Monday, February 20, 2012

Letters from Egypt: My Trip to Cairo’s Public Schools

On the rare occasion, I get an assignment that allows me to witness contributions that are being directly allocated to those in need. Yesterday was one of those days.

I visited four public schools near the Khan el-Khalili to document an international company’s work and commitment to social responsibility. While I will withhold the names of schools and the company, I was somewhat alarmed at what I saw but in some ways not surprised. I suppose I should backtrack. First, these schools were chosen after the company had conducted a study and likewise wanted four schools near one another. The Ministry of Education approved the company’s contribution, but “suggested” which schools should receive the help.

I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the recipient schools are part of al-Azhar system where all students are Muslim with the bulk of the curriculum consisting of religious doctrine. It’s definitely not surprising since the Salafist party (al-Nour as documented in How Illiterate Egypt Votes) gained control of the Ministry of Education after forming a coalition with other parties. Most of the books I saw in the classrooms were all a part of the Qaran, or actually various copies of the Qaran itself. The only educational tools regarding reading, writing and arithmetic were mostly provided by USAID.

Each presentation began with select children reciting a passage or two (or three, four , etc.) from the religious book and songs. An Egyptian industry colleague said to me that he was a product of Egypt’s public school system and these schools scared him with their hard-lined rhetoric. He said, “When I went to school, it wasn’t like this.” Interestingly, he is my age (29) and from Port Said – where it is even more conservative than larger cities like Alexandria and Cairo.

Singing for visitors
 School supplies were being handed out to the less-fortunate children (those that are unable to afford the yearly school fee of LE 45, or $7.50, and orphans) as well as school fees paid for those students that met certain criteria. At one school, the so-called headmaster pulled the company executives in a room and discussed how it was to be a mosque, but he needed monetary contributions to make it. The point: he didn’t ask for more help for the children to give them a better education, he went straight for the mosque. He said how the contributions helped, but the mosque was in need of being built. This reminds me of that story in the New York Times that documented young Pakistanis attempting to clean the streets only to have men at the mosque tell them they should instead be cleaning the mosque (please read my blog, Small Changes).

And despite the sometimes scary banter that ensued from recitation or just the yelling from the headmaster and staff at these children, it was a great experience. I’ve never been to one of these schools before. The last school I visited was near Dead City, an area that is composed of tombs and mausoleums where people reside among those buried. Some residents of Dead City began as tomb keepers, others moved from poorer areas within Egypt unable to afford housing elsewhere. One headmaster told the story of how a man living in Dead City approached him to allow his children to attend the school. Although Egypt has mandated that every child be afforded an education and children are supposed to be able to attend schools in their area, proper documentation of residence is required. For those living in Dead City, this is impossible. Even after several requests to the Ministry of Education, many are still unable to be admitted into school. And if a child is admitted, the LE 45 ($7.50) per child annual school fee is difficult to acquire.

It broke my heart to see some of these kids, especially the orphans. The future of Egypt will directly impact them, maybe more so than others. And in my opinion education should be the first priority. When the industry colleague asked me my thoughts on this, I simply said I was only a guest in this country. I asked him, “If you disagree with this, why don’t you and others like you try to change it?” He said, “We’re a small percentage.” I reminded him that small percentage helped jump-start the revolution.


  1. i was guessing before that public egyptian schools are poor... but not to this extreme ....they dont have even desks??? they r just sitting on those benches???
    i have a question - how i can find some poor kid and pay for his books???

    1. Sadly, it didn't even occur to me about the desks. What I would suggest is first seeing if you have children in your neighborhood that appear to be in need, ie your bowab's children. This particular company went through the Ministry of Education, and unfortunately, most so-called charities that you may want to give to under the ruse of them supplying literature and stationary will actually not allocate the materials. Hence why I suggest finding your favorite car parker or bowab and helping their children. Make sure that the children know that it isn't a "hand-out" so create a particular learning game or some other activity that gives them the sense of earning these items.

      I'm assuming you speak Arabic based on your sign name, but I could be wrong. If you are really up for the task, take a visit to Dead City and inquire if you can help a family there (it might be a bit overwhelming as I'm assuming that there are many families in that area in desperate need). And as I've documented in other blogs, instead of giving money and presents like candy, try to always give books encouraging children to learn more.

      I believe education is key and hope that you're able to find a way to implement it. Even just helping one child is a difference. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. sure i dont wanna give the money to the fund or something... exactly what i wanna do is to find someone in need... coz once i've contacted some charity organization and asked them to come to my place and pick up some clothes for poor women - they never came))) yes am speaking arabic but am living in hurghada...
    also i just loved your tip about giving out books... but i guess that u have to be very careful with that coz here we r having lots of professional beggars who will just throw it...

    1. I can’t read or write Arabic, so I had a friend’s mother come with me to the bookstore to help find a book for my 14-year old office girl. I didn’t know what level of reading she was on so I started off with picking a book that had nothing to do with religion, politics and would be interesting for her. It was a book of short stories. I don’t think you have to stick with educational books entirely, just helping to increase the reading level adds so much. And with each book for the same child, increase the reading level. I would suggest for like 8-10 year olds these mystery books or books about children in other parts of the world. It may give the reader the incentive to research the place (ie I remember reading a story in school about a boy in Cambodia and I researched so much about Cambodia as a result). If you can just get the child interested in reading, that’s the first step. It builds vocabulary, critical thinking, research skills and numerous other assets that are important.

      Charities here are completely disorganized. And the foreign NGOs working alongside are often times faced with so many hurdles and bureaucratic red tape that it is almost impossible for them to be functioning. Of course, you also have the problem with corruption (read my blogs on ESMA: and ) or the lack of transparency as many organizations document the majority of their donations as going toward “administration” costs which means to the supposed volunteer pockets/staff.

      As I’ve said numerous times, I’m only a guest here. I’m not here to change the country, but if there is a way I can help I’m glad to do it. This is my way. Honestly, I wish I would’ve given Shamaa (the 14-year old) books all along, but I didn’t think of it until about six months ago. There are some little boys around my office that I would like to personally take to a book store to let them pick out their own books which might mean a little more to them. In the US we do book drives. Another idea would be if schools set up a book club which also gave a little more urge for children to read the books alongside their peers and be able to discuss what they liked, didn’t like, etc.

      I go to Hurghada regularly to visit friends. While it’s completely different from Cairo, there are definitely children that I’m sure would love this. Do you know any teachers there that maybe you could discuss further options? Lastly, I would like to introduce you to a close friend of mine who is living in Hurghada. She keeps a blog as well:

      Thanks again and keep me posted on your attempts. Don’t get discouraged. If only one child out of 100 actually reads the books that you provide – well, that’s one more than before. Good luck.

  3. yes exactly we r just only guests here - even if we want we cant help the country)))
    I know your friend! well not personally but i am subscribed to her updates :)))
    U know on facebook we have a group of HRG mums (am not a mum but am a member) so there r lots of egyptian women and i guess i will ask them surely they know someone who i can help :)

  4. Hi,

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    1. Hi Luigi, I'm so sorry. Work has taken me away and I completely forgot to fill out the questionaire. I will try to get back to it today, but unfortunately, I'm not a Gold member so I was unable to view the samples you'd sent.