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.


US accuses Iran of destabilizing Mideast with missile program

Updated 20 March 2019
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US accuses Iran of destabilizing Mideast with missile program

  • Cites Iran’s support to the Houthi movement in Yemen and to Hezbollah in Lebanon
  • Says Iran's ballistic missile test and satellite launches violated UN Security Council resolution

JEDDAH: Iran’s missile program is destabilizing the Middle East, and Tehran risks starting a regional arms race by supplying weapons to armed groups in Lebanon and Yemen, a senior US arms control official said on Tuesday.

“Iran must immediately cease activities related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and halt the proliferation of missiles and missile technology to terror groups and other non-state actors,” Yleem Poblete, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said in a speech to the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Iran’s missile program is a key contributor to increased tensions and destabilization in the region, increasing the risk of a regional arms race,” she said, denouncing Iran’s support to the Houthi movement in Yemen and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

She said Iran had provided ballistic missiles to the Houthis that were fired into Saudi Arabia and unmanned aerial systems to Houthi groups that enable strikes against land-based targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “We are committed to aggressively countering Iran’s regional proliferation of ballistic missiles and its unlawful arms transfers,” she said.

US President Donald Trump said when he quit the 2015 deal that lifted international sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear activities that the agreement failed to rein in Iran’s missile program or curb its regional meddling.

The US has accused Iran of defying a UN Security Council resolution by carrying out a ballistic missile test and two satellite launches since December.

Poblete urged “all responsible countries” to enforce UN Security Council resolutions restricting the transfer of missile-related technologies to Iran. She also accused Iran of “pursuing pharmaceutical-based agents for offensive purposes,” but did not provide details.

Harvard scholar and Iranian affairs expert Dr. Majid Rafizadeh said Iran had the largest ballistic program in the Middle East. “Through its ballistic missile program, the Iranian regime appears determined to escalate tensions in the region and seek every opportunity to project its power in order to reassert its hegemony,” he said. “The international community ought to hold Tehran accountable for its military adventurism and violations of international standards.”