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“Someone who was born in a poor family — doesn’t she have the right to receive good education and socially develop?” asks Sister Amira, the superior of the community and administrator of the school.

The school provides hot meals for about 150 students, which helps those who cannot always be assured of a balanced meal at home. A local Coptic businessman and a French charity help to provide the meals.

For those students who have difficulty paying, Sister Amira looks for donors to defray expenses.

“We have observed that poor educational attainment is directly proportional to malnutrition. So we choose those whom we know need support,” Sister Naglaa says.

As much as they treasure education, too many of the Zabbaleen are forced every day to confront the hard reality of life amid the refuse.

Difficult living conditions and poor health often force many children to drop out of school. Others may lose focus on their schooling because they are needed at home; they have to help their families collect and recycle garbage.

Martina’s class has only 23 girls. At primary school age, she had more than 70 classmates — enough to divide into two classes — but over time, one girl after another withdrew. Some transferred to government schools because their parents could not afford to pay even the reduced fees. In seventh grade, seven girls failed to pass, two more of whom were then transferred to a public school.

“When I meet these former students, they say, ‘We want to come back. People here insult and curse, teachers don’t explain,’ ” Martina says.

Mary adds: “When someone fails, the parents don’t see why they continue to send him to a school with fees.”

In the beginning, Martina’s parents were able to pay the school fees for their daughters. Due to worsening conditions, it became harder to make ends meet.

When Mina failed out of St. Joseph’s School — run by the Christian Brothers in the predominantly Christian quarter of Khoronfish — he had to transfer to a governmental school.

For a time, Martina’s parents considered pulling their girls from St. Vincent de Paul, but the religious sisters offered help. A French donor took care of Marina’s school fees, while an Egyptian woman covers the fees for Martina and Madonna.

During summer vacation, Martina works in a nearby clothing store, which pays her 700 Egyptian pounds a month — about $40. She uses the money to pay for the private courses she takes after school.

She used to travel by school bus; once her family could no longer afford the additional fee, she began taking public transportation.

After she returns from school, Martina naps for about an hour. Then she wakes up and begins her homework.

Youstina Mansour was 4 years old when she fell from the second floor of her house. She was seriously injured. Her mother, Aida Fekry, prayed to God for her recovery, vowing to give her a good education if she survived. When Youstina recovered, her mother fulfilled her promise. She sent her to St. Vincent de Paul School.

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