Monday, August 29, 2011

Letters from Egypt: One Canadian’s Short-Lived Egyptian Experience

As teachers and other newbies begin piling into Cairo, I was told a story of one unfortunate Canadian teacher that I thought I should share just in case anyone NEW is reading this.

I know that not everyone moving to Cairo is a teacher, but for the most part, a great deal of newcomers are. And for some of you this is your first job out of university and/or first posting overseas. It’s unfortunate that the international schools do not provide new teachers a better reference guide or even valid contacts to give you the good, bad and the ugly of what to expect. I’ve seen some of these lists as to provide suggestions on what to bring. From some other teachers I know, apparently any tool that you use in the classroom that you feel pertinent, you should bring it. You are responsible for supplying your classroom – even getting the materials to do your bulletin board. And for a newcomer, we don’t have Hobby Lobby and getting valid materials can prove a difficult task if you don’t have help.

You’re going to get off the plane and be amazed at what you see – I mean, you thought donkeys running alongside cars was really like Yankees thinking that all Southerners still lack indoor plumbing – just a joke right? Wrong.

You get to your apartment and you say to yourself, “Hmmm, well, I thought it was going to look worse. This is totally doable.” Then you realize anything and everything falls apart with YOU, the tenant, expected to fix it – NOT the landlord and/or school (different schools have different policies).

However, probably the biggest warning I can give is to prepare yourself to see poverty like you’ve never seen. You do get desensitized after a bit, but for those North Americans out there (including Canadians), here’s a word of caution that I strongly urge you to exercise:

You will be bombarded by children coming up to you, trying to take whatever you have out of your hands, begging for money, etc. And sometimes these little ones are cute and full of personality. Alternately, you’ll see the women in black hijabs and abayas with lifeless babies in tow. Do NOT give money. If you want, give food, but let me explain where this money goes:

First of all, as I’ve mentioned in one of my beginning blog entries, many of these women drug their babies to look lifeless so that you give them more pity and likewise, more money. Ever see Slumdog Millionaire when the little children get acid poured into their eyes – why? Because a blind street singer makes more money than one who can see.

Second, the children are usually a part of these gangs that are either run by adults or older teens who have worked their way up the ranks. You give money to the cute, little kids and then the older person just takes it away for their own use. It never stays with the children. Don’t be fooled.

Now, onto the story of one Canadian’s short-lived Egyptian experience. This guy lands and not used to seeing such poverty, began giving LE 5 to every child he saw. Hey, I get it, it is really depressing at first and I’m even ashamed to admit that I’m so immune to it now. This school teacher went to pick up a few groceries at Seoudi market one day and all the children that he’d been so helpful to jumped him and took everything. And that’s the Egypt that he will only know since he immediately left.

I have to be honest, if you move here and don’t do your research then expect something to happen. Even if you do research your new digs, expect something to happen (although on a lesser scale). If you move here forgetting that it is a third world country, don’t be shocked to see the poverty (in addition, a little thing called a revolution took place which has increased the poverty levels and anyone coming from an educated background could have anticipated that).

I know that you want to see the good in everyone and think that you’re really making a difference, but if you REALLY want to make a difference, I strongly suggest that you purchase books. However, be mindful that these street children are most likely illiterate, so try to educate in other ways. The sad thing is once you give someone something, they are mostly unappreciative and instead of just saying thanks – they actually ask for more. A friend of mine gave his bowab (doorman) all his old clothes that he no longer wore. The bowab took the items and then came back the next day and said, “I need a pair of shoes too.” I guess that saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers” completely bypassed Egypt.

It’s going to take you awhile to get used to the culture and remember, you aren’t moving here to change a country. However, you can pick one thing that you would like to do and stick to it. My thing was to teach the kids around my office how to treat the stray dogs in the area. I also began getting books for a special little girl that I love with all my heart. I wish I would’ve thought of it sooner, but I suppose better late than never. If you do decide to opt for books remember to stay away from religion and politics. Also, remember what reading level an eight-year old is in your country and understand that eight-year olds here are less likely to be on the same reading level.  I can’t read Arabic so I had a friend help find an appropriate book that would at least allow me to gauge the girl’s reading level.

You’re a guest and as a guest, appreciate what Egypt has to offer. Yes, it will offer a great deal of frustrations, but it will also offer so many stories and experiences that you’ll be telling the grandkids one day.

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