The Enterprising Women behind the Egyptian Craft Sale

This is the season for quilt-shopping at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Not to mention rugs, stationery, stuffed toys, costume jewelry, handbags and dozens of other items.

Suzan and Nimet HabachyIt's the season of the Egyptian Craft Sale, returning to the LaDane Williamson Christian Education Center for the eighth consecutive year on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 8-9.

You know the story behind this worthy exercise in international commerce. All of the merchandise is made of recycled materials, handcrafted by women and girls from an impoverished community (the Zabbaleen) in Cairo. In 2010, women taking part in Fifth Avenue's mission trip to Egypt observed this program firsthand, and returned home determined to support it. The church has hosted the craft sale ever since. All proceeds go directly to Egypt to finance the Zabbaleen program and support community schools.

But here are some things you may not know.

"Zabbaleen" is an Arabic word meaning "garbage collectors," and that is what this community does—it scrapes together a living collecting and sorting the garabage of the city of Cairo.

The Zabbaleen pre-school.The Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) in Cairo created the rug-weaving program in 1987 to help young Zabbaleen women learn an income-generating skill and attain basic knowledge in reading and math (necessary for weaving intricate designs). Over the last 30 years, more than 1,500 women have been trained and taken part in this program, which expanded to include quilting, paper recycling and embroidery.

"This program demonstrates a lesson that I have learned over and over in my career," says Suzan Habachy, a native of Egypt (now a New Yorker) who led the mission trip in 2010. "When you educate women, you change communities."

Suzan and her siblings (brother Nazeeh and sister Nimet) emigrated as children to the United States with their parents in 1954. The family joined Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church shortly after. Suzan spent most of her career at the United Nations, working on behalf of women.

The Habachys have maintained close ties with their home country. Suzan and Nimet became involved in supporting the Zabbaleen more than 25 years ago, hosting crafts sales in Nimet's apartment for neighbors and friends. Their efforts grew from there. The American market has enabled the Zabbaleen to keep vital schools for their children (including a new pre-K school), create jobs, secure medical care and rise above a subsistence economy.

Zabbaleen women create jobs for their families."Nimet and I were so excited when last we visited in March," Suzan says. "Women are now employing their husbands to help with rug-weaving and quilt-making. Women employing men is novel in Egypt, which is such a patriarchal society. But if you give women a chance, they will work very hard and change the community for the better."

The Zabbaleen program has been a success for the local environment as well. Although they are a small community, the Zabbaleen handle 40 percent of the waste from Cairo, a city of more than 20 million. According to APE, the Zabbaleen are able to recycle nearly 85 percent of the garbage they collect, "a diversion rate that is much higher than most cities in Europe and North America."

Spinning textile remnants and discarded paper into merchandise is only part of the story. A good share of credit also goes to the pigs.

The Zabbaleen keep pigs to consume an extraordinary amount of the city's garbage. "The Zabbaleen are largely Coptic Christians," Suzan explains. "They don't regard the pigs as unclean, as the Muslim majority does. That is how the Zabbaleen became garbage collectors in the first place."

When the Egyptian government attempted to eradicate the pigs in 2009 (falsely asserting that the animals spread swine flu), "the clever Zabbaleen ladies hid their pigs inside and under their houses to keep them safe until the policy changed," Suzan says.

As the Egyptian Craft Sale approaches, the Habachys have two messages for their loyal Fifth Avenue customers. First, bring friends. "We realize that many of our church friends already have all the quilts they need. That's why new customers are so important." And second, there's new merchandise to be had. "We've got pillow covers embroidered in Egyptian motifs, and shiny, silver bags crafted from the pop-tops of soda cans. Not to mention some special sale items."

The sale is on from 12 until 7 pm both days.

This entry was posted in General News Outreach

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