Living as a religious minority anywhere in the world can present unique challenges. It can impact daily life, impeding access to education, livelihood opportunities, and economic stability. That is what led Egyptian-born Nermien Riad to found the organization Coptic Orphans. Since its establishment in 1988, Nermien has encountered thousands of orphans and vulnerable children from Egypt’s Coptic Christian community and has seen that for children without a father, life is especially challenging. When husbands and fathers are not present, children and mothers do not have a voice in Egyptian society. Further, despite the country’s rich Christian heritage, around only 13 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christian, making them a minority in the culture. The term Coptic “…refers most commonly to Egypt’s Christians who trace their origins back to the first Christian communities that existed during the time of the apostles.” Nermien believes that the global Church must “remember that Egypt provided refuge to Jesus Christ when he and his family were in need, and return the hospitality to Egyptian orphans and vulnerable children.”
Coptic Orphans’ foundational program, Not Alone, works to restore children with “the protection, provision, and confidence that [they] lost after a father’s death or abandonment,” and to utilize each child’s unique gifts to develop children into agents of change in their communities. The program operates closely with and through the Coptic Church, all over Egypt. Bishops and priests recruit adults from their local diocese to volunteer as Coptic Orphans Representatives. After they pass an extensive interview process, they are trained by the organization in how to conduct outreach to children and families. Each week, the Not Alone Representatives visit the children they are assigned to support, developing strong relationships with the whole family. Representatives continue to receive ongoing, extensive training on issues such as parental empowerment of children, building strong character, and developing a sense of volunteerism.
Not only has this model helped to meet the needs of thousands of children and strengthened their families, but it has also served to support the local Coptic Church. Because there are virtually no safety nets for this vulnerable and marginalized population, the church is often the only source of provision for those in need. Coptic Orphans provides the church with a sustainable way of supporting vulnerable children and families by establishing a formal structure for Christians to help their own community through a systematic approach.
During the 25 years of traveling to her homeland and visiting thousands of families on behalf of Coptic Orphans, Nermien encountered a family that exemplifies the need for Coptic Orphans’ work, and the success that can come as a result of its interventions. The family had just lost its husband and father. The mother, Mariam,* had four children, the eldest, named Abraam, being only eight.* Mariam shared how she loved her husband, who had left behind a family headed by a formally uneducated mother with no means of generating income, whose mind was left paralyzed by her new, seemingly destitute reality. Nermien witnessed a conversation between Mariam and her son Abraam, who said, “Mom, please don’t cry. I’m the man of the house now, I will go and work.” This further broke Mariam’s heart, and she replied, “No, Abraam, you haven’t even enjoyed your childhood yet.” In their area, the only means of income generation was mining in a limestone quarry, one of the most physically demanding and dangerous forms of work that children in Egypt perform every day.
Coptic Orphans stepped in so that Abraam could go to school and not to the mines. Through the Not Alone program, Mariam received the material support she needed to continue caring for her children. All of the children are in school and learning to read, which is a highly valuable gift in a country that has an adult literacy rate of only 73.9 percent. Mariam was able to keep the family together and protect her children from the very real dangers that they likely would have walked straight into had they not received support, care, encouragement, and love from their Coptic Orphans Representative.
Within a marginalized community, where so much of life is uncontrollable, the mentoring of children by the Coptic Orphan Representatives is a vitally important aspect of the work, as they help children to see possibilities for their future. Because of Coptic Orphans’ support, children who have benefitted from the Not Alone program have gone on to become Representatives themselves, while others have even become donors to the organization that helped them realize their future dreams. This success is shared by Coptic Orphans staff, Representatives, and the local church, and most importantly, by the families that were able to continue loving each other into their better future—together.
*Names have been changed.