cleaner water
Silas Crews

Afaf Melmy Ibrahim and her son Mina, 10, show the water spigot installed two years ago in a project that helped 100 families in the Cairo neighborhood of Akhrasha have clean, drinkable water in their homes.

An MCC-supported project of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church brings clean water to Egyptian families, increasing health, adding dignity and improving relationships between neighbors.

Afaf Melmy Ibrahim could pump water from the ground at her house in Akhrasha, Egypt — but she didn’t want to use it. The water was yellow, salty, contaminated with sewage. She had experienced the kidney pain that plagues some Egyptians who regularly drink impure water.

To get clean drinking water for her family and water to use for cleaning and laundry, she had two choices: ask a neighbor to give her water or buy it. Both were problematic.

Money is scarce in Akhrasha, where people work day to day to get food. Ibrahim’s husband, Montaser Hana Zakher, works as a carpenter when he has work. One of their two sons, Thomas, 5, is developmentally delayed, making it difficult for his mother to leave him while walking four kilometers to buy water.

Borrowing from neighbors who had cleaner tap water was a problem too, Ibrahim says, because they sometimes became annoyed and critical.

“Why did you come three times today?” they would ask her. “Are you cooking a duck? Do you have visitors? Who are they and why do they come to you?” The implied judgment, she says, was that if she had enough money to buy meat, she shouldn’t be asking for free water.


neighborhoodFamilies in Akhrasha, an impoverished area of Cairo, are gaining access to clean drinking water and better sanitation through MCC partner BLESS. Photo by Silas Crews

Now, Ibrahim’s family and about 100 other families in Akhrasha have clean water coming into their homes because of a comprehensive development project coordinated by MCC’s partner BLESS, Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services. BLESS is a service arm of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt.

“Even the tea and the food tastes better and smells better because of the clean water,” Ibrahim says. “It changes the taste of life.”

The project is working in 30 communities throughout Egypt that have high levels of poverty and little governmental or nongovernmental support. It focuses on areas where more than half of the residents are Christian, a minority and often-marginalized population in Egypt, but serves both Muslim and Christian families.

In each community, BLESS works for five years to train a team of people to address needs related to health, education, children and youth and livelihoods. At the end of the five-year period, teams carry on work in the community without assistance.

Since 2008, MCC has supported the project’s efforts to provide clean water, which not only decreases illness, but also improves relationships among neighbors, saves money, supports livelihoods and raises people’s dignity. MCC also helps fund trainings in health and sanitation in the communities.

“Even the tea and the food tastes better and smells better because of the clean water,” Ibrahim says. “It changes the taste of life.”

In Akhrasha, getting permission from the government for the water project and then digging ditches for the water pipes helped to strengthen relationships between Christians and Muslims. Neighbors who previously coexisted with little interaction came together to help each other get water into houses on their street.

For Ibrahim’s neighbor, Aida Fared Gad, having water in her own home gave her dignity and improved her relationship with the Muslim friend she used to ask for water. “Now we can deal with other issues without the frustration of water,” she says.

making plaster productsFor Naser Hermina, left, pictured here with his wife Aida Fared Gad, clean water has meant not only better health, but also higher-quality plaster products he can sell to increase his family’s income. Photo by Silas Crews

Clean water also has helped Gad’s husband, Naser Hermina, develop a side business of making white gypsum wall decorations, like a sun plaque or crown molding. When he mixes the plaster powder with clean water in a mold, the surface of the decorations is smooth. Dirty water causes divots that mar the decorations.

Hermina can sell five to 15 of these decorations a month, at $1.60 to $2.45 each, supplementing his intermittent work of covering indoor walls with black gypsum. The family also saves money each month, reducing the $20 they used to spend to buy water to a $2.40 connection fee paid to the village.

In El-Rashah, a village where almost everyone earns money by collecting and recycling Cairo’s garbage, 180 of the poorest families now have clean water.

Saleh with grandsonSamiha Saleh, shown with her grandson, Philo Patir Amir, 3, experienced the benefits of clean water in her own family’s health and now is part of the BLESS team working to bring this message to others in her community. Photo by Silas Crews

Samiha Saleh, who learned about health from BLESS, is now a member of the BLESS team in El-Rashah. She’s a messenger of the gospel of clean water, in part because her husband’s chronic kidney stones cleared up when her family got clean water through a previous project.

In Egypt, contaminated water has a significant debilitating impact on kidney health, says Bishop Youannes, a former surgeon who now coordinates BLESS. Water contaminated by sewage as well as industrial and agricultural toxins also causes a wide variety of gastrointestinal diseases and can play a role in maternal and infant mortality, he says.

Before people in El-Rashah had clean water, they would preserve the water they had by only washing dishes every three days and stretching out the days between laundry. The unclean water would cause their faces to break out, so they didn’t want to bathe regularly, Saleh says.

Now Saleh goes door to door and street to street, sharing what she learned about sanitation and healthy living with women and their daughters. She tells them to use clean water to wash floors and dishes so that insects, especially houseflies, don’t congregate and spread disease. She encourages them to wear gloves while sorting garbage, usually a woman’s job, and to wash vegetables in clean water to avoid hepatitis A.

installing toiletsPlumber Emad Asaad Labib installs a modern toilet to replace an older toilet as part of a BLESS project to improve sanitation. Photo by Silas Crews

Carrying out BLESS’ work for the poorest of the poor has become more difficult for the organization in the past two years because of the political unrest and economic instability following the revolution that overthrew Egypt’s president in 2011, says Bishop Youannes.

Workers are more cautious about going to trainings or monitoring their work because they fear for their personal safety, especially in certain areas where Christians have been targeted. As inflation rises and uncertainty prevails, Bishop Youannes continues to commit BLESS’ work to God.

“The situation is very, very, very difficult,” he says, “but we are so full of faith that the God who was with our fathers will be with us. I have great faith that we are in God’s hands.”

(As this Summer 2013 issue of A Common Place went to press, political unrest continued in Egypt. MCC invites your prayers for peace for the nation. Please also pray for the families involved in these projects, for the workers and leaders of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church and for MCC staff, both Egyptian and international.)