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The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Rubii Pham. She recently returned from volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!
“I think Mariam is laughing at me,” I said to my friend Laura. Indeed, to Mariam, one of the girls that work at the Sisters of Charity orphanage in the Muqattam neighborhood of Cairo, Laura and I probably looked comical attempting to carry two buckets of what felt like bricks up a rather steep staircase, while they effortlessly floated up the steps with the same load like some laundry washing ballerinas.
At first, I was shocked at how this tiny room, barely larger than the size of my bedroom, could hold so many children. The first day I was there, all of those tiny bodies jumped on top of me, tiny attention starved hands curiously examining my hair. The smallest boy in the group of about thirty kids, who I nicknamed Charlie because he was not old enough to speak and tell me his name, was particularly attached and his big eyes threatened to water every time I would put him down. During lunchtime, it became apparent that there are simply not enough hands to go around, as one nun and three other women who also worked at the orphanage attempted to get thirty hyperactive toddlers to eat. As I held and fed Charlie, several kids vied for their turn to be fed.
After that first day, I wasn’t sure how my presence would help these kids, if at all. After all, would they even remember me after that week?
On the second day, as soon as I walk into the room, Charlie leap up into my arms before I could even take off my coat. I carried more laundry, played with the children, and chatted with the women that worked at the orphanage in a strange mixture of English-Arabic. It surprised how much joy and happiness I found there, that even though life was hard, there was plenty of laughter to go around. Through conversations with Sister Celeste, one of the nuns who runs the orphanage, I found out that some of the kids are orphans, while others simply stay there during the day while their parents work to find and recycle garbage. The last day before I left, the nuns asked me to stay on for a few more days, insisting that I must come back this summer to visit. It was then that I realized that though the tasks I was performing were simple, the orphanage was severely understaffed, and the personalized attention was what children needed during this developmental period of their life. I wasn’t changing the world, but these kids did not need a world-changer; they needed someone to hold them when they cry, someone to wipe the snot off their face, to sing them a baby lullaby before bedtime.
Sometimes, when I’m wrapped up in the monotonous tumult of everyday life and my sole interaction with the rest of the world comes from CNN or the New York Times, it becomes too easy to see the rest of the world as “them,” a distinct and faceless entity with no connection to me. Yet, when I ran into a close friend a few days after I returned from Egypt, I found it hard to capture the poignancy of my experience in a few sentences. He wanted to hear about the danger and chaos of living in post-revolution Egypt, but all that I mustered up was “I saw some pyramids…I took care of orphans from the zabbaleen community in Cairo… ” These sentences seem hollow and objectively passive, a mere glossing of the social education I’ve received over those past 8 days. But today, I found myself taking my clothes to the laundry room and thinking about doing laundry with Mariam and playing with Charlie, about my week in Cairo. My simple, every day interactions with these incredibly kind, friendly people reawakened in me something that I’ve become desensitized to: a sense of compassion. I realize that we are not “Middle Easterners” and “Americans” but we are simply people, people who do surprisingly similar things and have startlingly similar goals. I only hope that it is these human-to-human interactions that Mariam (and hopefully Charlie) will remember about me, that I somehow made their day a bit brighter by (literally) lessening Mariam’s load and tickling Charlie until he stopped crying.