By Father Donato Infante III
Diocese of Worcester
“And what would you do if you did not receive the scholarship? Would you not be in university?” I asked.
She replied, “I’m resilient. I would find a way.”
The young woman to whom I was speaking was Sajeda,
a Syrian refugee. When I first saw her from a distance, I could not tell
if she was a man or a woman, her hair cut short to avoid sexual harassment in her new country of Egypt.
Enas, our guide, was showing us around the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) office in Mohandessen, part of the greater Cairo area. As we approached, Sajeda and Enas embraced. Two women greeting with a hug, a clear sign that Sajeda was a woman.
Sajeda studies law, in the hopes of going on to enter the wider diplomatic world, maybe after getting an advanced degree outside of Egypt. Diplomacy – a way to build peace. She had come to the office that day, as she did each month, to give a progress report to the staff of CRS in order to renew her scholarship.
Sajeda is just one of 119 refugees receiving help through CRS to pay for higher education, with the hope of providing professional qualifications, thereby making employment and future self-reliance possible.
How I found myself in Egypt was somewhat of a surprise. Each year the Pontifical North American College, where I am studying, partners with CRS to send four to eight of its students and faculty to see the work Catholic Relief Services does in one of the countries it serves. Those who participate become known as CRS Global Fellows. They can speak from firsthand experience about the importance of Catholic social doctrine and, to quote the website, “provide concrete examples of how you can help CRS end poverty around the world.”
I never expected to end up in Egypt. I should have known, since from day one of the planning process they said that if Egypt was deemed safe, it would be the country to which we went – for various reasons, including the refugee crisis. At the same time, I just could not imagine that it would be considered safe. But during my time there, from Easter Sunday until Saturday of Easter week, at no point did I feel unsafe.
After speaking with Sajeda, we moved to the next room. There was a group of refugees from different countries, such as Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, on lunch break. While they ate their sack lunches, we spoke to them, through Enas and another CRS employee, Yumiko, manager of the Livelihoods Project in which they participate.
So far, CRS has provided business and legal training to more than 1,200 refugees. To date, CRS has issued more than 875 small business grants.
“What desires do you have for the future?” I asked. Many people began answering at the same time: “To go home,” “To become self-reliant,” “To provide a better life for my kids,” and, “I just want to know if my two kids are still alive.” A pain I cannot imagine.
Later in the week we did what most people find paradoxical about Egyptian geography: we flew south to Upper Egypt. (Since the Nile flows from south to north, upstream is known as Upper Egypt.) Country Representative Mourad was with us, as was Roger, the project manager for the Peace Building Project known as Bokra, which means “tomorrow.”
After centuries of people living in peaceful co-existence, the recent political upheaval has led to sectarian violence.
The peace initiatives begin small, such as a soccer league where different villages play each other, but on mixed-religion teams. When a village brings home a trophy, it is not just the Muslims who won or the Christians who won, but “we did it together.” Activities like these have already brought about peaceful change in the village of Al Odeysat, where we heard from Christian and Muslim leaders in the village in a loft above an Anglican parish.
A young woman who helped lead the group had clearly been empowered through her work as a leader, jumping right in to speak quite freely: “We were in denial before this, that relations had deteriorated, but when I think back, my largest fear was, ‘What would it be like to set foot inside this church?’”
One of the Global Fellows asked, “What was the greatest fear for the Christians?” One responded, “The same thing from the other side: ‘What would it be like to have a Muslim set foot inside the church?’”
A young Christian lawyer said to us, “When we began this I did not even like Mr. Mohammed, with whom I was working on this peace-building project.” (I noticed they always used a person’s title when speaking in the third-person, even when using the first name.) “But now, we have become good friends. We visit each other’s home for coffee and meals.”
Everyone laughed as they joked around. The love in the room was palpable.
I asked, “Can you please give examples of how things have changed here?”
It was Mr. Mohammed who responded: “I am a math teacher. Today two boys got into a fight, as students are likely to do. When I sat down with the parents, the Christian parents did not just support their child because he was theirs, but after looking at what happened, they noted he was wrong. They had him apologize, and the Muslim family accepted the apology and everyone reconciled. There was no violence.”
At the end they asked me, “Abouna Donato, do you like it here in Egypt?” Here was a Muslim man calling me, “our Father” in Arabic, recognizing me as a spiritual leader.
“Yes,” I replied, “everyone has been so welcoming.”
The others from the seminary echoed this.
The Muslim leaders replied, “Please go home and tell others what you have experienced. We are like you. We want what you want. We want peace; we want a better future for our kids; we want an end to religious extremism. Please, please, tell people we want peace.”
Assumption College becomes CRS Global Campus
Assumption College has announced that it is the first college in New England – and ninth in the nation – to become an official CRS Global Campus. May 6 Francesco Cesareo, Assumption’s president, signed the agreement with Carolyn Woo, CEO of Catholic Relief Services.
The goals, outlined in the agreement, are to promote global solidarity through a partnership that engages the students, faculty and the institution as a whole. Students can participate as CRS Student Ambassadors on campus. The CRS Faculty Learning Commons program provides educational resources for faculty and student engagement. An interdisciplinary CRS advisory group is tasked with sustaining the partnership and supporting broad engagement with CRS on campus, including during major global emergencies.
“As a Catholic Relief Services Global Campus, Assumption College joins a worldwide effort to call attention to, and serve, those in the greatest of need,” said President Cesareo. “Through this new opportunity, students and faculty will have access to significant resources such as experts who are addressing pressing humanitarian matters throughout the developed and underdeveloped world. Assumption students are challenged to discover their gifts and talents and use what they have learned in the classroom to improve the world in which they live.”
“Just as we hope that your community will gain from this interaction with the work that CRS does with the poor around the world, we know that we will benefit from the energy, the expertise and the idealism that your students, faculty and administrators bring to this partnership,” said Ms. Woo.
The college has collaborated with CRS on several initiatives.
Following a 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal, the Assumption community raised funds to support CRS relief efforts there.
On campus, the CRS Advisory Board of students, faculty and staff hosted information sessions on climate change and fair trade and sponsored a Hounds4CRS event that raised awareness and $6,700.
Faculty have participated in CRS trainings. This June, Cary LeBlanc, assistant professor of marketing and management, will travel to Ghana to participate in a program addressing the need for sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene practices.
At least three faculty members per year from each CRS Global Campus participate in the CRS Faculty Learning Commons and promote the program among their colleagues. The FLC is an online learning community and curricular resource that highlights the latest strategies for global relief and development with special emphasis on the application of CRS’ justice lens and opportunities for building global solidarity.