Donation of food packs to ragpickers in the slum of May 15 to celebrate the Assumption.

EN - Friday, 28 August 2020

Severely affected by poverty, the families in the slum rely on us for food. So now, as much as you can, help them.

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It is 6 a.m. on August 22! Our eyes are swollen with fatigue, our bellies are crying out for famine. Our night was short because we distributed meals during marauding in the districts of Cairo until 2 am.

But now, there is no time to stroll and spend too much time on a hot cup of coffee! We got up early to make a donation to the families of slum of the 15 May.

If I've never been there, I've heard a lot about it! I am both eager to get there and admit to being a little afraid of what I will find there. Known for its extreme poverty, this shanty town went through hell on March 12 when sandstorms from the deserts of the south and torrents of water, mud and waste run down on the 2,000 huts made of sheet metal, wood and bricks, destroying half in just 20 minutes. 500 families lost everything and 35 of them in addition to material distress suffered the loss of a loved one.

After a major food emergency operation led by Jérôme Cochet, head of mission in Egypt, all of the volunteers were forced into confinement in Cairo. For several months, activities there were temporarily stopped to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. After a quick visit a fortnight earlier, it is with great impatience that we are about to really set foot there again. What will we find there? How did the population recover from this tragedy?

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But first, we have an appointment at 7 am at the butcher's shop to collect 400 frozen chickens. We pile the bags inside the minibus, and we huddle together, despite the heat, to make some space. Very quickly, water ran down the sides of the bags, soaking our t-shirts and pants. In times of war we have to make do!

We stay that way for an hour, rocked by the rolling of the car. We leave Cairo, its traffic jams, the crowd and the people crying for a deserted and silent road! The city is far behind us like an oasis our mind has imagined. In front of us as far as the eye can see, sand and a rocky expanse on which the arid rays of the sun are refracted. In the distance, a heap of bricks… a mirage?

No ! This is our destination. These bricks serve as homes for more than 5,000 people, women and children. In this shanty town located in a basin between a waste reception center, a cemetery and a limestone quarry, families do not have a roof over their heads to sleep on, nor anything to protect themselves from the sun, which heats up to over 45°C. There is no greenery either, nothing but bricks, and a church in its center.

First stop of our day: the church of Chenouda III. When we got out of the minibus, we were immediately caught up in the crowd heading towards the church, without giving us time to observe the slum.

In the square, young people in uniform form a guard of honor with their banners. It takes me a while to understand that this scout troop is there to welcome us. Their shirts are perfectly white, and I must admit being surprised at how clean they are, which contrasts with their ordinary clothes. I follow my companions who sneak in single file into the church to find us a seat.

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In this building perfectly maintained for the greater glory of God, we attend the Assumption Mass celebrated by Father Athanasius, Coptic-Orthodox priest in charge of the slum of 15 May.

What a contrast to the outside! Here, the frescoes adorning the imposing walls contrast with the cobwebs that weave around the corners of the cabin ceilings.

But the church is the meeting place, the place that helps to hold on and endure extreme poverty. This is why the ragpickers provide so much care to it.

As the songs rise to the sky, I can't help but glance at the people around me.

Here, no one respects the Covid standards, which must also seem very ridiculous to them, and social distancing is abolished. Around us, people are looking at us with curiosity and interest, and it is mutual.

I try to observe them as discreetly as possible, and I am surprised to see them entering and leaving the church as in a mill. Jérôme, our head of mission, explains to me: “Masses are long, sometimes last up to 4 hours, so it is traditional to go out in the middle of the celebration to stretch your legs.” Not all of them pay the same attention to mass. When some are talking to each other, others are listening intently.

Through the half-open door of the church, I perceive from time to time figures running past: it is the children who are occupying themselves while having fun next door. from the church. But when it comes to singing, everyone puts the same heart into it and the children show no hesitation in the lyrics.

My thoughts are interrupted by a certain restlessness. Mass is not over but to celebrate the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, a big raffle has been organized. The first prizes are distributed: a bed, a gas cylinder ...

A little girl turns to me to tell me with pride that her family just won an award. She explains to me that they are seven children.

Despite her young age, she must be 8 years old, she takes care of her two years old brother. Their feet are black, they don't have shoes, but a big smile crosses their faces. What a lesson!

Many people gathered for this great occasion, especially children. We join the men's corner, separated from that of women, to collect ourselves.

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I don't have time to start the "Hail Mary" over again, which I have been trying to say for three minutes already, as cries resound in the church. It is explained to me that the women cry out for joy as a procession carrying a holy relic advances towards the choir. Loaned by Monsignor Antonios, Coptic Orthodox bishop of Jerusalem, a fragment of the belt of the Virgin Mary makes a triumphal entry into the middle of this small slum lost in the desert.

Scouts in well dressed uniforms proudly hold their banners at the head of the procession. Then come the icons of the Virgin, around which the crowd agglutinates, to sign themselves, to embrace them, to collect the oozing oil.

Several people share the story of recent miracles they have experienced and which testify to their faith but before which their interlocutors show no surprise. Faith is obvious to them daily, and their prayers are always answered.

Thus, one of her said: "A few days ago my tuk-tuk, which I used to collect garbage, disappeared. It was my livelihood! I panicked, I was scared. I came to see Father Athanasius who immediately advised me to invoke the Virgin Mary. I began to pray immediately with great fervor, and in the evening, when I returned, I found my tuk-tuk, without a single scratch, just in front of my accommodation." Amazed by the story, without doubting for a single moment the veracity of her testimony, the whole assembly began to applaud!

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Even today they witnessed a miracle, which the priest calls "the French miracle": yesterday, the inhabitants of the slum had nothing to cook, today, a festive meal is looming on the horizon!

The day before alerted by the situation, the team of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient hastily released the necessary funds to make the donation.

After the procession has passed, the children gather around us, ask us our names, our ages, laugh with us. Even if we do not speak the same language, the gestures are enough to communicate and play with them. The women thank us and bless us. The ragpickers of the slum of May 15 know well the volunteers of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient who, for a year and a half, have regularly brought them food. But the new faces and our prolonged absence are of great interest.

The distribution of the 400 chickens begins in a happy hubbub. People are jostling each other, even pouncing on us to get one. We almost feel suffocated but what to say to these people who are afraid of running our of food? We can no longer see much except the hands pressing against us. In less than ten minutes, the donation is complete.

A family consists of an average of 5 children. These 400 chickens will therefore allow more than 2,800 people to share a festive meal this afternoon and tonight.

This donation cost the association 1200 euros, the cost of 400 chickens and transport.

Severely affected by poverty, the families in the slum rely on us for food. So now, as much as you can, help them.


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Lorraine, volunteer in Egypt.