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International | Cairo's poverty-stricken garbage villages are breeding grounds for Islamic extremism, but brave Christians offer hope to the poor

Issue: "The cost of war," Feb. 15, 2003

You see the garbage pickers on the main highway of Cairo that runs from the airport to the pyramids. They lumber through honking car traffic on donkey carts. Each driver sits high on massive sacks of the city's refuse. Often a young boy or two is seated at his feet, or, in predawn hours, curled asleep atop the trash.

Not until the past year did government leaders get serious about turning garbage collecting over to professionals, most likely a European multinational group. For generations Cairo's poor have served as the city's garbage collectors. Today 50,000 city dwellers do the work. Ninety percent of them are Christians.

They live in about five areas of the city specially designated for the trade, in houses-usually tin huts with bamboo roofs-called zaraayib (pigsties).

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By night men collect garbage and return to their homes, where women and children sort it by day. Courtyards overflow with the city's refuse. Cows, goats, and pigs are integral to the system. They feast on organic waste in doorways and street corners of garbage areas, then later show up at a nearby butcher. Plastic, metal, paper, and cardboard waste is culled by hand, recycled, or burned.

The business is an invention of necessity. Cairo's population, now roughly 16 million, has over the last 30 years trebled in size. Most of the city has never had proper waste management. At the same time, successive waves of migrants, mostly tenant farmers from Upper Egypt, find itinerant garbage collection suits them because they are adept at its earthy elements, at managing animals, and because they need work. Christians, in particular, find themselves relegated to menial labor in a country that is 90 percent Muslim.

The poverty of the Middle East, and particularly its largest cities like Cairo, is an overlooked ingredient feeding Islamic-led terrorism. Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammad Atta grew up in one of these Cairo slums, where Muslim extremists have learned to capitalize on Cairo's poverty. Imams pay villagers to learn portions of the Koran by memory, one Egyptian pound per verse, students told WORLD. "To be very poor is to have no decisions," says Emad Beshay of Stephen's Children, a group working in the garbage areas. "You can be easily led."

Garbage collectors are by no means getting ahead. They receive about two Egyptian pounds (25 cents) per month per customer. They are forced to live in the worst parts of town. Mukattam, the city's largest garbage-collection area, hugs the foot of a chalky cliff that is a historic area for persecuted Christians. Cave churches were carved out long ago here, and tombs have existed inside the mountain since before the birth of Christ.

In 1969 the government set aside land at the foot of the cliffs for garbage collection and sorting. One thousand tons of garbage enters Mukattam every day, about one-eighth of the city's output. Its roads are packed-mulch pavement wide enough for two packed camels only, as the old laws decreed. Open doorways reveal toddlers sorting empty soda bottles from a mound of trash. Goats graze in a courtyard of slushy muck beneath just-laundered undershirts. Worn-out donkeys idle at hitching posts.

As its population has grown to 20,000, Mukattam has become a byword to the rest of Cairo. Mosques complain about their proximity to its pigs. The city condemned a profitable large-scale composting operation because it could be seen from new high-rises. Developers complain about its stench. The government neglects services to the community, including education, medical care, and utilities.

All the downsides spell opportunity for faith-based charities. Churches and nonprofit organizations have set up micro-enterprise projects. These give unschooled children skills and employment other than garbage picking. They turn out shoes, rugs, handicrafts, and clothing, sometimes using recycled garbage materials. Coptic and Catholic churches, along with private organizations, are running the only kindergartens in Mukattam.

On a sunny morning in January, children arrived at one such school looking fresh-scrubbed and neatly dressed despite traipsing trashy streets to get there. The students, ages 3-5, sit in straight rows to learn the alphabet and numbers by recitation. For most of them, the greatest challenges are sitting in a chair (they have no furniture at home) and caring for a notebook when everything around them is disposable.

In one classroom, 30 4-year-olds are learning to recite Psalm 23. In another they sing ABCs in English. Each classroom is learning to say, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," in Arabic and English.

The school is the first to open in Mukattam under Stephen's Children, a Cairo nonprofit group with offices also in the United States and Canada. Stephen's Children has opened 30 kindergartens in poor areas of Cairo, with plans to open five per year.

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