It’s a place that feels as though it’s beyond hope. It has existed on the fringes of Cairo for generations, a maze of crumbling, dark dwellings and narrow streets of packed dirt, trodden by emaciated donkeys pulling wooden carts towering with stacks of rubbish.
This is the place where the “garbage-pickers” live. Fifty thousand of them. They pick up and sort greater Cairo’s waste – the rubbish of 22 million people – and recycle what they can for a few coins a day. They separate rotting food, used nappies, hypodermic needles, broken glass, plastic, metal and crumpled paper. They live in sewage, disease and stench. There is little clean water. Among many families, violence, addiction and abuse are a way of life. Electricity is scarce and the nights are full of dangers. Many of the children born here will die before they are five years old. Some starve; some succumb to dysentery. The residents of this place are known in Arabic as the Zabaleen: garbage people.
Years ago, as a socially conscious Christian, Maggie had visited Cairo’s garbage slums at Christmas and Easter with other friends from her church. During one such visit, she saw movement in a pile of shredded paper and plastic. She gently dug in the rubbish, and found a tiny child. Her heart broke. She began to spend more and more time in the slum, building relationships with children there. They started calling her “Mama Maggie” – and Maggie’s comfortable, conventional life began
In the late 1980s, Maggie and her husband, Ibrahim, started a ministry called Stephen’s Children, named after the first martyr recorded in the New Testament. Today, Stephen’s Children helps poor children in the garbage slums of Cairo and far beyond, bringing spiritual and physical food, education, training, medical services, love and care to children like young Anthony, kids who had never known hope before. Today, Stephen’s Children has helped more than 30,000 children and families. Twenty per cent of the ministry’s 1,500 workers and volunteers were served by the ministry when they were young.
Though most people have never heard of Gigi, or Anthony, or any other of Mama Maggie’s children, many around the world have now heard about some of her boys. Of the 21 young Coptic men who were murdered by ISIS forces on the beach in Libya in mid-February, seven were loved and trained by Mama Maggie’s ministry when they were young. They learnt the great, ancient truths of the faith. They learnt, like Anthony, about dignity, hope and forgiveness. They learnt about the love of God. They memorised Philippians 4:13. Two of the martyrs went on to teach in Mama Maggie’s schools when they got older.
So, when their time came, on that beach in Libya, they did not cower in fear before the black-garbed cowards who would kill them. They looked up, their eyes on heaven, and died whispering the name of Jesus. And in that moment, they learnt the utter, enormous reality about how human beings can indeed do all things, through the eternal power of Christ who strengthens us.
As the mother of 29-year-old Samuel Abraham said: “We thank ISIS. Now more people believe in Christianity because of them. ISIS showed what Christianity is. We thank God that our relatives are in heaven.”