Egypt's Coptic philanthropist nominated for Nobel Prize

Visits to the garbage slums of Cairo transformed Magda Gobran — a businesswoman and an academic with a comfortable life — to Mama Maggie of the poor.

al-monitor The philanthropist Magda Gobran gives a talk to the Global Leadership Network summit, seen in a still from a video uploaded Dec. 16, 2011.  Photo by YouTube/ Global Leadership Network.

Mar 5, 2020

The philanthropist Magda Gobran, known as both Mama Maggie and Egypt’s Mother Teresa, is among the candidates nominated for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. Garnett Genuis, a conservative parliament member from Alberta, Canada, nominated the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox activist for serving “the poor and disadvantaged,” which he said she does “regardless of faith or ethnicity.”

“She works to cross widening divides and heal those who have been hurt,” Genuis said in the nomination letter on Jan. 23 to the Nobel Committee. The letter also gave compelling examples of the children helped by Mama Maggie's association, Stephen’s Children, such as Muslim Hawwa and Christian Anthony, both of whom faced poverty, discrimination and abuse. The letter also pointed out that Stephen’s Children, one of the largest charities in the region, gives equal compassion to people regardless of their religion at a time when violent acts of religious persecution are rising in Egypt.

Copts in Egypt have been witnessing a series of sectarian violence, religious persecution, and attacks on their churches and worship places. In November 2018, Islamic militants ambushed three buses carrying Christian pilgrims on their way to a remote desert monastery, killing seven people. In December 2016, 25 people were killed and 49 others were wounded by suicide bombers while praying in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. The Islamic State declared responsibility for this attack.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo receives nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and then prepares a shortlist of candidates. The laureates are announced in October; winners receive the Nobel medal and diploma in December in Oslo.

Mama Maggie, born in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, was a successful professional, first on the management team of a marketing firm and later as a university professor of computer science in the 1980s. But her family had a tradition of helping the needy regularly; particularly her father, a doctor, offered free treatment to people in need.

In her 30s, she started visiting the garbage slums located on the fringes of Cairo. The majority of the people living in this area are Christians; only a few Muslims reside there. Mama Maggie and her church friends were excited to witness the other side of Egypt, which they did not know much about. The garbage pickers, who collect and recycle trash for a small amount of money, lived under harsh conditions. The neighborhood lacked basic infrastructure and hygiene; there was no sewage system and little access to clean water. The children and families were impoverished, uneducated and had little means to escape the way they lived. Women and children in particular faced abuse, violence and harassment.

“I was wondering why there are people living like that and I felt I had a role toward them, a calling to save these children and give them hope for a better future,” Mama Maggie told Al-Monitor, explaining why she decided to establish an association named after Christianity’s first martyr.

Stephen’s Children, established in 1989, now has a network of 2,000 professionals — teachers, doctors, craftsmen and nurses — in addition to volunteers who contribute to the organization’s activities. More than 20% of the staff members are from the same slums they serve, so they understand the problems of the families they deal with.

The organization’s team builds relationships with the children and families by paying weekly home visits to help with psychological issues and raise awareness on health and hygiene. Over 13,000 children receive home visits, which include mentoring, counseling and trouble-shooting of family issues if necessary.

The organization offers opportunities in early, elementary and secondary education. Over 90 community education centers provide preschool and kindergarten to almost 18,000 children. They teach them the basics of Arabic and English, mathematics, religion and hygiene, and they arrange regular medical checkups for the children and monthly parents' meetings.

In 2012, the organization opened Joy ("Farah” in Arabic), its own elementary school in Cairo. With a capacity of 1,000, Joy follows the elementary school curriculum set by the Egyptian Ministry of Education. At the beginning of each school year, Mama Maggie greets the children at the school and the community education centers by giving them new sandals and clothes after she washes their hands and legs herself.

Given the high illiteracy rate among girls in the slums, the organization arranges literacy classes for girls and women to help them learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. These classes are intended to help them get back on track and re-enroll in the regular educational system or find a job and earn money.

The organization also has three vocational training centers that help boys learn how to manufacture and repair shoes; girls learn how to knit and sew. The products are distributed among the children who live in the slums.

“I chose children because they are the future. If you don’t start developing them at an early age, they will grow up to have exactly the same life and values that their parents have and the community will remain the same,” Mama Maggie said.

The organization has been working for over 25 years and has changed the lives of 33,000 children. It has branches in Cairo, Alexandria, Upper Egypt governorates and the Western Desert.

“It is a great thing that this is done by a woman and a Christian especially in a society like Egypt where the majority is Muslim and usually women face restrictions on freedoms,” Sameha Nasr, professor of sociology at the National Research Center, told Al-Monitor.

Nasr said, “This can really eliminate any prejudices in the society against these two social segments: women and Christians.”

Mama Maggie said her dream is to reach every needy child in Egypt and everywhere until they all have bright futures.

She has been awarded for her work both in the region and beyond. In 2017 — declared The Year of Giving by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan — she was honored as an Arab Hope Maker among five Arab leaders.

In 2018, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi chose her on Mother's Day along with 42 other women as Mothers of the Year. Last year, US First Lady Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recognized Mama Maggie among 10 women at the International Women of Courage Awards ceremony for her exceptional role of changing lives in her community.

She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize eight years ago by five Republican US congressmen for devoting her life to serving poor and miserable children and families regardless of their religion.

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