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'When you love somebody, you live it'

"'When you love somebody, you live it'" Continued...

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

The government must grant a license to operate each school, a labyrinthine process that requires dealing with five separate government departments. Staff and teachers all are Christians-a contrast to government schools where most teachers are Muslim and use the Koran in Arabic classes. Here students learn to read from the Bible, celebrate Christmas, and absorb Christian values. The schools have sought business sponsors, which gives them public legitimacy, and are careful to avoid the appearance of evangelizing Muslims, which would get them into trouble with local Islamic leaders and the government.

Despite those restrictions, the opportunity is enormous. "When they go to government schools, they are exceptional students," says Mr. Beshay. "They are honest. They have values. They are good workers."

Stephen's Children began in another poor neighborhood of Cairo nearly 20 years ago with four workers. It now has 600. They work with 5,000 poor families, most living in garbage areas. Workers essentially adopt one child per family to meet with once a week. On his first visit to a Mukattam family, Mr. Beshay said he was served orange peel, obviously salvaged from garbage. He said it was important to eat it in order to foster the kind of consistent relationships that build regular school attendance, hygiene, medical care, and Christian discipleship. The organization pays for medical exams for each "adopted" child, student fees, and a once-a-year camp outside Cairo.

The woman behind this ministry is 5 feet 4 inches tall, a striking olive-skinned Egyptian with white hair sheared straight at the chin. Maggie Gobran, 53, began daily visits to garbage areas and other slums 20 years ago when her own children were small. Stephen's Children developed from her commitment to poor families and to witnessing the overwhelming needs in places like Mukattam. "A child is like the candle in the family," she told WORLD.

Mrs. Gobran's heritage is upper-crust Egyptian. Her father was a well-known physician in Upper Egypt from a Christian family. She received an elite education after the family moved to a well-to-do Cairo neighborhood. Married "in a very fashionable way" to a prominent Cairo businessman, as she describes it, Mrs. Gobran had no reason to visit the city's poor. But she did, stirred by the death of an aunt who had made a lifelong habit of serving the poor.

She took her own two small children to that first visit. "In the slums I found in the children that we visited the same look of my own children," she said. "I felt that was from God. It is not easy to go in the dirt and like it. But these I could easily hug and wash their faces."

She began visiting garbage pickers and other poor children every day while her children were in school. "I spent whole days among these families. Every meal, every hour, helping with homework, in a sense living with them," she said. Out of that grew a desire to see more laborers doing the same. "This is a different kind of work. It is not an orphanage; it is not a one-time thing where I show up sometimes and leave."

Her new devotion brought puzzlement from friends who remember her as the life of the party driving a Mercedes in affluent Cairo. She was branded eccentric. "Now she is a woman of great integrity who deliberately keeps out of the limelight in Egypt," Ramez Attalla, director of the Egyptian Bible Society and a lifelong friend, told WORLD. "You can disagree with her methodology but that does not mean you disparage her work."

Among the poor, her commitment earned her an affectionate nickname, "Mama Maggie," and a reputation as Cairo's Mother Teresa. Like the Sisters of Charity founder of Calcutta, Mama Maggie is a ready combination of both reserve and fierce affections; of otherworldly piety and earthy practicality-always arriving to work in a long white skirt, a simple white shirt, and a sandy-colored hooded jacket.

In her small voice she pounds teachers and co-workers with the necessity for daily devotions and memorizing whole chapters of Scripture. "There is no medicine for our spirit but God's word," she tells them. A moment later she turns to a preteen boy to examine a hand cut. He tells her it came from sorting tin cans. She calls for medicine and a bandage to tend it herself, saying, "When you love somebody, you live it."

Garbage areas-and garbage-area dwellers-are increasing in number even as they may be put out of business. This month city officials are completing contracts with Italian and Spanish conglomerates to begin garbage collection in some parts of Cairo. "Multinationals coming in is a crisis for garbage collectors," said Ezzat Gendy, a third-generation Mukattam garbage collector who sorts and recycles plastics for industrial uses. Mr. Gendy says the city will deprive him of a livelihood, however meager. The work of faith-based organizations, he said, will be more important than ever.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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