Egypt’s Zabbaleen Christians ‘Need Us More Than Ever’

On Palm Sunday last month, suicide bombers targeted Coptic churches in two Egyptian cities, killing at least 45 people and injuring more than 100. The news made for a sobering start to Holy Week for Christians around the world -- particularly for a group of women here at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

For them, this was more than an attack on fellow Christians. It was an attack on their friends.

Zabbaleen children in Egypt.In 2010, about a dozen women from the church traveled on a mission trip to Egypt led by Suzan Habachy (a native of Egypt and a longtime member of the church) and Jennifer Cate, executive director of Hands Along the Nile, a US-based nonprofit (now an FAPC mission partner). In Cairo, the women met a community of Coptic Christians called the Zabbaleen.

The Zabbaleen work as garbage collectors and live in extreme poverty. But Zabbaleen women and girls have turned discarded paper and textile remnants into an industry. From the city's scraps the women create colorful quilts and decorative pillows, stationery, jewelry, stuffed animals, coasters and trivets -- a fascinating array of items they sell to tourists and abroad.

Proceeds fund local schools and training programs, which offer the best hope for lifting the community to a better standard of living. So in 2011, the women from the mission trip began selling the Zabbaleen merchandise here. Now in its seventh year, the Egyptian Craft Sale returns to the LaDane Williamson Christian Education Center on Tuesday and Wednesday (May 9-10).

"As I keep saying, they need us more than ever," Suzan says. "Just as tourism was beginning to improve, the terrible bombings of the churches happened, and now tourists will shun Egypt again. And the poor will be the poorer as a result."

Events such Zabbaleen-made merchandise at the Egyptian Craft Sale.as the Egyptian Craft Sale have helped sustain both the Zabbaleen schools and the spirits of the artisans.

"Nimet (my sister) and I were in Cairo in March and were very lovingly and warmly received," Suzan reports. "We talked about our church in America and the friends they have here. We chose many new and colorful toy sets for our sale, as well as the best of the quilts, bags, rugs and purses."

With less than two weeks to go before the FAPC sale, the Habachys were still waiting anxiously for their 20 boxes of merchandise to arrive.

"No planes coming into JFK can carry cargo from Egypt," Suzan says. "The boxes have gone through Germany, and Nimet and I are keeping our fingers crossed, hoping they will arrive by May 9th. Last word was that they were in Canada."

Pope Francis recently spent two days in Egypt to show solidarity with the country’s Christian minority, lend support to the government's crackdown on ISIS-backed terrorism, and deliver a message of peace and unity.

“No civilized society can be built without repudiating every ideology of evil, violence and extremism that presumes to suppress others and to annihilate diversity by manipulating and profaning the sacred name of God," the Pope said.

Meanwhile, Egyptian's Christians are taking steps to protect themselves.

"I learned that the Coptic churches in Egypt are all trying to raise money in order to place metal detectors in their churches," Suzan says. "What a terrible thing to have to report."


Update! Just as this story was about to be published, the church received another email from Suzan Habachy. "They have arrived. Just a very harrowing few days ago."

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