From Dust to Dignity

CNEWA-funded projects in Upper Egypt generate jobs, stimulate literacy

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Although in Egypt a government quota requires that 5 percent of all jobs must go to handicapped persons, life can be bleak for the disabled.

There are few wheelchairs, ramps are almost unheard of and there is no social welfare to assist children or adults with special needs. Those who cannot walk are often reduced to dragging themselves by their hands through dusty village streets or must be carried by others. Additionally, because mobility is so difficult, those who cannot walk are usually housebound. Unable to attend school, many are illiterate.

Recently, Egypt as a nation has been making accelerated efforts to improve social development and human rights, having signed many international agreements and implemented community reform programs. Nationally, the rate of adult literacy has improved in the last three decades and there are plans to decrease unemployment by increasing job training and developing basic services in rural and low-income areas. But while much progress has been made, life for Egypt’s poor, uneducated and disabled can be a continuing hardship.

“I was stuck in the house all day, sad and unable to walk – never thinking about the future,” said 26-year-old Sawy Abdullah Joda. He contracted polio as a child, catching the disease from a contaminated vaccine. For his first 25 years, he was a burden to his family, incapable of working in the fields, unable to get around unless he was carried. As Sawy entered manhood, he sank into depression.

Yet, his story is not uncommon in Egypt where training and care for persons with disabilities is scarce. But for Sawy and a small but significant group of others, their lives were transformed when they were accepted at a vocational training school in Minya, not far from Sawy’s village in Upper Egypt.

There Sawy is learning shoemaking. The school also offers courses in tailoring for male students and dressmaking for female students.

The Jesuit Center for the Handicapped is one of several projects in the region funded by CNEWA. The center is dedicated to youths who would otherwise have few opportunities for an independent life. Sawy has been at the center for six months and his life has dramatically turned around. He is already earning income from his new career and now, rather than frowning, he smiles easily.

The center, originally for boys, was founded in 1983. Since 1992, girls have also been admitted. There are now 40 students at the center and admission is equally divided by gender.

Students are bused from surrounding areas and they room at the center from Monday to Thursday. By having a three-day weekend in their villages, respect is paid to both Muslims, who pray on Fridays, and Christians, who worship on Sundays.

Minya’s population is about 20 percent Christian and 80 percent Muslim. Osama Iseq, the center’s director, said there are tensions between the two religious communities, fueled largely by Islamic fundamentalists.

“At first we had problems with bringing the students to the center,” he said. “There was one village we could not even get to because of anti-Christian feelings, but now there is no problem. Here Muslims and Christians get along. That students are eating, studying, living and working together is better than any discussion.

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Tags: Egypt CNEWA Education Disabilities Funding