New Life in Garbage city

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Boys who live in Garbage City in Cairo, Egypt. Photo courtesy of Stephen’s Children.

By Courtney Lott-

We were told not to open the windows. Secretly, I was glad because I could practically see the smell.

For two days already I had toured Egypt. While I was enthralled by the sheer size of the Pyramids, amazed at the artistry of the Sphinx, and baffled by the detail of the statue of Ramses, the trash heaped up on the fringes of nearly every street appalled me. Refuse lined the Nile River Bed. Layers of plastic bags, cans, and paper bordered the canals and our guide told us that it wasn’t unusual to find dead animals floating in it. Worse still, he said, the water was used for cleaning, bathing, and drinking and the government’s only solution is to bury the tainted water, to hide away the filth.

Still, this in no way prepared us for Garbage City. As we entered the Zabaleen Village, located at the bottom of the Mokattam cliffs, our guide rolled up the windows of our car. The buildings cast shadows over our small group, over the narrow, trash lined streets. Droves of people waded through the piles. Many sorted through it, some carried it upon their backs, others drove trucks or wagons pulled by donkeys; everyone was smudged by dirt and grime of their work. I’d seen poverty in the U.S. and South America. I’d seen squalor. I’d never seen anything like this.

Driven to the area by a bad harvest in the 1940’s, these individuals quickly learned how to use Egypt’s waste problem for their advantage. While other portions of the country simply cover up the excess, the people of Garbage City, 96% of whom are Coptic Christians, recycle and reuse what they collect.

My parents, who are currently living in Egypt for an extended time, describe the men’s journey into the city. “They load up trash on trucks, if they have them, or on wagons with donkeys.  These animals journey from the City to Maadi and other surrounding towns, taking freeways, as well as small roads into the towns.  It is amazing to see these little donkeys hauling huge loads that look like they’ll topple over at any moment-right in front of traffic!”

Residents are encouraged to package up their trash separately from the garbage so that the people can recycle plastics and glass to make things. Both young and old can be seen transporting huge loads of rubbish through Maadi and Cairo, even amidst thick rush hour traffic.

I’d longed to visit this part of Egypt since a friend had informed me of its existence a few months before. While the pyramids and museums and food all held their allure, none intrigued me more than this particular group of people. How did they survive such deplorable circumstances? How did they hold on to hope? I wanted to see and to understand. I wanted to learn.

We drove through Garbage City, through mountains of trash, piles of discarded and broken things and on the other side, carved into the side of Mokattam, the Cave church rose up against a clear blue sky. The afternoon sun warmed the sandstone, a sharp contrast to the shadow within the city. No trash here. No darkness. No smell. Children played and laughed, tourists took pictures, people smiled.

Founded in 1974 by Father Abouna Samaan Ibrahim, the Cave church, also known as the church of Saint Samaan the Tanner, ministers to an average of 5,000 people per worship service. What began as nothing more than an open space for people to hear the gospel grew by the grace of God into the lofty one now seen covering an area of about 1,000 square meters.

Discrimination and hardship mark their lives as the religious minority. Many have fled the attacks of Islamic extremists. Yet the 4 percent of Muslims living among them know they are safe to build their Mosques without fear of violence from the Christians that surround them. Stories of God’s power, of healing, of miracles, are on the tongues of those who live in Garbage City, a people who live daily in the discomfort and dirt but who are also fully convinced of the reality of the God of the Bible. They look beyond their everyday struggles to the promise set before them, symbolized in the church carved into the heart of the mountain.

“Though they are afflicted, they are not crushed, though they are perplexed, they do not despair, though they are persecuted, they are not forsaken, though they are struck down, they are not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Their perseverance and faithfulness are a witness to the world, one that God uses to bring many into his Kingdom.

How do the Coptic Christians of Garbage City live and work and praise God in such poverty and squalor? As Eric Liddell’s missionary father once told him: “You can praise the Lord by peeling a spud, if you peel it to perfection.”

Courtney Lott is the editorial assistant at Good News.

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