How does change happen? Does it primarily come from decisions taken by presidents and the powerful, or is it something more subversive that springs up from underground?
Having the chance to return to Cairo brought back happy memories of good friends from many countries, walking by the Nile, and unbroken sunshine in a place I loved dearly.
But there was always more to life here than that, and with the focus of this trip meaning I have spent most of every day visiting people who are working with Egypt’s most vulnerable communities, I have been firmly reminded of how relentless a struggle life is for the majority of people living here.
And yet, as always, my work gives me the incomparable privilege of seeing hope emerging quietly but with strength in unexpected places. In our current political situation I have been thinking about how we might have something to learn from these people who have many years’ experience of continuing to work for justice and change in uncertain and turbulent times, and I believe their experience shows us some principles about how we might model the compassion and justice we seek to advocate for:
Get to know those you’re fighting for…
I visited a group of nuns who have been living and working amongst the zabaleen people on the outskirts of Cairo (above) for many years. Life for this community who make their living from sorting through and recycling Cairo’s rubbish remains difficult and dangerous, and poverty is pervasive. These nuns have been consistently present in the midst of this. By virtue of being there, they have built strong relationships and respect, and can notice and respond to deeper, more complex needs – currently they are working to develop anti-addiction programmes and providing catch-up education for working children.
… And stay there
I’ve also been challenged by the persistence and commitment of those I’ve met this week in Egypt, not just caring when it’s popular but in it with those they’re working on behalf of for the long haul. One project which began by supporting a single deaf child now works with children and adults with a myriad of different disabilities and at the same time still seeks to do the best for each individual to develop to their full potential. Alongside this practical work they advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Egypt.
Work with people who aren’t like you
The most powerful forces for change I’ve seen are those which bring together people who you would never expect to find together in the same room. This week I met an interfaith, inter-generational, child protection committee which included children themselves as well as representatives of the local health department, education and government ministries who were seriously working together to improve children’s access to their rights in this one community.
Make space to hear the voices of the marginalised
Over several years this child protection committee is now seeing significant change and impact through being there, being committed and working together. The children themselves have learnt about their rights, been trained in advocacy, and have gone out into their community to understand the needs of children. Over the last seven years, among other things, they have had a huge impact in improving the working conditions for the many children involved in child labour in the local workshops and factories; one teenage boy said,
“We learned how to deal with workshop owners, and now they will listen to a child; now we can deal with anyone.”
The impact of children themselves speaking up for change and seeing it happen is immense, and slowly but surely, change is coming in this community.
And so: what if, rather than responding in kind to acts and words of intolerance, we could break this cycle of violence with responses that embody the very compassion for which we advocate?
While it would be a wholly undeserved grace, I suspect a president is more likely to be disarmed by accepting a cup of sweet Syrian tea and a welcome from those he fears, than by a petition signed by 2 million against him; or that speaking gently and recognising and putting aside my arrogance to really seek to understand the reasons why someone can think so differently to me, might make more difference than sharing a facebook post ridiculing their point of view.
While the need to challenge unjust policies and practices remains critical and political engagement is essential, I have a feeling that the quiet stories of genuine compassion like those I’ve witnessed in Egypt this week in fact also have significant power to transform systems and policies. Beginning from the actions of people like these Egyptians, and like you and me, little by little something totally new is created from the seemingly insignificant threads of our actions weaving together. Let’s be part of this story.