PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Into Egypt, Day 3

We got to sleep in a little later this morning, heading out at 8:20 a.m. to our first site, the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan. We try to get out a bit earlier because traffic in Cairo is absolutely insane and I’ve never heard so much beeping. So many cars, so many people.

On our way to the mosque we passed by the City of the Dead, which is two 4-mile-long cemeteries surrounded by impoverished areas of Cairo.  I would have liked to explore the area in more depth but was told it is nearly impossible to do.

The first mosque we visited  was constructed in only three years, beginning in 1356 CE. At the time of construction, the mosque was considered remarkable for its fantastic size and innovative architectural components. What struck me the most was that it was designed to include all four branches of Islam as part of a seminary so that Muslims could come together to discuss their different interpretations of the Koran. What a novel idea to promote sharing opinions and understanding how others think.

We followed that with a tour of Al-Rifa’i Mosque, which is also the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, as well King Farauk, the second to last king of Egypt. His sister was married to the Shah of Iran, and his resting place was also there. What struck me immediately was the abundance of fresh flowers. They are placed there almost daily by Iranians to come and pay homage to him.

Our next stop was a visit arranged by my friends Karla and David Grafton, who spent many years in Cairo. We toured the Naimo Center, a center for unaccompanied youth who are refugees run by the StARS Center, a refugee service center funded in part by the ELCA.

The center is named in honor of an unaccompanied young woman, who died in transit to Europe, in one of the boats that people, in other desperation, use to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The focus of the center is to provide support services, educational training and other necessities for refugees who come to Egypt, mostly from the northern part of Africa, including Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, as well as Syria.

Unlike the refugee settlements with which I work, these unaccompanied refugees are not provided with a place to live, but in given approximately one-third of the amount to survive if they receive U.N. refugee status. The Egyptian government provides absolutely nothing to refugees, so these youths are often left with no means to survive. Programs to assist are largely provided by social service organizations. But to be approved, they need to serve all people in a completely sectarian nature. Because of the nature of the center, I obviously could not take any pictures.

We were all deeply moved by their work, however, as well as the amazing staff we met. Over 90 percent had come to Egypt as refugees themselves. They work to help make connections with the the youth to the different refugee communities in area where the communities are able to provide something of a support network, albeit surrounded by poverty. Without this support, many of the young women would end up going into prostitution simply to survive. Imagine having to flee a place for refuge knowing that prostitution was better than persecution.

For me, the highlight was making connection with one of the social workers who came from South Sudan. She knew the Mungula settlement at I work in Uganda. Her level of excitement was palpable.

Cindy, who does a great deal of philanthropic work, also loved the experience, but I think the highlight for her was discovering Eritrean coffee. They put ginger in it, and I think that was a game changer for Cindy.

We were both grateful for the opportunity to learn more about a part of Cairo that is not covered in the tours and the reality of the rising number of refugees in the world and the impact they have.

Our next stop was the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which houses the greatest collection of Pharaonic treasures in the world. Our guide, whose knowledge is jaw-dropping, showed us the highlights of these artifacts, including the Tutankhamun Collection of Golden Treasures. She was able to highlight some things that we probably would’ve passed over and never understood their significance. This is the first time I have taken a guided tour like this, and I found it incredibly enlightening.

As enlightening as it was, both Cindy and I were ready for the nap we had when we got back to our hotel. We ventured out to a restaurant recommended by our guide for some Egyptian food and then found our way to a neighboring hotel for a drink at their top-floor bar as we looked at sunset over the Nile River. We hear the call to prayer echo over the city, which as they celebrate Ramadan is full of positive faithful fervor.

I am so glad David and Karla suggested we come during Ramadan. While things close a bit earlier, the weather is perfect and it feels like a spirit akin to Christmas season, complete with decorative lanterns and lights hung all around the city. We were told that the Egyptian’s are the only ones who decorate to celebrate Ramadan, which makes sense given the very positive and delightful, playful energy that the Egyptian’s exude.

Another full day of learning and experiencing life in Cairo.

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