God in the Recycling Business - The Zabbaleen of Cairo

by Rebecca Atallah



The teenage boy standing at our door was so dirty I could hardly make out his features. He wore clothes I wouldn't even have used as rags. The large, decrepit-looking basket slung over his shoulder was almost full of rubbish; its weight had already caused him to be stoop-shouldered.


It was the summer of 1980. My husband and I had just moved to Cairo from Montreal, Canada, with our two small children. When we asked the young man what he wanted, he explained that he was our garbage boy and would be coming every day to collect our rubbish - he wanted it! This was my introduction to the Zabbaleen, the 'garbage people' of Cairo. I came to realise that he belonged to one of the most despised classes in Cairene society, in spite of providing a great service to the city, which had no public garbage disposal at the time. At no cost to the government, and at very little cost to individual citizens, the Zabbaleen not only collected but also recycled most of the city's rubbish.



In 1982, having finished my Arabic language study, I visited a 'garbage village' in Cairo, hidden away in the Mokattam Hills. At the local church, I met a Coptic Orthodox Christian named Simon. Eight years before, he had befriended his garbage boy, led him to the Lord and finally gone to meet his family. There Simon found a ghetto of about 17,000 people, living in what could only be described as hell on earth. They were squatters on a barren piece of land occupied only by themselves, their animals and their rubbish - all of these basically on top of each other. No services were provided for them and they had no utilities, no schools, churches, mosques, medical care, etc. They believed they were of no value to either God or man, and as a result, often resorted to wasting their meagre earnings on drugs and alcohol, making little attempt to better their situations.


In spite of the terrible living conditions, Simon found the Zabbaleen very responsive to him and to the gospel message. He began by ministering to their inner needs and tackling the root of the problem, which was their alienation from both God and society. He, in a sense, embodied God's love by identifying with the people as much as possible. He ate with them and listened to their cares. Then he brought his wife and young children to live with them in the village at the weekends and during the summer. By popular demand, and with the conviction that God was directing him, Simon gave up his job in the printing business to become the first village pastor.


In the next few years things changed rapidly as these people were filled with the love and power of God. They were now motivated to do something to help themselves and to better provide for their families. Instead of simply drinking away their earnings, they began saving their money to build small homes. They realised they were human beings, like everyone else, originally created in the image of God and able to be remade by Him, as they opened their hearts and allowed Him to work in their lives.



The Zabbaleen began to change from the inside, and soon realised they could have an effect on their surroundings and their entire village. They responded eagerly to the suggestion to build a church and then a school. In 1982, about eight years after Simon's first visit there, my friend and I arrived in the village. It was already radically altered; we could even see it in the stronger structures of people's homes.


The first school classrooms were in the process of being built and we quickly found a place to serve, by helping with the building and organisation of that small school. We also helped to train its teachers, all of whom, to this day, come from the village itself.


If you visit the Mokattam Garbage Village (MGV) today, you will find it a large, bustling town of over 60,000 people. They not only collect and store rubbish but also do most of the recycling there, in small factories and businesses, which provide the inhabitants with many related jobs.



When Simon went to work in the MGV, God promised him that, one day, He would use the inhabitants of the MGV to bless all of Egypt. It was only when Simon, and others, discovered that the mountainous area just above the village had many natural caves, that he began to understand how God would fulfil this promise. They started turning the caves into small churches, planting trees and shrubs on what had been desert land. Mario, a Polish sculptor, arrived and began to carve enormous Bible scenes on the cliffs surrounding the cave churches. He also worked with some young men from the MGV to teach them a love of art and the principles of sculpture.


However, the cave churches were made all the more famous when the people of the MGV discovered a very large natural cave, which, with the help of some wealthy businessmen, was developed into a church auditorium, seating up to 3,000 people. Finally, another cave was turned into a church amphitheatre, which now seats more than 20,000, making this the largest church in the Middle East!



Over the years I became acquainted with a remarkable ministry to disabled and chronically ill people in the MGV, called The Family of Love, which is run by a dedicated group of young people. I soon realised that these disabled people at the village were the 'new poor', as they were the neediest and most alienated group among the rubbish collectors. I decided to join them.


After many years of ministry, we started praying about building a centre for the disabled. The Lord helped us to do this on a piece of land owned by the church, situated in the middle of the MGV. Six of the eight floors of the Centre of Love are now finished and we've been open and functioning for almost four years. This well-built and beautiful building means that these needy children are being served in the best facility in the MGV. Only God could do something like this!


Now most of my time at the MGV is spent in helping out at the Centre of Love. Here we serve more than 60 children with mental and sometimes physical challenges. Apart from the volunteers and doctors, all the staff come from the MGV, so this ministry really is run by the Zabbaleen themselves. They have come, with God's help, from being 'served' to being the 'servers'.

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