“If you’re truly poor, Sisters, you’re even more truly rich, for God is your all” (Saint Vincent de Paul).
Allah u akbar ! (God is the greatest!) This is the refrain that we hear all day long in Koussieh, a very poor village in Upper Egypt which has numerous Orthodox Christians and Coptic Catholics, whom we try to help with our various works and services.
Two years ago I was sent by superiors to this mission. To tell the truth, I was overjoyed at the idea of this new placement because I often heard from our elderly Sisters who had been there that one found the “truly poor” there. It had been a grace for them to be able to live in contact with these people and to serve with courage and creativity in the example of our Founders, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. My enthusiasm, however, was not enough to dampen the shock I had in discovering such misery here. I could never have imagined it could exist in this 21st century.
To meet many needs we have a clinic, two day care programs and a sewing workshop. These three services keep us busy each morning. In the afternoon we work with the youth, rich and poor, in education movements (Eucharistic Movement for Youth, Catechism, Vincentian Marian Youth, Legion of Mary.) and the “promotion, or visiting the poor” as we call it. We help Christian families to overcome the situations of extreme poverty in which they find themselves (meeting with women, child care, research projects with them, charity bazaar…). We are only four in the Community. Thus we have tried to share this massive work according to each one’s abilities.
For my part, I am in charge of the day care that is only for poor children. This year there are 90 children between the ages of 3 and 6, 30 Christians and 60 Muslims. We encourage the parents to get their children off the street to give them a chance to go to school like the rest of the world.
I never worked with such young children before, being more used to adolescents in Scouts and in my service to troubled girls in Jerusalem. It did not take me long to realize that the disastrous family situations of these street children. For the most part they slept on carpets on a dirt floor. Rarely is there running water. They arrive for day care without being washed, their faces swollen by attacks of flies during the night, dressed in whatever they have.
When they arrive at the daycare, a bowl of milk and bread and cheese await them (milk and cheese are essential for their health but because they are expensive, they are not a priority for the family.) Activities follow: language arts, Arab, English, singing, dancing, games of motor skills and hygiene. I try to create a family atmosphere where the children feel good, away from poverty and family problems.
To complete our work with the children, given the situation of the village and the poverty which dominates and keeps worsening, we end the school year with a 4 week camp for the poor Christian children from 4 to 12 years old. The goal of the Camp is to educate the children, provide them with vitamins and a balanced diet for a month and to get them out of their homes to be happy with others (games, crafts, dance, song, health). Catechetical formation and a meal for 200 children each day is a big job! It is accomplished in community with the help of young volunteers, whom we have trained throughout the year. I realized very quickly that the challenge of this project can only be met if the entire community is involved in one way or another; this is where it becomes alive and an authentic testimony to the world.
All the projects we try to accomplish here may seem foolish, they demand a lot of energy and a lot of money; but when one works for the good of those who are poor, Providence comes to help. What a joy to be able to share these moments with those who are truly poor. Blessed be God!
Sister Silouane, Daughter of Charity
Province of the Near East