280 needy Egyptian families helped in three hours

Between the plains of the Nile and the limestone foothills housing troglodyte churches, volunteers deliver 280 food parcels to the poorest families in Deir Rifa, as sand swirls like smoke and the sun’s rays scorch the arid land of Upper Egypt. A three-hour mission in challenging climatic conditions that required extra determination to complete.

“We are in Deir Rifa, a village of 8,000 Christians living at the foot of the Monastery of Saint Theodore the Oriental, where, in the 4th century AD, monks transformed ancient pharaonic tombs into a place of life and prayer.
The air is heavy, each step saps energy, breathing is labored, heavy, and uneven. In streets deserted by villagers, a few children in galabeyas, plastic flip-flops or barefoot, wander between brick houses faded by time. Sitting on makeshift seats, old men silently observe the comings and goings of tricycles driven by teenagers or tractors hauling manure. In a shady corner, two donkeys hitched to a cart huddle together.
Situated at the mountain’s foot, this village offers us a true breath of fresh air. Used to the suffocating pollution of Cairo, we take deep breaths of Upper Egypt’s air, while admiring the silhouettes of palm trees against the sky, the fields in semi-darkness, and the illuminated crosses of the steeples calling for prayer.
Our small team of five volunteers, led by Jeanne de Verdière, volunteer coordinator, and George Shafik, volunteer coordinator in Egypt, has a meeting at 4 PM at the partially constructed Saint Mina Church to prepare 280 food parcels with essential goods.
In the car, windows down, as the verdant oases with fertile crops bordered by swaying palm fronds pass by, the atmosphere is joyful. One after another and in chorus, we sing Dalida’s classics, “Paroles,” “Je suis malade,” and “Le temps des fleurs,” sometimes altering the lyrics due to our imperfect knowledge of these musical pieces.
We meet the second team near the church. For now, everything seems calm and deserted. Three soldiers sitting on plastic chairs bask in the sun, watching curiously as this group of foreigners moves erratically from side to side. This commotion is a pleasant break from the tranquility of these completely empty and restful streets. A few meters above us, on rickety scaffolding, two workers hammer away at a smooth slab to give it a rough texture.
While waiting to start packing, Jeanne and I decide to explore the area. Red bricks are piled tightly in the middle of one of the streets, next to a heap of sand blocking the road, forcing all vehicles to detour around the obstacle. On the right, a smiling Egyptian driver in a construction truck endlessly pours and spreads tons of earth to level what seems to be the foundation of a future building. Nearby, under the watchful eye of a woman dressed all in black, a helper waters the pile abundantly with a tangled hose like a snake writhing on the ground to escape a predator. To my left, a black dog starts growling. I don’t pay much attention until it becomes threatening. We decide not to persist and turn back.

At the church entrance, there is a buzz of activity, like a hive humming with tasks. On the ground against a dusty, dim corridor wall, food bags are scattered to facilitate the formation of a chain. Quickly and naturally, the volunteers organize. Some position themselves precariously among the bags, others shuttle between various stations with an open black bag in hand to collect the products easily. The work is repetitive, sometimes tedious and meticulous, but absolutely essential.

Rice, oil, pasta, sugar, tea, lentils, beans, and cheese. The team works diligently, quickly losing track of time and the number of bags.
At the end of the line, a child in a gray galabeya patiently and diligently closes the packages. Next to him, a man checks every parcel to ensure nothing is missing. One seems too light; he investigates, deftly feels around the bag, opens it frantically, stands up, grabs a bottle of olive oil, places it in the bag, closes it skillfully, and then adds it to the haphazard pile of parcels.
Minutes tick by slowly, marking our efforts with their continuous rhythm. A child, proudly wearing a New York City t-shirt and too busy enjoying his dripping chocolate ice cream, grabs a parcel without paying attention to the chain and casually places it among the finished parcels. Immediately, chaos ensues. An adult takes the parcel to complete it, another who didn’t witness the scene scolds an innocent child who, without protest, flees silently. The guilty child remains oblivious to the disruption he caused and, unconcerned, sits on nearby stone steps to continue enjoying his ice cream cone.
A desperate cry rings out. A bag of sugar has slipped from someone’s hand, spilling its white contents slowly but surely over the cartons, to the horror of those nearby trying frantically to stop the flow.
In 40 minutes, all the bags are ready. The team doesn’t have time to catch their breath as the tricycles are already positioned at the doors. Another chain forms to load all the bags onto the trucks. “One, two, three, four, … sixty, sixty-one,” Georges meticulously counts each bag before placing them in an orderly manner. Once the first tricycle is loaded, we start filling the second, making sure to leave some space for us to ride along. Deir Rifa is not very large, but walking back and forth would prematurely tire us out and make our efforts less effective. It’s 5:27 PM, and the main task of our day begins: distributing the 280 parcels to the neediest families.
Our group of six is accompanied by a church official responsible for ensuring each parcel is delivered to the correct family. Equipped with a scribbled piece of paper, he tirelessly checks off each name once the parcel is handed over, raising his voice to command respect and gesturing animatedly to be understood.
Smiles greet us at every corner. As we delve deeper into the village, the streets become less deserted and more lively. On a small square, we see old men with minimal beards crouched against the wall, a toothless father carrying his barefoot daughter, a young boy riding a donkey, a cart full of watermelons attracting women seeking fresh fruit, and a one-legged old woman hobbling with crutches on the village’s rocky paths.
Everywhere we go, children swarm around the tricycle, some clinging to the sides to climb aboard, others waving and asking our names. At the house entrances, women pause their chores—washing dishes, laundry, babysitting—to collect the precious parcel.
We enter an elderly woman’s home. Her warm smile makes us forget the poverty she lives in. In the small, bare-walled room, there’s a table and a bench. On one of the four walls hangs a small 10 cm card depicting the Virgin Mary.
In another home, the harshness of life is evident as we step inside. A mat serves as a bed, a chair, and a table. Nothing else. In a corner, two small pigeons peck at crumbs.

Outside, a crowd forms around our tricycle. A human tide has surged in no time, creating chaos. Hands reach out to grab the black bags without waiting for our approval, prompting shouts and gestures of discontent. It feels like a bustling market. A mischievous boy with a cup of tea gives me a knowing look, while another, still smeared with chocolate, sits comfortably on the tricycle’s handlebar, surveying the scene. Another child plays noisily with the horn, while yet another persistently asks my name.

Three widows, identifiable by their long black galabeyas, approach us, smile, and stand in the doorway to bid us farewell.
The extreme discomfort of the tricycle prompts us to disembark and continue on foot. We feel as though we’re being tossed about on a stormy sea. At every new corner, there are smiles, handshakes, and greetings. This is a certain comfort for us, as the stifling heat of the late afternoon begins to weigh heavily on our concentration and motivation. It’s not that we mind being here, but our energy levels are depleting by the minute. Nevertheless, we press on with enthusiasm.
A heavily loaded truck is about to leave the town, a child in a tracksuit takes advantage of the last rays of the sun to stroll on a vast, sandy, rocky field, a disabled person lying on the floor of their apartment at the door threshold recognizes me from afar and smiles as the donations continue unabated.
280 food parcels, 3 hours of distribution… a sense of accomplishment and perseverance. This is our daily routine, once a month in Deir Rifa!”