Charity’s Daughters

After 170 years in Egypt, a group of sisters continues a tradition of trust

text by Magdy Samaan with photographs by Roger Anis

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Patients crowd the long hall of the Saba Banat dispensary in Alexandria, waiting for their turn to see a doctor. “We’ve known about the Saba Banat since we were young,” says Muhammad Goda, a 41-year-old farmer. “This place has a good reputation.”

The farmer, wearing a jellabiya (a robe popular with men in North Africa) and a beard, waits with his wife Aliaa Ibrahim, who wears a niqab (a face-covering veil), for a checkup for their 2-year-old son, Omar.

“I took my son to doctors outside,” says Mrs. Ibrahim, but she found the quality of service poor. “Many people told me that the best place is Saba Banat.”

Despite the recent tensions in Egypt between Muslims and Christians, Alexandrians of all faiths value the high quality of service and care at Saba Banat, which is administered by the Daughters of Charity, a Catholic community of women founded by St. Vincent de Paul. The Daughters of Charity have served the people of Alexandria without consideration of religion or social background for more than 170 years, forging a tradition of trust while focusing their ministries in caring for the poorest of the poor.

Saba Banat serves some 500 to 600 people on a typical day, says Sister Simone Abdel Malek, the superior of the community and the manager of the dispensary. The price of a checkup is barely a tenth of what patients would pay elsewhere, made possible in part by the volunteer efforts of medical professionals.

“We feel at home here thanks to the sisters,” says Heba Habib, a rheumatologist and physiotherapist physician who offers her services pro bono.

“It’s very rewarding when you serve the poor,” Dr. Habib adds.

For the last ten years, Ehab Foad, an otolaryngologist, has committed three days a week to volunteer work at Saba Banat. The committed Orthodox Christian says the Catholic institution is a perfect place for his tithing of time.

“We do not serve a certain denomination or religion. We serve all the people come to us,” Dr. Foad says.

“To get the same service in private clinics, patients could pay up to LE 250,” he adds. “They pay only LE 20 [about $1.13] in the dispensary.”

Soad Khamis, a local mother, complains of heart problems. She had seen two doctors but without feeling better. Her neighbor Mervat Ismail recommended she visit the dispensary.

“Saba Banat is deep-rooted in Alexandria,” Mrs. Ismail said. “We come to the dispensary not because it’s cheap, but because we trust the place.”

Though well regarded, Saba Banat nevertheless exists in a setting sometimes touched by antagonisms. When this leads to conflict, Sister Simone and other ranking administrators try to use their unique position to defuse tense situations.

“We face sometimes scuffles, loud voices,” says Dr. Nagi Ghobrial, the technical director of the dispensary. “We try to contain it — otherwise there is no point of our service.”

In these and other ways, the Daughters of Charity fulfill a centuries-old mandate with strength, clarity and grace.

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