CAIRO — Abdulrahman Sulaiman Salama had never believed weapons alone can resolve the war between the Egyptian army and extremist groups. The activist realized that although weapons can kill extremists, they can't kill their ideology, so he decided to fight back using an ideology of his own.
Salama established the Mariam Center to educate children in North Sinai. In addition to a standard curriculum, students are taught art and prepared to face the extremist ideology they might encounter in their lives. The project started with three volunteer teachers and 15 children, who attend for free.
Salama, along with a group of young people who share his dream and beliefs, began their work in mid-2017 in al-Madbaa, a neighborhood of al-Rawda village in el-Arish. Their dream was born in a small tent, where they first taught children who fled the clashes between the army and extremists in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah.
Mariam Gomaa, a professor at el-Arish University and al-Madbaa resident, took it upon herself to teach the displaced children standard school curricula, in addition to painting and resisting anti-extremist discourse, while Salama handled the administrative tasks and drove the children to and from the center.
The project spread and attracted more children and volunteers, especially after the Ministry of Education backed the project and promised to reproduce it in other villages in North Sinai. But the Nov. 24 bombing of al-Rawda's mosque ended any chances for Salama to see his dream come to life, because he was one of the victims killed while praying there.
Khaled Zayed, a volunteer teacher at the center, told Al-Monitor, “The idea of establishing an enlightenment center in al-Rawda village was to help the children who were displaced from Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah and moved here to al-Madbaa, which is about 5 kilometers [3 miles] from the nearest school. Gomaa feared these children would fall prey to extremist ideas if they remained uneducated, so she started teaching them in the tent, making use of the little resources she had and with Salama’s help.”
He added, “The media first publicized this initiative, then the Ministry of Education announced its support for the project and a room was built to replace the tent as the headquarters of the enlightenment center. The ministry pledged to support the project and spread it throughout Sinai because it teaches children national principles and aims to fight terrorism. An anti-extremism culture is definitely worthy of support.”
Zayed noted, “The project aims to teach children the history of Egypt and Sinai, as well as enlighten them using various arts, such as music, acting and painting, all of which are helpful in countering extremism.” He continued, “We have lost one of the project’s founders in the bombing of al-Rawda mosque. Salama was so keen on spreading education and anti-extremist ideology, and we will carry on with his dream of developing the center.”
Zayed pointed out, “The enlightenment center and its members have developed a plan, which is to work toward the psychological rehabilitation of children who witnessed the bombing of the mosque. With the help of psychologists, we will go around schools offering psychological support to these children.”
Amal Nasrallah, head of the English department at the University of Sinai and another volunteer, told Al-Monitor, “We have encountered many obstacles, most notably the interruption of communication due to the difficult security situation. We have a hard time communicating with other volunteers. In addition, families fear for the safety of their children because of the terrorist operations, so we try to reassure them as much as we can and accompany their children from their homes and take care of them.”
She added, “We also are lacking in resources. Although the Ministry of Education adopted the project, it still needs support. We have a plan to reproduce it in every village in North Sinai, which requires more effort, more volunteers and more buildings.”
She noted, “Attention must be paid to remote and marginalized villages, which are a focus of extremist groups who exploit poverty and lack of education to spread their ideas among the people there. This is why it is so important for us to build enlightenment centers in these villages.”
Nasrallah explained, “We have a future plan to include parents, not just children, and develop age-appropriate curricula and activities to raise cultural awareness to protect them from extremist ideas.”
Laila Murtaji, a representative of the Ministry of Education in North Sinai, told Al-Monitor, “The ministry supports the project for its cultural importance and its national objectives. The governor of North Sinai, Gen. Abdel Fattah Harhour, met with Gomaa in this regard and I have visited the center to check in on children there after the large room was built.”
Murtaji noted, “The ministry supports any development activity in North Sinai, especially since the residents of Sinai are known for their patriotism. This volunteer enlightenment project is proof.”