Two months ago, I had no clue that I’d be planning a Thanksgiving meal for 50 Egyptians, eating frozen yogurt from Pinkberry while the call to prayer rings out over the largest mall in Egypt, or cruising Cairo in a taxi blaring songs from the Black Eyed Peas and Backstreet Boys. Two months ago, all I knew was that I had to finish my dissertation and move out of my London flat. Beyond those moments, I had no plan. Then one day, while skyping a friend from undergrad who has been living and working in Cairo for the last six months, my stress-fried brain latched onto one sentence she said, “I’m bored, I need roommates.” Roommates? She needed roommates? I needed a room. How perfect! That was that, I was moving to Cairo. And so I did. And here I am. At least until Christmas.
It’s a funny thing, being out of grad school and once again facing the ever present questions posed to all twenty-somethings of what to do with yourself, your career, your life. When my graduate programme finished, I found myself in London, not ready to head back to the States but unsure of where I wanted to be or what I wanted to be doing. Fed up with feeling like a useless academic (as I’m not quite up to par with the type of academics that prove useful) and perhaps secretly bored with polite queues, I was drawn to the idea of somewhere where cars race and jumble into traffic regardless of lanes, men and women linger in the constant and reliable sunshine to drink tea, and buildings follow no blueprint but jut and jab corner after corner. I also felt a deep need to be useful in the world in a simple and immediate sense. I needed to be reminded of how much I enjoy working with individuals and grass-roots organizations to just make a single day better, even if the system is too large or too broken for any one person to understand, much less change.
So here I am, having spent my first week exploring Egypt as a tourist, taking overpriced camel rides around the pyramids, admiring the beauty of cavernous mosques, getting lost in endless lanes of the market, and eating, yes eating, to my heart’s content. For anyone who hasn’t tried Egyptian food, you have no idea how much you’re missing. Give me a lemon and mint juice and koshary any day and I’m a happy camper. I've cobbled together a vocabulary of taxi directions and numbers, and have come to love the daily shouts of "Welcome in Egypt! Where from?" I even spent a day relaxing on the shore of the Red Sea and watched the sunset from a tiny fishing boat with good friends and a really adorable puppy. My second week was mainly spent meeting new people and setting the foundations for the rest of my time here, time I mean to be used productively, time which I hope will impact me and maybe if I’m lucky be useful to others as well.
This past week, I began volunteering with a refugee school that provides education and a meal to students from Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Congo, Nigeria, and other countries from across Northern Africa. The school is open to grades one through five in the mornings and grades six to ten in the afternoons. The teachers and most of the administration are refugees themselves. Foreigners spend a month or two or six filling in any gaps that might have occurred in the curriculum or helping teachers manage crowded classrooms. All classes, other than Arabic lessons, are taught in English.
After a day of visiting the school and sitting in on each grade level, I realized I’d fallen in love with the fourth years. Each morning, I sit down with one or two of them for a tutoring lesson and can’t help but be amazed at how happy and eager they are to learn, how ambitious their dreams are, and how much they’ve already survived. Nine-year old Nancy looks up at me with the sweetest eyes and tells me she wants to be a lawyer. Emmanuel laughs as he explains that he wants to be an accountant and that his friend, Mousta, wants to be a doctor, but only for fat people. Hannah wants to be a dancer. Gutama wants to be a lawyer. While practicing nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs with Grace, I ask her to finish the sentence using a word to describe Africa. Africa is… Hope, she answers. Africa is hope. And Africa is home. She smiles at me asking if she’s correct. And she is, more than she knows. Though I’ve hardly been here long enough to begin to understand this country, I’ve been told about the tension between Egyptians and Africans, especially refugees. Egypt has an open refugee policy that requires it to host refugees and asylum seekers, though the country struggles to provide for its own marginalized poor, leaving some Egyptians bitter and angry over the influx of African refugees that strains an already tight economy. The government, in response, excludes refugees from basic institutions, such as formal education. I’ve been told that each day after school, the refugees run home to lock the doors, hoping they aren’t tormented, beaten, or robbed by local street kids.
I suppose I’ll find out just how deep these tensions run as I’m not only volunteering with the refugees, but with those same local street kids that they fear. A few blocks away in a small building above a shop, there is a newly formed organization that teaches and trains Egyptian street kids in sustainable and practical life skills, simultaneously instilling in them self-worth and determination in improving their situation. The staff of this organization are stretched to the limit, trying desperately to provide students with ways out of poverty, ways to gain agency in their own society. On Fridays, I’m hoping to begin working with young girls, teaching them crafts made from recycled material that they can then sell. If I can get my hands on some disposable cameras, I’d like to teach composition and critique of photography (like Zana Briski did in her incredible documentary, Born into Brothels).
The problem I’m finding, however, is that my time here is quickly running out before it’s even begun. I have slightly more than a month left, certainly not enough to follow through to a lasting impact with any of these projects. And my weekends will most likely be spent exploring and adventuring. From sandboarding on the dunes and horseback riding through the desert, to diving in the Red Sea on the Sinai and touring Luxor and Aswan, I have far more to do than I have time for. Like India, Cairo has struck a chord with me and a few months here is more like a taste than anything else. But it’s the kind of place that sticks with you long after your gone, quietly calling you back again. So we’ll see where this month takes me, and later, how long I stay back home in the States before answering that call once again.