National Security & Defense

A Coptic Charity Empowers Egypt’s Orphans

Worship service at Saint-Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty)

Eighty-six Eritrean Christians — in the midst of making their way toward a boat that would take them to Europe — were kidnapped by ISIS south of Tripoli last week. The constant threat that Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere face prompts the question: What can we in the West do to help? Nermien Riad works to answer that question. A native of Egypt, she founded the charity Coptic Orphans in 1988. Below, we talk about the situation Christians face in and around Egypt and the work that Coptic Orphans does.— KJL


Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is happening in the Mediterranean today? Earlier this spring, there was a boat of children drowned for being Christian. Who does that?

Nermien Riad: What’s happening in the Mediterranean, above all, is an exodus of people from North and sub-Saharan Africa. They’re struggling to migrate from homelands where they cannot put bread on the table for themselves or their families. Some of these migrants are also driven by persecution in their homeland, but the main motivating factors are economic. As often happens, the doors of the developed world — in this case, the European Union — are closed to them.

In desperation, these people — Egyptians and Copts among them — seek perilous and illegal routes to find work and sustenance for their families. In the process, different groups of poor people end up crammed into frequently unseaworthy vessels that leave for Europe from places like Libya. Last year, about 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean in such attempts.

It’s my understanding that the mix of people attempting this journey — different religions, nationalities, ethnic groups — is often volatile, and when these individuals are likely to be tormented by thirst and hunger and fear, you can imagine that violence may follow. In the case I believe you’re referring to, in a terrible, unconscionable act, a group of Muslims threw twelve of their fellow migrants — Nigerians and Ghanaians, reportedly — overboard because they were Christians. All of them drowned. None of this is fair, or in keeping with Christian values, nor should it be tolerated.


Lopez: What is Coptic Orphans doing to keep Copts from having to flee across the sea?

Riad: Not nearly as much as we’d like to.

Because being an orphan in Egypt involves a great loss of social standing, opportunities, and economic support, these are kids whose life trajectory is most likely to head in the direction of poverty.

For now, we have nearly 10,000 orphans in the care of our network of church-based volunteers. Because being an orphan in Egypt involves a great loss of social standing, opportunities, and economic support, these are kids whose life trajectory is most likely to head in the direction of poverty. Once in poverty, they are prey to the lure of migration to Europe to find jobs with which to support their families. Which, as we’ve seen, is an incredibly dangerous journey.

So we have to work harder, and reach more kids, so that they don’t become the migrants who drown in a few years. One of the best ways to prepare them to take advantage of all the opportunities they have in life is education, and we focus on securing the best, highest-quality education for the kids we work with. That’s through tutoring, mentoring, school supplies, university tuition, you name it. That’s not all we do, but high-quality education is our focus at Coptic Orphans.


Lopez: Why did you found Coptic orphans?

Riad: I founded Coptic Orphans in 1988 after a visit to Egypt, which is where I was born. I found that the place where I’d spent my early childhood was struggling with widespread poverty, and I decided to make a difference.

I started out by taking care of 45 girls in a Cairo orphanage, by recruiting the help of my family and friends. Then came twelve years where I worked as a volunteer, getting a sponsorship-based model off the ground. That took a lot of work, because in Egypt the standard response to a poverty-stricken widow is, “Give your kid up to an orphanage.” But what I learned, slowly, was that orphanages aren’t the best place for a kid to develop — in almost every case, the best thing is for the child to stay with his or her family. So the model I established involved connecting people abroad, as sponsors, with families in Egypt. These were families where the mother was determined to care for her kids, even with the father gone, but needed more resources.

This model of keeping the family together, by the way, is now considered the “right” way to care for orphans by the big organizations in the field, like Save the Children. They’ve studied it a lot and concluded that the approach that keeps the family intact, like ours does, is the healthiest one.

I was working on all that as a volunteer, before I finally became the executive director in 2000. Since then, we’ve touched the lives of 30,000 kids in this way, keeping them with their families and supporting their education through our network of church-based volunteers.


Lopez: Is there a good and plausible answer to how fatherlessness can be better prevented in Egypt?

Riad: That’s a hard one, because Egypt is a tough country for everyone, sometimes especially for men. In most cases, the children in our programs lose a father because of an accident or health problem that’s connected to the poverty that afflicts the country as a whole. We believe Egypt’s going to overcome that poverty and develop into a land of prosperity, tolerance, and opportunity — but not for a while, and not without a long effort by all Egyptians. In the meantime, regrettably, children are going to continue to lose their fathers to disease, car crashes, industrial accidents — any number of sad but real dangers that face breadwinners in Egypt.


Lopez: You recently wrote: “Every day, there are a thousand good stories to tell about the work of our schools, hospitals, and aid groups in the Middle East. Telling those stories before a crisis will help people on all sides screen out the sensational and focus on the beneficial.” What might be your top five such stories right now?

Riad: Well, I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to tell one right now. Since Egypt is what I’m most familiar with, that’s what I’ll talk about. One story I’d point to is the Sisters of Maadi, whom your own journal has done an excellent job of covering. The sisters treat hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo each year, 90 percent of them Muslim, and they really model Christian love in action to poor people. I’d also point to the Catholic school system in Egypt. Someone should really write a whole book — not even a TV segment, but a whole book — on their role in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence in Egypt by educating generations of future leaders. And then there’s the work of Father Dawood Lamey, who inspires many to use their professional skills in the service of holistic village development.


Lopez: What is “Serve to Learn” all about?

Riad: Serve to Learn is a Coptic Orphans program through which volunteers can have a life-changing experience serving God’s children in Egypt. For three weeks, these volunteers from all over the world stay in a village along the Nile, where they see the “real” Egypt and live among its people. The area’s Coptic bishop provides hospitality and watches out for the volunteers’ safety. They make a difference in the lives of local kids by teaching them basic English skills with fun, interactive games and activities. Most importantly, they visit the children at home, learning about their lives and building unforgettable bonds.

Since we got Serve to Learn up and running about twelve years ago, nearly 190 volunteers have taken part, and they’ve taught more than 5,800 young Egyptians basic English skills.


Lopez: What is your “Valuable Girl Project” accomplishing?

Riad: Here’s how I describe the Valuable Girl Project, in a nutshell: It promotes the academic retention, education, and literacy tutoring of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt. The project supports these young women in their efforts to stay in school and gain dignity at home, in the classroom, and in the community.

The project has been running for twelve years and peaked at 15 sites around Egypt. It uses a model of one-on-one mentorship, something that’s not unfamiliar here in the United States. Young women in secondary school, the “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, the “Little Sisters.” Local coordinators based in partner organizations oversee these mentorship programs.

The Valuable Girl Project has a unique twist, in that it serves both Christian and Muslim young women ages seven to 22. The Big Sister–Little Sister relationships formed through the project offer a bridge to understanding among Christian and Muslim community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. In fact, one of the sentiments expressed by project participants is simply that they had no idea what the others’ lives were like, much less that they could be “nice.”

In this way, we aim to do more than just stand with girls as they try to break the cycle of poverty they’re stuck in. Through the project, we boost these young women’s life chances, but just as importantly, we increase the overall level of Christian–Muslim tolerance and understanding in Egyptian society. When they’re in the project, the girls realize their own self-worth, and influence social change in their communities. For young women in a tough society like Egypt, that’s empowering.


Lopez: Do you find most Westerners don’t really know who Copts are? What would you like us to know?

Riad: Actually, I’m surprised by the number of people I meet these days who are familiar with the Copts, but there’s always room to spread the word.

“Coptic” means “Egyptian” and has come to refer to the Egyptian Christians. We are the indigenous Christian community of Egypt. We have an ancient way of life that goes all the way back to the first century a.d.

We are some of Christianity’s first believers, and many Coptic traditions — for example, the desert tradition of monasticism — are the starting point or guiding star for other Christians’ traditions around the world.

It’s important that Westerners understand our role in shaping and defining Christianity, and our determination to be a positive presence in a region of the world where Christians are increasingly threatened.

It’s important that Westerners understand our role in shaping and defining Christianity, and our determination to be a positive presence in a region of the world where Christians are increasingly threatened.


Lopez: To a reporter who wants to get the story of Christians in the Middle East right, what’s your advice?

Riad: First, I would thank them for wanting to get the story right! A lot of the media are too interested in selling stories to care about the facts.

Then, I would refer them to the guidance of His Grace Bishop Angaelos. He was here in Washington, D.C., in March for a panel event on the media that was organized by In Defense of Christians, on whose board I serve. He was the person who helped keep the panel focused on the need for reporters to deal with the Middle East with sensitivity, not sensationalism.

His Grace’s words on the topic mirrored the experiences that we as a development organization have had working “on the ground” in the Middle East. We’ve discovered that the more people learn about their neighbors, the less fearful and less prone to extremism they become. The media can crush that positive tendency with sensationalism, or nurture it by covering the good work being done in our communities.

I trust each reporter to ask him- or herself this question before putting pen to paper: “What’s going to be more beneficial to people in the Middle East? Sensational reminders of religious differences, or sensible reminders of good-faith efforts to fight poverty, hunger, and disease?”

Growing out of that question is a fundamental awareness: The media’s role should be to cover people of all faiths, in every country, who are working for better relations with their neighbors.


Lopez: This is a question that, of course, has various answers, but what does the spiritual life of a persecuted Coptic Christian look like?

Riad: In terms of spiritual life, all of us, as Christians, grapple with love, forgiveness, and the struggle to be Christ-like. What happens to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East is a reminder of this.


Lopez: What does sponsoring a Coptic orphan mean? How can it change their lives?

Riad: We’ve connected thousands of Christian children with sponsors abroad, but I can’t convey how that’s changed their lives unless I tell you the story of a particular kid, who’s now a thriving adult.

I recently met Michael, who told me how his father passed away when he was six years old. His older brother, who was twelve at the time, dropped out of school to support the family. In ninth grade, Michael, too, had to decide whether to stay in school or to drop out because of his family’s struggle to get by.

If there is going to be a future for Christians in the Middle East, it’s going to come about only by Christians and moderate Muslims uniting against the terrorists.

If he’d dropped out, Michael’s future could have been that of many Egyptians: exhausting manual labor, illiteracy, poverty, and poor health leading to death. Instead, Michael was found by one of our more than 400 church-based volunteers. The volunteer built a long-term relationship with him, bonding with him through home visits, life-skills workshops, and community activities. He encouraged Michael’s talents, nurtured a well-rounded character, and arranged for all the support he needed to stay in school.

What’s amazing is that today Michael isn’t just educated and employed — he’s volunteering to visit other orphans regularly, serving as a role model and mentor. He’s giving back to his community. When you multiply this kind of education and volunteering across thousands of young people, you have a huge effect. That’s what sponsoring a Coptic orphan can accomplish.


Lopez: What do you worry most about with the violence of radical Islam against Christians and other religious minorities?

Riad: I worry most that people in the West will frame the discussion as one of Muslim versus Christian.

The reality on the ground is different from that story. If there is going to be a future for Christians in the Middle East, it’s going to come about only by Christians’ and moderate Muslims’ uniting against the terrorists. It’s simply an impossibility for Christians to go it alone in the region — anyone who does the math will arrive at that conclusion. So if we care about our brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to be careful not to promote a narrative that pits all Muslims against all Christians. That will be a propaganda victory for groups like ISIS, and knock Christian communities a step backward from an already difficult position.


Lopez: Why must Copts and other Christians continue to exist in the Middle East?

Riad: From my perspective, we must continue to exist in the Middle East in order to keep bearing witness to Christian love and the message of Jesus in the land of His birth. That, and we need to preserve a tradition of Christianity that dates back to the time of Christ himself. The roots of our faith are precious.


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