Pioneering school in Cairo struggles to fund pupils

Pupils participate in a choir at the Mahaba School in Ezbet Al-Nakhl, a shanty town north of Cairo. (AFP)
Updated 20 October 2018
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Pioneering school in Cairo struggles to fund pupils

  • Mahaba shields around 3,000 students from outside world in clean environment
  • Extremists have hit several targets in Egypt in recent years, including Coptic churches and institutions

CAIRO: Among the poorest of Egypt's poor, the so-called “zabbaleen” who scavenge through garbage to eke out a living in a Cairo slum struggle to keep their children in school.
Residents of the Ezbet Al-Nakhl shanty town earn a living from rubbish they collect across the capital and sort in privately-owned recycling workshops.
But a school in the midst of the unpaved muddy alleys in the mostly Coptic district of the zabbaleen, meaning the garbage people in Arabic, has long been something of an oasis.
Set up 30 years ago by French nun Sister Emmanuelle, the Mahaba School — taking its name from the Arabic word for love — shields around 3,000 pupils from the outside world in a clean and friendly environment.
The walls of its classrooms are brightly decorated with pupils' work, and football posts with a net stand proudly in the playground. The Vatican once compared Sister Emmanuelle to Mother Teresa for her charitable work with slum dwellers. The founder died 10 years ago at the age of 99, and the school is now run by Sister Demiana.
Sister Demiana recalls how she and Sister Emmanuelle went door to door urging parents to enrol their children in a bid to fight illiteracy. Today, around 20 percent of Egypt's population are illiterate, the state-run CAPMAS statistics office said in a report released last year. Mahaba and other slum-based education initiatives have found it especially hard to make ends meet in recent years, due to a financial crisis in Egypt. In 2016, the government signed a $12 billion three-year loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund to support a string of economic reforms. Since then, authorities have imposed harsh austerity measures, including hikes to fuel and electricity prices, and adopted VAT.
Consumer prices have soared and the Egyptian pound has lost more than half its value against the US dollar since the central bank floated the currency in November 2016.
And a fiscal crisis saw the deficit balloon to 12.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product in the 2015-2016 tax year.
Around 28 percent of Egypt's 96 million inhabitants were living under the poverty line in 2015, according to official figures which have not been updated since.
But experts say the reality on the ground is even worse. “Everything has become expensive and people are feeling the pressure,” said Sister Demiana.
Many of the children who attend Mahaba School are malnourished and their parents struggle to buy them clothes and school supplies, she said. Mahaba charges 3,000 pounds ($167) in annual school fees. But the poorest families do not have to pay, while those who are slightly less poor pay only a token amount.
The school is part-funded by Asmae — the NGO set up by Sister Emmanuelle in 1980 that sponsors 200 pupils. But Mahaba also depends on private contributions.
"The main challenge is (for the parents) to find money" to pay for their general needs, said school teacher Sabah Sobhi, who has worked at Mahaba since it first opened.
“Life has become very expensive and families are finding it hard to keep their children in school,” she said. Fear is another major worry, Sobhi said.
Egypt has been shaken by political and security instability since the 2011 revolt that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, including deadly attacks claimed by Dahesg. Terrorists began an insurgency in Egypt after the 2013 ouster of Mubarak's successor, Mohammed Mursi, who was forced out by the military in the face of mass protests against his rule and that of his Muslim Brotherhood.
Extremists have hit several targets in Egypt in recent years, including Coptic churches and institutions. And in October 2011, nearly 30 people were killed at a Coptic Christian demonstration that was violently crushed by security forces. The Copts — who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population — were protesting against the torching of a church. "We fear for the future and because of the events that we have experienced," said Sobhi. Mahaba has set up a "psychological support" system for pupils who have been traumatized by violence, she said. Associations like Asmae are also anxious about the government's plans to implement a contentious law adopted last year that would allow authorities to oversee foreign funding of Egyptian NGOs and the activities of foreign ones. "We are all worried," said Asmae's representative in Egypt, Sherif Abdelaziz.


Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

Updated 23 January 2019
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Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

  • The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict
  • Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday vowed to coordinate their actions more closely in Syria.
“Cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a touchstone for Syrian peace and stability,” Erdogan said in translated comments at a joint press conference after their talks, which lasted around three hours.
“With our Russian friends we intend to strengthen our coordination even more.”
“We agreed how we’ll coordinate our work in the near future,” Putin said, calling the talks which included the countries’ defense ministers “effective.”
At the start of their meeting in the Kremlin, Putin addressed Erdogan as “dear friend,” saying that their countries “work on issues of regional security and actively cooperate on Syria.”
Erdogan used the same term for Putin and said “our solidarity makes a weighty contribution to the security of the region.”
The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict: Russia provides critical support to the Syrian government, while Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Despite this, they have worked closely to find a political solution to the seven-year conflict.
Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month about pulling 2,000 American troops out of Syria.
Putin said that if carried out, the withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria “will be a positive step, it will help stabilize the situation in this restive area.”
Turkey has also welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal, but the future of US-backed Kurdish militia forces labelled terrorists by Ankara has upset ties between the NATO allies.
Erdogan had said on Monday he would discuss with Putin the creation of a Turkish-controlled “security zone” in northern Syria, suggested by Trump.
The US-allied Kurds, who control much of the north, have rejected the idea, fearing a Turkish offensive against territory under their control.
Putin said Wednesday that Russia supports “establishing dialogue between Damascus officials and representatives of the Kurds.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week said that Damascus must take control of the north.
The northwestern province of Idlib earlier this month fell under the full control of a jihadist group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Russian foreign ministry said earlier Wednesday that the situation in the province remained of “serious concern.”
Putin said that the leaders discussed the situation in Idlib “in great detail today.”
“We have a shared conviction that we must continue jointly fighting terrorists wherever they are, including in the Idlib zone,” the Russian leader said.
Erdogan said that the countries will wage a “lengthy fight” in Syria.
Nearly eight years into Syria’s deadly conflict, the planned US pullout has led to another key step in Assad’s Russian-backed drive to reassert control.
Kurdish forces who were left exposed by Trump’s pledge to withdraw have asked the Syrian regime for help to face a threatened Turkish offensive.
The Kremlin hailed the entry by Syrian forces into the key northern city of Manbij for the first time in six years after Kurds opened the gates.
Moscow plans to organize a three-way summit with Turkey and Iran early this year as part of the Astana peace process, launched by the three countries in 2017.
Putin said Wednesday the next summit would be held “in the near future” in Russia, saying the leaders still needed to agree the time and location with Iran.
The last meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani took place in Iran in September last year with the fate of rebel-held Idlib province dominating the agenda.
Ties between Russia and Turkey plunged to their lowest level in years in November 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.
But after a reconciliation deal in 2016, relations have recovered at a remarkable speed with Putin and Erdogan cooperating closely over Syria, Turkey buying Russian-made air defense systems and Russia building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.