BENI SUEF, Egypt — Bola Melad Ragheb looks like a typical Egyptian youth, with a shock of dark hair and a warm smile. His main passion is soccer, and as a fan of Real Madrid star Christiano Ronaldo, you will never find him wearing the blue and red apparel of Madrid’s rival Barcelona.
Only 17, he likes playing soccer on a computer with his friends. He prefers tea to coffee and relies on the greasy goodness of French fries to help him through the long, vegan-food-only, Coptic fasts.
Yet when Bola walks, it becomes apparent he faces an added degree of adversity in life. At the age of 3, he contracted polio, causing him to limp.
"Because of the problems I have with the muscles in my legs, I grew up thinking I wasn't good at anything," he confides. "Then my mom heard about this program that helps young people with disabilities. I learned that I have potential, and decided to try things out to see what I might be capable of."
Bola is referring to a program, run by St. Mary church in the town of El Fashen, whose aim is to help students with disabilities integrate into the school system and succeed in their education. The program is sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Global Family education program through a partner, Ekhlas Coptic Organization for Development.
“One of the main goals of the program at St. Mary is to build the students’ confidence and encourage them that even though they have disabilities, they also have capabilities and rights,” said Trish Wiebe, MCC Egypt’s program coordinator, from Blumenort, Man. The program also helps bring together people with disabilities who find support through friendships.
Bola represents the majority of Egyptians who, in contrast to world news about Egypt’s politics, unrest and ongoing revolution, are just trying to make a living and support their families. He lives south of Cairo in Beni Suef province, one of the poorest in the country.
Beni Suef is home to unemployment, illiteracy and lack of social services that plague much of the Egyptian countryside. Although school is required through grade 6, supplies cost money, and in the rural, farming area of Beni Suef, parents are less likely to spend money to educate girls and children with disabilities beyond that.
Bola is among the lucky ones. He is getting a secondary education, and after a year in St. Mary church program, Bola gained the courage to apply for a job at a fertilizer shop last summer. Not only did he get the job, but as a quick study, Bola was soon trusted to help customers and to independently manage the shop every morning.
Currently, he is in the second year of a three-year vocational school, studying commerce. He continues to work part time at the shop in the evening, studying between customers. When Ekhlas offered to pay for Bola’s younger sister’s school expenses in 2012-2013, he declined because he was making enough money to pay for her education himself this year.
Like many Egyptians, he works not just for himself, but to help support his family, which includes two sisters and three brothers. Bola is second oldest.
"It feels great that I can help my family in this way," he smiles. “God willing, I will one day have a shop of my own.”
Sixteen sponsors are still needed for this Global Family program. You can support Egyptian students living with disabilities and girls in this program at donate.mcc.org/project/global-family-egypt-education-for-all.