Development is sustainable only when people can be heard
Listening and learning
photo: Ayman Ibrahim
Belief, like life, can change overnight. One day something seems valuable, the next it does not. The life of Nadia Sarhan is one example of such a metamorphosis. It is a tale of glitz and glamour loosing their allure while the act of giving becomes a priority.
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"My interest was antiques, buying jewelry, the rings on my fingers...but now I can look around me and recognise the real value of life"
"My life changed just like that," she says, her blue eyes gleaming, her eyebrows raising, her head tilting sideways. "In a second," she says, snapping her fingers silently in the air.
"I've always had a busy life," she laughs, "like any mother! And like most of the women I know I gave money to charity and went to bazaars. But my focus was my children -- of whom I'm incredibly proud -- and my interest was antiques, buying jewelry, the rings on my fingers."
Her Garden City apartment certainly reflect years of collecting. The carpets and furniture are of the finest of workmanship.
"But now I can look around me and recognise the real value of life," she says quietly.
Sarhan is as articulate in her speech as she is soft in her manner.
"One day I was at an NGO," she says, "buying embroidery work for myself. And there I was looking at one hand-knitted piece at one of the tables, contemplating the colours and asking the woman in front of me why she hadn't used pink and gray, that if it had been a lighter colour it would have been nicer. I was scrutinising the piece, really muttering about it, when I suddenly noticed she wasn't moving. She was just sitting very still," she says, her hands moving on her lap. "And so I asked her. And I found out," she continues, "that she can't move because she is sick. Almost paralysed, but not able to afford treatment or doctors."
Sarhan pauses, sighs, tilts her head once again, and inhales.
"And it really took my breath away," she says, catching air in her fist and moving it up to her chest. "I was worrying about colours, and the woman in front of me was worrying about her life."
It didn't take much thought for Sarhan to chauffeur the woman to her own doctor.
"It seemed like the natural thing to do," she says. "I've had medical problems in my life and thankfully I have been able to treat them. I've been lucky in that I can afford treatment and the best doctors around the world. This woman couldn't and at that moment it hit me how lucky I have been."
The woman was placed in the care of one of Egypt's better known medical names. The moment acted as a catalyst for Sarhan to start thinking about life.
"There are many such moments in life that pass us by unnoticed, and then there are some that change our lives. I started thinking about the fact that there are other things in life aside from possessions and social gatherings, and I started to think of the privileges I have had as someone who can afford to take care of myself. I also started to consider the fact that while I am lucky enough to be able to care for myself now, what about in 10 or 15 years when I am unable to and need help?"
Sarhan stops to think.
"Why at that moment in particular I was affected in such away I can't tell you, but I suppose one must be open to it, looking for change. You can say you want to change yourself and your life but unless you really want it deep within you it won't happen."
She wanted the change enough that it would result in a more pro-active approach to her charity activities, a more wholehearted, hands-on approach to development.
"I wanted to do something that would have concrete results," she says. "Change you can see. Not just on the outside, in the way people dress, or their homes, or streets," she explains, "but in their minds. And I wanted something sustainable."
It started with health.
"You can't do everything at once," she says. "The first thing we did was help a man who needed a kidney transplant. With a group of other women I had collected money for charities, printed t-shirts for them, things like that. So we thought, why can't we pool our resources and contacts together and help this man."
They did, gathering the LE25,000 necessary to buy the kidney, then networking across the country to find a doctor who would perform the surgery for free.
"We wanted the best," Sarhan says. "And thankfully some of the most eminent doctors in their fields are also extremely distinguished human beings. I prefer not to mention names," she says apologetically. "But this man was in the hands of another eminent doctor. In that way this project has been remarkable -- it has brought together an incredible group of people, all wanting to help in whatever way they can."
The project, now known as the Rawda Abu Ghaleb Society, was always multifaceted.
"My dream is to create a top quality nursing home in the country," she says. "One like you find abroad, with top quality medical services, entertainment, wonderful grounds. I looked into that in depth, travelling to the United States and Turkey to research services there, visit homes, see how we could collaborate. In the US I even spent a few weeks training at a nursing home, then I came back and in 1996 went to AUC and got a diploma in hospital management, and more recently another in quality health care."
"That's how the initial gathering for the society came about," she explains. "The best doctors, businessmen, architects in the country, and a group of eager, generous women," she continues. "I bought the plot of land -- in Abu Ghaleb because it's a scenic area that's pollution free -- and brought these people together to brainstorm and map it out: a medical centre and clinic, a mosque and a community centre -- a place where women in particular could develop and better their lives. The plan was that part of the profit from the nursing home would go into the social services centres we were creating."
The nursing home was designed by a local architect.
"'It's the architect that proposed the name of the association," she offers. "Rawda means paradise."
Everything, it appeared, was ready for the launch. But then destiny, which had other plans, intervened.
"The people of the area were extremely sceptical at first," she says. "They asked us what we wanted from them, saying that many people had come to the area before saying they wanted to help but that they had never done anything. It took time to build up trust."
Just like the project, however, it took off, and the social service element of Rawda Abu Ghaleb brought to the locals things that had long seemed out of reach .
"Like I said, people need tangible, sustainable change. Building a road is helping the community in some way, but that's just the façade."
To get beneath the façade involves tackling social norms, expectations and upbringing.
"We wanted to show people a different side of life, teach them how to create something for themselves. Our initial interest was orphans and widowed or divorced women, because in their case the breadwinner of the family is missing and they're often unable to meet the demands made by the family."
Like many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) Rawda Abu Ghaleb established a learning centre aimed at combating illiteracy among women in the area.
"We service not just Abu Ghaleb," she adds, "but the surrounding towns as well, such as Wardan, which is a town of 25,000 people. We consider proposals from women, and men in some cases, who want to start their own businesses. We can't accept all the proposals so we conduct feasibility studies in which the applicants have to partake. They need to look into why a project will or won't work. They need to be a part of the process so that they can guide others later.
"One of our conditions is that the project involves creating, not just selling. And we only help with one element of any proposal -- like buying the kunafa machine for someone, or buying the threads and needles for someone, or buying a few chickens for someone to breed. With the money they make they sustain the project -- even if it's a simple thing like making cheese at home and selling it outside their house. We act only as guides. The important thing is that the women are making something and are using part of the profit to sustain the project. And to pay us back."
There is momentary silence in the room -- a sign of confusion.
"Yes, we expect the women to pay us back because we want them to feel that satisfaction. Anyone who has borrowed money knows how good it feels to pay back. And it also makes them feel that they are real businesswomen -- that their project is really their own."
And of course they are rewarded.
"Incentives are important," Sarhan says in her trademark, soft-spoken manner. "A few days ago I gave a woman a new galabiya. Or if you know a woman needs medication you buy it for her occasionally as incentive to work, because you don't want her to spend all her money on medication then not be able to sustain her business."
"It is incredible how much you learn through these people," she says. "About both your own life and the other side of life. I know, for example, that a certain number of women are meant to be at the centre learning to read and write, or learning a craft on a particular day. At first I would go to the centre and if one of the women wasn't there I would immediately question her absence. Why was she missing, what was the excuse? I'd then find out that her child was sick and she was nursing him because of course she can't afford child care."
Sarhan shakes her head as she recalls the case of one woman -- one of many -- who changed her life in another way.
"She was a divorced mother of two," she says. "It was just a few days ago. We were distributing things for the Eid -- pullovers, dried food -- and this woman comes forward and I hear her story. She is unable to cope -- she doesn't understand how to meet the demands of being both a mother and breadwinner, and so of course my immediate reaction is to ask her why she doesn't come to our workshops." Her intonation rises uncharacteristically, as if to emphasise her initial disbelief at the lack of will to develop. "And then she explained," she says, her voice softening and the judgment subsiding. "This woman looked me in the eye and explained to me that her children, a boy and a girl, both go to school, which costs her LE1 a day in transportation. And she just looked at me, and she had a beautiful face, and said to me 'if I come to your workshop it will cost me another one pound in transportation, and I can't afford to pay three pounds a day towards transportation because then my children won't eat properly'."
Sarhan is silent for a moment.
"And it was only at that moment that I learned the value of one pound."
It was such realisations along the way, Sarhan says, that helped both herself and the others sculpt the project further.
"It's things like this that make you understand what life really is to these people. There are many big development projects around and they start with a big plan and simply come in and implement it. It's critical to really listen to the people, get to know them and their families and how they think. You have to really be there with them if you want to help."
The result of the association's approach to work has been a flood of interest.
"We've been very lucky," she says shyly. "The response has been touching. We've received donations from many organisations, UNICEF has chosen to work with us, the WHO has given us materials, and many foundations and trusts are adopting our causes as their own. When one of our people needs an eye operation, they get it and get the best, not through our centre but through the collaboration of others, like Al-Nour Hospital and Qasr Al-Aini and Mustafa Mahmoud. Because of this we can take quality medical care to the people, and we are starting a mobile clinic after the Eid," she adds. "The amount of good I have seen in the country through these people and organisations is reassuring," she says. "And the good in the people themselves."
Sarhan tells of one woman who was a regular at workshops before becoming part of the micro-lending project.
"She came to the centre one day and hesitantly asked the doctor something which really took me by surprise," she recalls. "She asked one doctor if circumcision is a good or bad thing, and she asked him to explain why," Sarhan continues, grasping her hands together, smiling and shaking her head. "And then a few weeks later, I find her coming up to me, her arm clasped in her sisters, and telling me 'Mme Sarhan, this is my sister, I told her circumcision is bad and not to do it to her daughter, but she doesn't believe me, so tell her. I told her you would explain'."
She shakes her head again in a mix of grateful disbelief at both the change and the growth.
"It is moments like this that make what we do the most rewarding thing in life. It is a gift from God that I have a nice home and food on my table and a mind to think with. Beyond that it is these people that give me peace of mind at the end of the day, as they do the other women in the association. I just happen to be at the forefront, but any forefront is just a façade. Without the support pillars I would be nothing."
Sarhan's shyness suddenly consumes the moment, and she apologises for all the time she has taken up. She is prodded to continue, and she takes another moment to consider.
"Literacy is not just a matter of reading and writing," she resumes. "It's very much about issues and thinking and the mind. I can teach a woman to read and write but it doesn't mean I have taught her to think and look after herself and her well-being. That is our goal, because once we have done that then we know that these women can then help others in the community. That's one thing we focus on -- choosing others to act as guides. Once we tackle that element of development, then we are also tackling sustainability."
Sarhan excuses herself to silence a ringing phone. As she returns, she waves her arm around her.
"Of course it's nice to have a comfortable home and beautiful pieces of furniture," she says, smiling. "But I have learned that it means nothing at the end of the day if you have no human contact and come home to an empty house. It's amazing how empowering sharing can be. When you give out of yourself," she says, "you get so much more in return."