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Egypt -- January 17-19, 2006

January 17-19, 2006

According to an Egyptian saying, a bag that has two handles must be carried by two people. In many ways, this is the essence of the Habitat for Humanity program in Egypt – strengthened at all levels by partnership, cooperation and a shared focus on Habitat’s mission to lift people out of poverty housing.

Read about Jonathan Reckford’s other trips in Africa

January 13-16, 2006 –South Africa
January 11-12, 2006 – Ghana

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Jonathan Reckford, Matthew Maury and others greet community partner representatives and village elders outside Minia.

Our flight from South Africa arrived in Cairo late in the evening. Despite the late hour, we were met at the airport by our gracious host, Yousry Elias Makar, national director for Habitat for Humanity-Egypt. I am glad to have had that time to get to know him before seeing the country, because Yousry’s road to Habitat is illustrative of the commitment of the entire staff and the program’s focus on those in dire need throughout the country, where 20 million people live in poverty housing.

Nearly 10 years ago, Yousry was doing very well as a civil engineer for a large firm in Cairo and serving as a member on the Habitat Egypt board. But one day he was confronted with two vastly different offers: become a partner in his civil engineering firm or join Habitat for Humanity as the national director. Before making a decision, he decided to learn more about the poverty housing issues in Egypt. He was astounded by what he discovered.

“I visited a 250 sq. ft. house, and when I began counting all of the people living there, I had to stop at 20. There were just too many” he said. “I also saw an 8 ft. by 10 ft room with sewage on the bottom floor that was home to 10 people. I realized then that even though construction was my profession, I didn’t know anything about the housing needs in Egypt.”

Yousry has been Habitat’s national director since 1997. And I am so grateful that he made that choice. Today, Habitat for Humanity in Egypt is active in 15 affiliates around the country, many clustered around the main cities of Cairo and Minia, and has completed more than 6,700 homes. It also has one of the highest loan repayment rates in Habitat, allowing one house out of every three houses to be paid for from the revolving fund – one of the best demonstrations I’ve seen anywhere in the world of how the revolving fund is working for sustainability and impact.

Early the next day, we set out from Cairo by train toward the city of Minia. Train travel is one of the best ways to see a country, and this three-hour trip was no exception. I took in all that I could as the train rolled through the bustling city of Cairo and out into the countryside, riding parallel to the Nile River that vertically divides Egypt. Outside the train, we passed a variety of transport options at use – from well-maintained cars and buses to felucca boats on the river and rickety wooden carts being pulled by tired donkeys. In many cases, the donkey itself was the transportation for men, women and even children who hurried the animals along with gentle and rhythmic kicks of their feet.

Though time did not allow me to visit Jordan and Lebanon on this trip, I was pleased that Dani Tayar and Philip Griffith, Habitat national directors for Lebanon and Jordan, respectively, joined us on our Egypt visit. We used this valuable time on the train for them to share the exciting Habitat programs under way in their countries, their successes and the challenges and opportunities they have before them. These valuable conversations gave me a more nuanced understanding of our overall ministry in the Middle East and reinforced the need for carefully tailored responses based on local cultures, policies and traditions. I look forward to seeing both programs progress and, one day, visiting both Lebanon and Jordan to help celebrate the completion of a milestone home.

Shousha affiliate, Cairo, brings “light” into homes

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Rose Warda and her family took out a Habitat loan to built a roof and concrete floor in her home and bring in electricity. “You brought light into our house,” she said.

Our first stop in Egypt was in the Shousha affiliate, outside Minia, which was established in 1998. Like all of Habitat’s operations in Egypt, the program is implemented and strengthened through strategic alliances with community-based organizations. When Habitat entered Shousha, the local organization Al-Etezaz was small with very little experience in community development and transformation. Through Habitat, Al-Etezaz grew and gained more capacity. And the success of the partnership fostered more development partnerships for Al-Etezaz, including grants from the U.S. Embassy and CARE. “We are a small NGO, but Habitat gave us a name and allowed us to realize that we are good partners,” one of its members told me.

But the most amazing and heartwarming success stories in Shousha are those of the homeowners who have benefited from these partnerships. Walking through the village, I had my first look at the dire needs in Egypt. Many houses had just one room to be shared by parents and children of both genders. Animals were sometimes kept inside where the children slept, to keep them out of the elements and secure from theft. Some roofs were made of dried palm reeds layered over the walls – clearly not enough to keep out the cold of the winter nights.

The Habitat program focuses on three levels of support: 1) building houses from scratch, 2) renovations, including adding roofs, doors or windows, and 3) adding rooms to existing structures – allowing separate rooms for boys and girls and spaces to keep the animals.

Since the Shousha affiliate was established, 700 families have received Habitat loans for one of these three levels of support. Rose Warda is the mother of one of those families. She and her husband and seven children received a Habitat loan to build a roof and a floor and to add electricity to their home. “You brought light into our house,” she said with a smile. And I knew that she meant more than the light brought from the bulb above her head. Abd Hamid, another Habitat homeowner, said that his family of seven had lived on a farm in a small mud brick house with a dirt floor. “We are not worthy of all the favors that have been bestowed on us,” he said of his Habitat home. “I wish you all that is good. Your reward will be from high, not from us.”

His expression of gratitude was both humbling and heartwarming. The truth, of course, is that he is more than worthy of a safe, decent home – as is every man, woman and child on earth. And the reward of Habitat for Humanity and our partners comes each time a family moves out of substandard housing and into their new home and on the path to a brighter future.

Families sacrifice, reach across faiths to help each other

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Children of a homeowner family greeting visitors.

Our next stop was to the Bany Mohammed affiliate, where I had the great honor of meeting the Mayor of this community of 8,000 people. A strong supporter of the Habitat program, the Mayor thanked us for our work in their community and urged us to continue our partnership “because there are still many more in need.” Since the affiliate started in 2003, 388 Habitat houses have been completed – including Habitat for Humanity Egypt’s 6,000th house, completed last May.

Following our meeting, our small Habitat contingent walked along the banks of the Nile through the dusty streets of Bany Mohammed with the Mayor’s team and many village elders, clad in the traditional full-length garments known as gallabiyya. We visited Habitat homes completed and under construction and saw the many more families still in need.

Often what draws people to Habitat is not necessarily the building of the house but the importance of the house in building a community. This was so clear to me that evening when I had the pleasure of meeting with partner representatives from Shousha, Bany Mohammed and all the surrounding affiliates I was not able to visit. Each representative provided a brief background on their local organization and the Habitat affiliate, the year it was established, the number of houses built, and, best of all, a brief story about how Habitat has changed the lives of families and transformed their communities. Each story was more heartwarming than the next. But all spoke of the positive effect the Habitat program has on the community as a whole – forging ties where none existed, building capacity for more development and empowering the people to continue working toward a better future.

Some of the most remarkable stories were those that brought Christians and Muslims together. In one case, a Christian family’s home was demolished to make room for the new Habitat home under construction. The family was to be homeless for three months. But the local Imam, also a Habitat homeowner, took them in. The Imam admitted that, initially, it was personally difficult for him. But the love he was shown by Habitat was so special he wanted to show that same love to others. What an amazing testimony of hands reaching across faiths to build communities!

We also heard stories of Habitat homeowners and others coming together to build homes for others. “The whole community was greatly impacted by this program,” one representative told us. “So much that the community collected from each other to build houses for the poorest of the poor who could not afford a home. We have now built nine such houses in our community.”

Beyond the houses, we also heard that the construction contributed to local economies. Plastering and construction jobs became available, and people opened shops to sell building materials and electrical supplies.

Yousry summed up the presentations with a simple but profound reminder. God gave us a huge blessing with these partners, he said. Without them, we could not meet these needs or see these miracles.

This is especially true of Habitat for Humanity Egypt’s national partner Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), which provides the legal umbrella for Habitat’s operation in the country and has been our guiding light since Habitat was established in 1989.

Reaching to the poorest of families—the zabbaleen

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A young boy in the street of the garbage collector community. Habitat homes are built on the second and third floors to allow families to live away from the odor and unsanitary conditions of their work.

CEOSS is a Christian civil nonprofit organization with roots in the Protestant Presbyterian Church. Founded in 1950, its mission is to promote the sanctity, equity and harmony of life by improving the quality of life in impoverished communities, empowering communities and individuals with sustainable development, promoting a culture of dialogue based on pluralistic democratic approaches and respect for human rights, and promoting religious and social enlightenment. The director general of this well-respected organization is our very own Nabil Samuel Abadir, who has served on Habitat for Humanity’s international board of directors for many years.

The growth, success and impact of Habitat for Humanity in Egypt is due in large part to our partnership with CEOSS. And this partnership has led to many exciting and innovative programs. The program that touched me the most, and which was the first collaboration for the two organizations more than 15 years ago, is the housing project for garbage collector families, also known as the zabbaleen.

I had heard about the project when I joined Habitat. But nothing could have prepared me for the visit to the zabbaleen neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo in an area called El Motomedea. Immediately upon stepping out of the car we were confronted with the pungent smell of everyday waste. It was like being placed in the middle of a dumpster full of the discarded pieces of daily life. But this garbage was not hidden in tied plastic bags, brought to the sidewalks in rubber containers and carried away in large compactor trucks, as we’re so used to in many parts of the world.

These families – including the children – go out on donkey carts each morning to collect the garbage from around the city and bring it back to the neighborhood, piled high outside their homes, where they sort through it for recyclables, which are in turn sold for cash. Wet garbage is fed to the animals – pigs and goats that roam the neighborhood. And piles of garbage line the streets and are stacked in the entry way to the houses.

The street where they live is, literally, a garbage dump, lining the streets and stacked in front of the houses, some of which were just crude structures from scraps salvaged from what they had collected. Children play near piles of trash, and pigs, chickens and goats root in the piles for the tastiest morsels.

It was hard to imagine anyone living here. But this is their home, and their livelihood. Without this work, they would not be able to survive. And the area includes schools, stores and places of worship – it is their community. So CEOSS and Habitat for Humanity worked with the local leaders to solve the dilemma. How can these families continue to be where they work but still have a healthy, safe place to raise their families? The solution was elegant in its simplicity –construct a second story home with a door that could be closed to the odors of the garbage below. The ground floor is kept for sorting and recycling.

Healthy houses ensure healthier families

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Romani, Susanne and Doria (daughter) on the balcony of their new Habitat home in the garbage collector community.

The program helped to raise the standard of living within the community, with healthy houses ensuring healthier families. It also helped with unemployment, providing construction jobs for those who were not making a living in the collection. But the CEOSS partners here also told me of another, less tangible benefit.

“The community needs this program for the cohesiveness it brings,” he said. “It has changed the village here.” So much, that even these families, who some might consider living on the brink of poverty, are pulling together to buy houses for people who cannot afford a loan.”

The full impact of this project did not hit me, however, until I crossed the threshold into the second-story Habitat home of Om Romani. Before, she lived with her husband and three children in a one-room shelter, just feet away from the piles of garbage they collected. As I walked up the stairs, the whiff of the piles still floated past my nose. But as soon as I stepped inside her house, the environment changed. The house was clean, beautifully painted and fresh – and there was no hint in the air that the house sat inside this busy garbage collector community.

The house made an incredible difference in her life, in her outlook and in the health and future of her children. It fills my heart to see families who were living, literally, in garbage to now live in an oasis above. And this transformation is taking place throughout the area, promoting dignity and respect and raising people up and out of poverty and despair. It is truly remarkable – thanks to this incredible partnership with CEOSS and the local community counsel that oversees and guides it.

We saw many wonderful examples of partnership, community empowerment and transformation during our visit to Egypt – too many to share, and all of which I will long remember and hold in my heart.

Through Habitat’s work with CEOSS and with the local organizations, communities are coming together for the common good, working side-by-side, across faiths and social strata, to build houses, relationships and futures.

Before I left, Yousry shared with me his goal of reaching 2 million Egyptians with simple, decent housing by the 2023. “Although 2 million seems a distant number to dream about,” he said, “Habitat for Humanity Egypt has a unique impact in the community, and unique challenges as well as unique strengths here in Egypt. This is, therefore, an ideal country for the program to succeed and defeat the sickness of poverty housing.”

I agree with Yousry, and I have faith that through his leadership and the Habitat partnership with CEOSS and other organizations that his dream can become a reality.