By Salem Koen
It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,” were the words of Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who founded the Missionaries of Charity and dedicated her whole life to helping the poorest of the poor. Unlike the Macedonia-born nun, many who engage in charitable work toil unnoticed, especially if it is on a local basis.
One of them is Magda Muawwad Abdel Hakim who lives on the Nile island of Gezirat El Warak, part of the Giza governorate’s El Warak district. Known better as Hagga Magda, she is one of the island’s 80,000 inhabitants living on an area of about 1,800 feddans. Although two to three times larger than the islands that house Cairo’s upscale neighborhoods of Zamalek and Manial, Gezirat El Warak seems to have been ignored by local authorities. Its only connection to the mainland are four ferries working 24/7 to shuttle residents to El Warak and Shubra El Kheima. On this poverty-stricken island people live with almost no access to quality health care services, water or sanitation and are deploying a trench sewage disposal system.
Twelve years ago Hagga Magda decided to do something about this forgotten island. She started to help personally and reach out for support. “First I began to collect money from relatives, friends and acquaintances. LE 20 here and LE 30 there made a huge difference,” says the 52 year-old widow. “I first investigated the situation of each family living here. Then I decided who was in urgent need of help and gave out the money accordingly.”
Her initiative grew slowly, with the first to receive support being orphans nobody cared for. Then people started to talk about her project and shared her contact details with their relatives and friends. “All were very keen on helping,” recalls Magda. “I had so many people I didn’t know calling me.”
She also started taking donations for brides to be. Usually when people want to support a bride, they donate things the bride will need. Magda has a different approach: She collects up to LE 2,000 in cash to give directly to each bride. “You should see the happiness in the eyes of the women when they can buy their stuff themselves,” Magda says.
Over the years Magda, working independently, tries to convince donors to provide food or money. “I always tried to encourage each person supporting us to come and have a look for him- or herself. In most cases, this personal contact is better for the donor. It touches them more deeply when they see the people’s situation with their own eyes,” says Magda. “And they are really surprised by the bad conditions they find people living in here.”
Five years later, the charity organization El Gamaaeya El Masriya started supporting Hagga Magda’s cause. At the same time, with her late husband’s encouragement, she created her own official charity organization named Gannet El Amin. Along with heading her own organization, Magda is also the local coordinator of the Gamaaeya El Masriya’s office for El Warak.
Since the Gamaaeya El Masriya got involved, more people have taken notice of her work, and Magda became increasingly popular among potential donors. “The Gamaaeya is extremely supportive. Their activities are not only constant but increasing,” says Magda. “Thanks to them we now have four water stations on the island where people can get fresh drinkable water.” Until now water pipelines are almost non existent and only a few homes have fresh-water pipes.
“We never lose hope,” she says. “Alhamdulillah, we are much better than years before and I’m convinced that things will turn out to be good.”
Gannet El Amin’s charity activities exceed money and food, and Magda is especially happy to help when some of her island neighbors approach her for aid to open up a business on their own. In her mind, every enterprise — no matter how small — is good as long as someone is keen on being active and successful. “Some people just want to open a small kiosk or a vegetable stand. Others want to engage in the meat industry and start with a few goats.”
Magda dedicates all of her time to her calling and makes herself available 24 hours a day. “People can come to me at any time. I don’t treat them as foreigners,” says Magda. She is well known on the island and cannot take a step in any direction without people greeting her. “We all are like a big family here.”
The mother of three sons and a grandmother of two, Magda lives with her youngest son in a four-bedroom apartment relatively central on the island. “During weekdays everybody can find me in the office of our organization and for the rest of the time they can come and knock on the door of my home.”
If someone appears with an emergency, she immediately calls some of the benefactors she knows and asks in what way they can help. “Not so long ago we had someone who needed an urgent eye operation which cost around LE 10,000. Thanks to one of my contacts I sent the patient to the doctor on the mainland and my contact handled all expenses with the doctor directly.”
Magda is also eager to solve the shortage of medical services. The island’s hospital is very small and only has the basic equipment found in a general doctor’s practice. Anyone who needs more than a routine check needs to get to the mainland. “Luckily, we were able to build a proper road in front of the hospital made of 630m of concrete, thanks to one donor.”
One thing Magda is very proud of is her direct engagement in El Warak’s two primary schools and one secondary school, which serve 3000 children. “Education is the most important thing and it is better to engage the children when they are at a young age,” says Magda. “Once they start loving it, there is a huge chance for them to continue until the end.”
A graduate of the Al-Azhar University herself, Magda knows what it means to have a higher degree and the opportunities it provides. Together with the Ministry of Education she initiated a program for the island’s pupils to get extra support and tutelage. She herself goes to the schools and helps out the children, organizing events or day trips for them. “This is very important to me because it is their future as well as ours.”
Magda also collects money for parents who cannot afford the LE 55 it costs to send their children to the governmental school each year.
But there is still much that needs to be done. “We urgently need to build a bigger school and create a proper infrastructure,” says Magda. “Our roads are too small, narrow and muddy.”
A car could cross with the ferry but there is no way it can drive on the streets of Geziret El Warak. It ends up parked at the dock, leaving people to find their way around the island by motorbike, tuktuk or donkey. “I would love to have more people knowing about us,” says Magda. “Maybe we would be able to receive more support.”
Magda’s biggest wish, long shared by her fellow islanders, is to have a bridge from Geziret El Warak to the mainland: “Maybe then we wouldn’t feel so disconnected.” et
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