen to them feel so bad for me was so humbling. Within minutes I was in a great mood again and chalked it up to experience.

The day turned out to be wonderful. First of all, we are now FINALLY connected to the internet! World Wide Web here we come! (Another project I’d really like to do is get an appropriate website created for St. Andrews…any ideas would be appreciated!) Up until now, Dick was the only person in the entire compound who had internet, and it was dial-up at that. Now, every computer is networked and we all have the internet! First of all, it makes my job much easier. Now I can connect with volunteers, send documents around the compound, and research materials for teachers. Whoo-hoo!
Ah, getting these computers connected to the world was such an Egyptian experience. In America, when we say we want something done by 3:00pm on Friday we mean 2:45pm on Friday. In Egypt, everything happens “bokra, insha-‘allah” –literally “Tomorrow, God willing.” This is the most common phrase in Egypt, and there is no doubt why. EVERYTHING takes longer than you want or expect it to, which means you learn to not expect anything to get done when you expect it to. J On top of that, every week I’ve been at St. Andrews my computer has crashed or the printer hasn’t worked or my documents have been lost or my A drive doesn’t work (it never has) or SOMETHING has happened to my computer. When will it get fixed? “Bokra, insha-‘allah.” Okay, so it’ll get fixed next week then, eh?
On the one hand it can be frustrating, especially for an American, to wait so long for anything. But, on the other hand, I’ve been learning how to be much more laid-back and less stressed than I ever have in a job. As time goes on, I keep realizing how silly our American “need to succeed” is—as a pastor at Maadi Community Church said, “We are not made to succeed, but to be significant.” Even though days can get lonely in Egypt, in other ways life is so much more meaningful because people concentrate on being “significant” to each other—living for sharing and community and spending time getting to know each other intimately. I’m convinced that many of America’s problems are directly related to the lack of intimacy, community; being a part of something bigger than the self. Look in the bible—Jesus expects us to live for each other and amongst each other—when we really love our neighbor as ourselves we have formed bonds that will pull us through the good and the bad—together.
There are some other great things going on at work. For one, The Arc is hopping! The Arc is an amazing ministry in the basement of the church. Here refugees find peace and renewed energy by expressing themselves through artwork. We supply art materials for the refugees, and when a piece of artwork is sold the refugee keeps 90% of the money and gives 10% to St. Andrew’s in order to buy more supplies. As you walk into this little, quiet church basement room in the middle of one of the most polluted and crowded cities of the world you find yourself mesmerized by the calmness and the serenity. In the back of the room you find a sewing machine and fabrics where students learn to sew clothes or make blankets, hats, and bags. Mostly, though, this area is a place for women to seek refuge. Suicide is a big problem amongst the refugee women who are cooped up all day without jobs, money, food, or purpose. Men have places they can go to smoke and talk together, but women do not. The Arc serves as a place where women can come for tea and coffee to socialize and share stories. In the front section of The Arc you find two rickety chairs placed behind two easels, usually with a man or two occupying the seat. Here you find expressions of anger, pain, love, and hope through paintings, pottery, and crafts. Women especially enjoy making photo albums and mirror décor. Yesterday artists spent the day tie-dying scarves to sell at bazaars coming up this month. I visited them and took a bunch of pictures. Refugees are traumatized, and being able to put their energy into art has been such a useful way to cope and keep hope.
Also, I held two teacher meetings this week and after 4 hours I came out with a HUGE list of ideas of what can be changed and improved around here. I’m so excited about this for many reasons. For one, I love having projects, so I’m personally pumped for the challenge. More than that, though, is that the teachers are getting their voices heard. Thing is, Africans are NOT used to sharing their ideas to anyone “above” them (in a hierarchy). They do as they are told, and they do not question authority. Ever since I arrived I’ve been trying to help them see that I really appreciate their feedback and teach them the importance of expressing their ideas and feelings. At the beginning of this week I finished meeting with each teacher individually to discuss my observations of their teaching methods and classes as well as encouraging them to let me know what we can do to help THEM.
Suddenly it’s like a small box just burst open with a big bang. Teachers are asking for specific things in the areas of teacher training, computer development, school dress code, placement testing, volunteers, textbook resources, discipline issues, etc. Slowly but surely we’ll address as much as possible. I’ve already been able to get a few textbooks for the classes and I’ve connected with an educational psychologist who is willing to provide free teacher training for the teachers. Next week we’ll put up new “Volunteers Needed” posters around the AUC and hope we get some responses. Other issues, such as student placement, are much more complicated and require a lot of time and thought. (See below for more details on the complexity of student placement in classes.)
It’s been cold here (yes, Egypt gets cold!) and we’ve been noticing that some students are still coming to school in summer clothes. A few of the children are sick with fevers and shivering. It’s becoming more and more obvious they do not have appropriate winter clothing and it breaks our hearts to know they don’t have the resources to buy warm clothing. Thankfully I’m working for an organization whose heart goes out to these children, and we were able to find some monetary resources to help pay for winter clothes. I spoke with one of our teachers about the issue and she agreed to go on a shopping spree for coats, sweaters, shoes, and socks this weekend. I’m filled with joy to know we can help these children with tangible things that make such a difference in their lives. For instance, this past week two little girls came to school very cold and sick so we brought them to the conference room and let them sleep most of the day using table cloths as covers. Today Dick decided we need to buy some blankets (yes!). So, we did. St. Andrews now owns two thick blankets to use whenever kids come to school cold and sick.
The hard part is trying to figure out how to give them things they need. With the youngest kids this is no problem—if we offer them a sweater they will take it. But the older children are very embarrassed about their situation and it becomes a sensitive issue. In fact, here’s a specific story for you. One of Mariam’s students never eats his “breakfast.” (We buy a fuul, taamia, or potato sandwich every day for each student—for some this is their only ‘meal’ of the day.) However, he keeps the sandwich all day and takes it home. Mariam figured out that he keeps it to share with his brothers later in the day. This poor boy is sharing his one small sandwich! It’s incredible.
Of course, these stories make our hearts break, and they also directly relate to how I handle my job here. One thing I’m constantly considering and changing is my expectations for the staff and students. When I first arrived many things surprised me, such as the number of students who show up late every day, the lack of discipline in the classroom, the craziness and noise of the flower class (Kindergarten/1st graders) and the number of teachers who have never been trained, to name only a few. In American standards, this school is not up to par. As time goes on, however, I’m becoming more and more amazed by my staff and students and see how incredible this Learning Center really is. The staff and children have all been traumatized in ways you and I could never imagine. They are dealing with issues outside of school we might never personally deal with in our lives—malnutrition, abuse, harsh weather conditions, famine, war, etc. Some have never been to a school so the concept of sitting quietly and studying at night is so foreign to them. When a student comes without his homework done, the reasons can range from no one in the home knowing English well enough to help to having to spend the night in a one-room flat with 20 other refugees and no light to work. Thinking of this, I’d say two key parts of my job description is to listen and be flexible.
Due to these circumstances, I’m realizing this school is not just for your classical educational purposes or to get students prepared for resettlement to a Western country. It serves as a place to teach children morals and values, encourage and empower them to make something of themselves, and to be a place of refuge and peace. The most important rule at St. Andrews is the complete intolerance of violence. Other refugee schools allow the staff to beat children as a disciplinary tool, but not here. The children have seen abuse their entire lives and it’s obvious. When students get in trouble in class and are sent to Henry or me they are so scared they shake or recoil at any touch or quick movement. Their bodies are so conditioned to beating it immediately responds in any type of trouble, even when they know we will not hurt them.
As I said, some children have never been to school in their life. They were born and raised in the bush of Sudan. Others come from upper-class families (by the standard of their home country that is) and attended good private schools before they became refugees and fled for their own safety. Some students speak English very well; others never heard English before coming here. Some advanced students are 9 years old while some 15 year olds are beginners. It’s my job to figure out a way to place these students in an appropriate class level, and I’m discovering it’s a very daunting task! In the past, students have been placed based more on their age level rather than current knowledge or ability, which has led to wide ranges of levels in each classroom. This directly affects discipline issues as well, because those students who are far behind get discouraged and then become a distraction. I’m trying to figure out a way to combine knowledge/ability with age to more appropriately place students next year.
Still, there are blessings within this crazy system. For one, all of us are learning about the culture and customs of people from around the world. Every day I interact with Muslims, Christians, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Egyptians, Dinkas, Eritreans, Congolese, Americans, Burmanese, Burkina Faseans, Canadians, Italians, Somalians, etc. There are some strong cultural, social, political, religious, and economic differences between us but at St. Andrew’s it’s like one family here—I sense a lot of respect and trust. I am so blessed to be included in this great ministry.


  • At 11/30/2005, Anonymous Audur Magndis said…

    I am a 23 yrs. old sociologist from Iceland. I will be living in Cairo from end of January 2006 till the beginning of June. I visited st. Andrews last October during my short visit to Cairo but there was noone present that day that could give me information about volunteer opportunities. Where can I get such information? I am very interested in the projects but would like to know more about them as well as my opportunies to become a volunteer. Your blog has also raised my interest! My email is


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker