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St. Joseph’s School in Cairo, where radicalism is fought in the classroom

"Those who educate a young boy educate a man, but those who educate a young girl educate a whole nation.” A journey into St. Joseph’s Language School, run by the Comboni Sisters in the heart of Cairo, where Muslim and Christian girls are taught the value of dialogue and friendship. The future of Egypt passes through here

Sohad Hossam El Din Hasan is 16; her dream is to become a doctor. Marian George Essmat is also 16, and when she grows up she want to be an interpreter. The first girl is Muslim, while the other is Christian. They share the same classroom and the same dreams. They see the world with the same light in their eye. The future of Egypt is here, in the hearts of these two young women. We visited St. Joseph’s Language School, a school run by the Comboni Sisters in the heart of Cairo, in the neighbourhood of Zamalek, a small island washed by the waters of the Nile. Since 1915 every morning the school opens its doors to over one thousand young girls, without distinction on grounds of religion or convictions. They are followed from kindergarten to the final exam granting access to University. Here they learn the value of friendship: the true friendship that knows how to extend bridges of fraternity across the fences of diversity.

Every morning the girls convene in the schoolyard and with a hand on their chest they sing the national anthem to pay homage to the Country. “I’m ready to give my life for Egypt.” But the Country, outside these coloured classrooms, is going through one of the most difficult periods in history, scarred by terror attacks that sowed fear and terror with blood. Immediately after the terror attacks perpetrated by Daesh terrorists on Palm Sunday, President al-Sisi proclaimed a State of Emergency. The streets near the Christian churches are closed to the traffic, patrolled 24 hours a day by law enforcement authorities. Although life in the streets goes on with the usual chaos, Egyptian people cherish the hope that this Country will soon have a better future, in the firm belief that President al-Sisi is working for it.

“At St. Joseph’s school we swim against the tide”, said Sr. Samiha Ragheb, the enterprising Comboni headmistress of St. Joseph. “Dialogue has become the watchword of the new way of understanding the mission today and the new frontier of Gospel proclamation. While the word verges towards fanaticism, here we teach tolerance, respect for others, acceptance of diversity.

In those places where they instil hatred we sow love, to those who preach division we reply that we are all sisters and brothers, sons and daughters of the same Father.”

Here everyone is accepted. There is no form of discrimination; nobody is left out. All pupils are proposed the six principles characterising the school’s didactics: to cultivate sincere friendship: to listen; to promote fear-removing love; to always see the best side of other people; to treat the other person with utmost respect and to view others with the eyes of God.

Pope Francis will arrive in this corner of the world to reinforce the gushes of dialogue and brotherhood flowing throughout the Country.

Egypt’s small Christian community is awaiting with great anticipation and emotion. “The Pope – said Sr. Samiha – is a man of God, and here in Egypt there is great respect for the men of God, for the men and women religious. The Pope is a person loved by everyone for the human gestures he made in so many areas of the world.”

Francis will find a Country with a collapsed economy.

Since November the Country has been hit by a high inflation, causing skyrocketing prices that are bringing Egyptian people to their knees. Cairo, with its 25 million inhabitants, is the most populated African city, second only to the Nigerian capital, Lagos. Also illiteracy is a persisting plague, especially in southern Egypt, in the area along the banks of the Nile, where children are sent to work in the fields at a very young age. Although the government is putting much effort to improve the situation, recovery requires long and complex processes.

At St. Joseph they are aware that the future of a Country rests on education, and that the Country needs open minds and moderate people. The school offers advanced courses in the French and English language, there are physics and science laboratories, innovative Arabic programs, as well as classes in moral values, where, inter alia, students learn how to prevent acts of violence against women.

The doors of this school are always open, even to those who can’t afford to pay the fees. Also Sudanese girls attend the school, along with refugees from Eritrea, Syria, and other nationalities. Here the future is painted in pink. Young girls are taught to view the world with responsibility and optimism. They will be the ones to guide the Country. Marian’s eyes are the hopeful signs of a new Egypt. Speaking fluent English, she said that women have the same rights as men and that they “know how to fight to obtain what they want; without giving up.” In the charism of the Comboni order the woman is the family, she represents leadership, she is an ambassador of peace, as well as a constant element of harmony and moderation.

“Educating a young boy means educating a man, but educating a young girl is to educate a whole nation.”

Sohad and Marian have to return to class. They have to study for their upcoming final exams. In fact the school term in Egypt will end soon, sooner compared to previous years for this year Ramadan begins at the end of May. Their lives are like the white doves depicted on the logo of the school with the planet Earth. They are ready to fly away to bring the values of peace and fraternity, that make this school the crown jewel of an emerging new Egypt, throughout the whole world.

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