Weekend Explorations: Orphanages & Garbage City

Two weeks ago, in the embassy’s weekly newsletter, there was an ad seeking volunteers for two local orphanages. I contacted one to see what was needed, and after a few exchanges somehow managed to convince Ron to come with me on Saturday morning. Coincidentally another couple from our building was going, and we were able to go with them and their driver (the embassy offers a nice service of being able to “rent” a car/van and a driver for weekend excursions, for a fee of course).

Truly having no idea what to expect, we piled in the car, bringing juice boxes and chocolates with us, and rode out to Maadi to the coordinator’s house. She’s the wife of a high diplomat here and lives in this amazing oasis of a house in Maadi. I’d walked by it a million times, but never knew what existed behind the walls. She’d done an amazing job of landscaping her huge yard and it was tranquility in flora. She told us she’d been working with Mother Teresa’s Orphanage here in Garbage City as well as other locations, such as India, for several years. Her background is in acupuncture and acupressure and she actually treats the sisters at the orphanage who suffer from arthritis, among other pains.

We loaded back into our embassy van and followed her car out to Garbage City. I can’t really speak in depth about Garbage City, as I haven’t fully explored it yet, but it’s truly what it sounds like. It’s essentially a dump, that a whole class of people, called Zaballeen, live in. It’s located right next to (and at times seems to merge with) the City of the Dead. The Zaballeen have established themselves as the primary garbage collectors and recyclers of Cairo. Young boys pull carts throughout the city and dig through the city dumpsters and bring back as much as they can to recycle and re-sell. It’s a very family-oriented society; the children do not attend school; the young boys are responsible for retrieving the garbage; the women and girls are tasked with separating the garbage back at home. For obvious reasons, there’s a controversy over the Zaballeen on many levels. Social agencies don’t like that the children are kept out of schools, and the government (allegedly) doesn’t like the fact that it can be a rather lucrative business. It’s alleged that many Zaballeen actually have higher salaries recycling garbage than most government employees (the local police and traffic cops apparently make pittance, which leads directly into the whole baksheesh culture where the police – allegedly – demand bribes from all manner of people they come into contact with).

(Photo looking at one area of Garbage City)

Anyway, our forays into Garbage City have primary been this one time. We’ve driven by it and around it, but going to the orphanage was the first time we have driven directly into it. And I am very grateful we didn’t attempt it on our own. I never felt threatened, but it was definitely a new experience lumbering through narrow alleys (in our large SUV), with high buildings on all sides, doorways looking into seemingly abandoned rooms stacked high with folded cardboard, piles of plastic, mounds of paper, stacks of steel and metal leaning against walls, etc. Everything was coated in a thick heavy layer of black; it was like highly determined soot. Even the people were covered in it as they walked around. The streets were by far the narrowest we’ve seen, at times physically impassable and we had to wait for either people to walk by, trucks to move, or horses to be nudged aside.

Mother Teresa’s Orphanage is located to the left, right, left, left, right (essentially in the middle). They opened the tall gates for us and our cars pulled in. The sisters were waiting for us – all dressed in the white with blue-trimmed habit and tunic. They are apparently from all over the world. They all had the best smiles and were so welcoming to us.

Ron and the other guy, followed one sister, wandering off with a toolbox (manly things to be done and pounded on, I assumed). I stayed with the other women and we were taken up an outdoor staircase to the second level, past a few empty rooms to an open room with a waist-high wall/gate separating the room into a long hallway and a large area where about eleven babies were in varies states of sitting, lying, sleeping, fussing. We removed our shoes and got through the gate. I was the last one in and stood there for a minute not really sure what to do. The area had two twin mattresses on the floor, toys strewn about, three cribs against one wall, a table with bottles stacked, high shelves with stuffed animals sitting in rows and two open windows bringing in a light but nice breeze. The other women had chosen various babies to hold and comfort. There was a young girl sitting at my feet in a pretty little dress. I leaned down and touched her hair. I looked up and saw across the room there were three boys sitting near each other but with no adult near by, so I carefully stepped over to them and sat down in the middle. One was starting to fuss a little, so I grabbed him and held him on my lap. I then reached over to the little boy who was sitting with his back to me and caressed his face. He turned his head around to see who I was and just smiled the biggest smile. I have to admit a bit of heart-melting occurred. Next I then reached out to the third boy and caressed his cheek and he leaned into my hand with great force and just smiled. It was a strangely shocking sensation – to have something as simple as a touch be so immediately and intensely appreciated.

So there I was, surrounded by my three boys, making sure everyone was getting attention and hugs and caresses – feeling a tad out of my element. I was talking to them constantly, knowing that not only was I speaking English to a bunch of Egyptian orphans, but I was also talking to them like I do Chuckles and Ricky. Okay, please remember, I am an only child. I only have a few girlfriends with children, most are still hunting down Mr. Right. So bottom-line is I have minimal experience with children and my maternal instinct has been honed for the four-footed. But I’m working on it.

We stayed there for only a few minutes (maybe 10?) before a wave of new volunteers came in. I passed off my boys to the new eager huggers and wandered off with one of the women to find where Ron and her husband had ended up. We wandered through a maze of rooms and stairways, at one point coming face to face with a very large rat who was lumbering through a doorway. He was particularly huge and appeared injured. We walked around him and went through an outdoor courtyard into the handicapped room, where the husbands were. Apparently they had been here from the beginning. This room had about ten children, older, maybe ranging from three to six, who were either physically or mentally handicapped. Ron and I helped with feeding; again, minimal experience, particularly with handicapped children, some of whom have difficulty swallowing, so we all needed a good hosing off afterwards. Ron said when he arrived, he was handed a child and a bottle. He said he sat there for a minute before summing up the courage to ask one of the young girls for help and she helped him situate the child and get them on the bottle.

After about an hour, we all gathered our people and called the driver back. We met him in the driveway, after walking through a large open room with twin cots lined up against the wall. There were only two elderly inhabitants; one was lying down on a cot in the middle of the room and the other was sitting on a cot by the door we walked through. She seemed very happy as she sat there babbling animal noises at us.

The orphanage itself, while not luxurious, was clean and well-maintained. We were told that apparently most, if not all, of the children who are here, are technically not orphans. They all have parents, some of whom visit regularly. But in the case of the babies, many of the parents are too young themselves to properly care for the children, so they remain at Mother Teresa’s for several years until their mother can take them back. For the handicapped children, the parents cannot meet their needs, so the orphanage cares for them. I don’t know how these are arranged, or how long they typically stay there.

Our way out was as adventurous as our way in. We were stuck for several minutes behind a large truck that was being loaded with boxes of kitchenware for sale. There was a steady stream of young boys carrying these boxes to the truck, sometimes stacked way over their heads. There were a few tumbles, but typically an older boy following would stop and grab the fallen boxes. Our driver told us they were manufacturing the pots and pans around the corner. I’d be really interested to explore this area more and really delve into the social matrix of it all. It’s truly fascinating.

Despite Ron and I feeling completely out of our element, and admitting our ignorance, we agreed that we’d go back again. They get a lot of volunteers on the weekends, so I also might try to go out during the week as well. I’ve also agreed to help the woman who arranged all this create some brochures and flyers for a classical concert she’s arranging for January as a fund-raiser. Good Dip-Wife doings to keep me out of trouble (or in the city dump).


Zana Briski, who created the NGO “Kids with Cameras,” and won an Academy Award for her documentary, “Born into Brothels” in India, also ran a program here with the Zaballeen. (NOTE: If anyone hasn’t seen “Born into Brothels” I recommend it highly. It’s heartbreaking and spirit-lifting.) I contacted the local representative, but their program is essentially complete and they are focusing on the few children who they have gotten into school, so they didn’t require any volunteers currently (but I will keep in contact as I’m so impressed with their mission and programs).

Their website gave a nice overview of the Zaballeen issue: “The 16 million people who live in Cairo, the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, generate over 9,000 tons of garbage every day. At no cost to the government, a group of poor and displaced settlers from Egypt's rural south, the majority of who are Coptic Christians, have developed an economy and community from collecting the city's trash. Known as the Zaballeen, or "garbage collectors", they not only help to maintain the cleanliness of the city, but sort out all recyclable materials to sell back to the manufacturers. Because of their efforts, 80-90% of all the garbage they collect is recycled and re-used. This unique income-generating model is an extraordinary example of environmental sustainability that has been lauded, studied and replicated around the world.

While the estimated 65,000 Zaballeen provide a valuable service to the city and the environment, they are not formally recognized by the government and are largely rejected by Egyptian society because of the stigma associated with their work. Most are illiterate and suffer from health problems due to the piles of waste that occupy their district. In addition, the government has recently secured contracts with foreign multi-national waste disposal companies in an attempt to modernize Egypt. These contracts cost millions of dollars, demand collection fees from the citizens of Cairo, and require only 20% of the waste to be recycled. They also threaten to destroy the already meager livelihoods of the proud, spirited and hard-working Zaballeen.

In September 2006 project director Teriz Michael, a native of Cairo, began a photography workshop for a group of children in the Moqattam Hills, the largest of the five Zaballeen districts. Held at the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner, the classes were designed to allow the children to explore the world outside their garbage community, as well as discover their inner voices and creativity.

Over the course of two months, fifteen children between ages 8-12 learned not only how to take pictures, but were encouraged to dream and recognize their own potential. Photography and the artistic process became the catalyst for building self-esteem, discipline, and respect. For many, these classes helped them to trust their own instincts, make better decisions and attend school regularly...”