One evening this week our friend a co-worker, a young Egyptian guy, invited the hubs and I and a few other friends over to his house for Egyptian food. So we crossed the bridge over the Nile while stopping to take selfies, and finally found a taxi driver willing to let the five of us cram into his car. We wove through Cairo streets and bopped along, cracking jokes in Arabic, much to the amusement of the taxi driver.
We arrived at our friends house and the table was set with a bounty. There was breaded chicken and goat, zucchini and green pepper maashi (an Egyptian dish of vegetables hollowed out and filled with a mixture of rice and meat), two kinds of salads, homemade pickles, pasta with homemade red sauce, and baladi (Egyptian) bread. Clearly his mom had been working hard all day for us. We ate really well–the food was amazing, though we hardly made a dent. And we had so much fun while we ate. Two Egyptians, a Brit, an American, and a Eritrean. It was light and funny and such a joyful time. Such a great group of people.
One of the ladies had to go, and our friends Mom made us sugary tea. Our friend started telling us his hopes and dreams for the future and then went around asking each of us what our hopes and dreams are.
Later the hubs went in the kitchen with our friend to learn how to make Egyptian coffee. And I sat with Gloria* (not her real name) for awhile. Gloria works part time with our organization, and is usually with a project in another part of town so I’ve really only chatted with her in passing. Gloria is in her early 30’s and from Eritrea. It’s a very small, little-known country near Ethiopia that gained independence only in 1990. Since then the country hasn’t found good stability and has struggled hugely economically and under a dictatorial leader. Christians have faced persecution and it’s estimated that about 4% of the population has fled the country.
We got to chatting and she started very openly telling me her story. She’s one of the middle ones out of eight brothers and sisters. Four of her siblings are in other countries and she lives with one of her sisters here now.
She told me about the oppression–both economic and political growing up. Going days without electricity and the government rations of bread not being enough. She told me about the two months she spent in prison when she was 17, when she along with some friends were turned in after a Bible study. How the guards tried to break them and made the run laps in the heat with heavy bags full of sand in the hot sun. She spoke about the miracle of her and her friends being released right before the national exams. If they missed those, she would have missed her chance to ever get a diploma or go to university. To this day she has no idea how or why she was released. She spoke sweetly about God’s grace on her at that time and the way he built her faith.
She talked about her brothers being stuck in the military. They’re supposed to do a mandatory 2 years of national service, but that now it’s been 10+ years and they haven’t been released from service. So they can’t own a business and barely have a chance to make a family, and if they do that they are always away from their family and never get a chance to know them. If they try to leave the service, they’ll be killed.
She told me about the school system and after she graduated from university (she studied literature) the government forced her to teach, even though she wasn’t qualified. She told me about the restless youths she taught. She talked about the government propaganda against Christians (un-Orthodox ones) and the pressure from others to turn in people who were.
She told me about how she paid smugglers to get her out. How she crossed the desert with seven other people for five days with only the biscuits and water they could carry. How she waited in Sudan for two months and then was finally able to cross the border illegally into Egypt to join her sister. But how scared she was of being stopped and thrown into jail because she had no papers. That was five years ago.
She told me how lucky she was at that time. That God’s hand must have been on her because she was never abused and was kept safe. She says she looks back and has no idea through that whole, admittedly difficult and scary ordeal, that she was able to stay so safe and protected.
She told me how grateful she is that she was able to get out when she did. Because even a year or two later the smugglers became much more dangerous and that these days it is horrifically dangerous. In large part because the demand is so huge and there are so many desperate people everywhere. She told me about some of the horrible stories she’s heard about other people desperate to get out who were raped, people who have disappeared, teenaged boys forced to have sex with each other in front of groups of other people. She talked about a friend she knows who wasn’t careful on the phone when he was trying to make arrangements with the smugglers and the Eritrean police took him and put him in prison. But that he could be dead because his family can’t find him and no one has heard from him for a few years.
She smiled as she told me about her fiancée–a guy who was her friend in Eritrea who was able to get resettlement in the US. She talked about the visa and the process and waiting to get there to join him. She talked about the two jobs she works in Cairo and how she likes to write poetry and do aerobics and in her spare time, translates books she loves that are written in English into her mother tongue, because there aren’t many books available in her language.
The whole time speaking with incredible poise and grace and thankfulness. She praised God for the ways he has kept her and the things she’s learned along the way, and her heart for street kids and to help youth care about their educations and to help them think about and prepare for their futures.
And I think about all the refugees, displaced, and asylum seekers that I know. Professors, family men, pregnant women. People hard-working, traumatized in some cases, desperate for better for themselves and their families. And I read the articles about people dying in boats on the Mediterranean, and people stuck on islands or thrown into facilities that are basically prisons with horrific conditions. We found out recently one of the students in our adult education program who stopped coming to class last term was in one of the boats that safely arrived. And it makes us wonder and worry about the students who stop coming that we never hear from again.
When our friend asked us our hopes and dreams we told him that right now it’s to be here. To learn about the issues facing refugees, to learn about the best ways to help them, to try and bring the kingdom here by helping welcome strangers. We talked about, too, in the future how we’ve been dreaming of ways to take what were learning here back to our own countries to advocate and bring awareness to what is happening here. I strongly believe that we have an obligation to these brothers and sisters. And at the very least to not disrespect them by suggesting that anything we face in the West qualifies as persecution.
“We have the power to tell stories that deny another’s full humanity or stories that extend it.” David Brooks