By David Alton
Universe Column July 20th 2003
I am always struck that in the middle of chaos and squalor there are always people trying to make sense of the crisis and trying to bring humanity, mercy and relief. Very often it is women who are quietly trying to make order out of the chaos. Maggie Gobran – “Mama Maggie” – is one of these.
Like the women who stood at the foot of the cross women like Maggie Gobran embraces all the pain and suffering and draws its sting. Some people call her the Mother of Cairo and many compare her to another Mother who poured herself out for the poor of Calcutta.
On meeting her first, about ten years ago, she took me to a part of Cairo called garbage city, where children live off the garbage dumps. She showed me the first of her small schools and workshops. Last week, when she was in London, this deeply spiritual Coptic woman explained how her Stephen Ministry has gone from strength to strength.
More than 5 million people are estimated to live like scavengers on the dumps of Cairo. Shanty houses with shared bathrooms and kitchens frequently have as many as 12 people living in just one room. Survival means getting by on less than a dollar a day.
The Coptic Christian community is grossly discriminated against and their suffering and privations go even deeper than the general levels of poverty in this part of the city.
In the past 14 years the Stephen Ministry has reached more than 11,000 children and their families – with 3,000 children now attending their kindergartens, and 8,000 children visited by some of the 600 men and women who are Maggie’s co-workers.
The work has spread out beyond the garbage city and community education centres have been established on 35 sites, with outreach in 80 villages and suburban slum areas in and around Alexandria, Al Minya, Beni Suef, Abu Qurqas, Samalout, and Dairut.
St. Francis once said that you should only use words when you have run out of deeds. Mama Maggie’s deeds involve her tackling unemployment, the filthy rat-infested environment, chronic health problems, non-existent education and social issues. There is also a spiritual crisis in many people’s lives and here the words follow the deeds – with opportunities to have access to scripture, liturgy and the rich deposits of Coptic spirituality.
The work tends to revolve around one child per family – with the investment made in the life of that individual reaping dividends for the whole family and the wider community in due course. In really acute situations they distribute staple foods such as oil, flour, rice, and eggs to the neediest. Education – in a country where 56% of women and 33% of men are illiterate – opens unimagined possibilities for the beneficiaries and mothers are simultaneously taught good childcare.
Mama Maggie says that “children are the future. They are the most needy, the most vulnerable. ” Probably most of us would agree with that, but here is one quiet, under-stated woman who is doing something about it.