Down several narrow corridors in Imbaba, a small outlet called Nadi Video stands, its lights dimmed inside. The wooden shelves are painted purple and reach to the ceiling, but today they sit bare, stripped of the popular movies they once carried. In their place are a dozen sunflower oil bottles, sugar packs and biscuits. On the threshold, her back hunched and her heavy face framed by a tightly wrapped headscarf, Fatma sits. In front of her is a small table filled with Jelly Cola, wafers and brightly wrapped chewing gum. A tower of many flavoured chips boxes stands to her right. And tears stream down her brown face as she recounts the day her husband was dragged away to jail, where he remains. He had signed cheques and couldn't pay them off, so the authorities came and collected what they thought they were owed. She even had to sell her furniture to make the payments.
When Fatma began asking for help, she was sent to a well-known, grass-roots charity organisation called Resala, the Arabic word for message. After four rigorous inspections, Resala decided on a self-sufficiency project for Fatma and her family. With a small loan and use of the existing storefront, a small grocery business was set up in the former video store. This way she could start feeding her children and buy some new furniture. And when she pays off her loan to Resala, she can get another with which to expand her small business.
I had heard of so many youths volunteering for Resala, and was interested to see if I could help out, having been a pretty active volunteer in Canada before moving here. I didn't have much time, but knew the organisation had a tutoring programme, and hoped to put my English to use. Besides tutoring, it runs an orphanage, and a pretty extensive micro-loans programme, which helps hundreds in the city like Fatma.
One of the organisers I met told me the agency was against handing out donations - they went out into the community and asked, "What can you do?" If they could clean, they would find them a cleaning job. If they were mechanics, they would hook them up with another mechanic. The project is based on a loan programme. Each month the new business owner is expected to save a pound a day to give 30 Egyptian pounds (Dh20) a month back to Resala. This money is then used to fund another project. Businesses are normally simple plans, such as yam vendors or vegetable stands. Loans for small businesses, like Fatma's, range from US$55 (Dh202) to $300.
Another charity doing good work in Cairo is called Mosaada, the Arabic word for help. Rania el Shourbagy basically runs the whole thing herself. Established in 2005 and operating out of a small apartment in the Nasr City suburb, Mosaada provides basic charity services in seven areas of Egypt. Her most interesting service includes preparing brides for their new lives. She buys used wedding gowns and either rents or lends them to women getting married. As part of her project called Robabekia, loosely translated as garage sale items, Mosaada collects used and broken furniture from families across the city and has them repaired by a carpenter. Once the items are ready and cleaned up, they are distributed free to poor families who are getting a daughter ready for marriage.
The most impressive thing I found at these charities I visited was that they were almost all run by young people. At Resala, which has many locations across the city, youths run the administration, the finances, drive the ideas and organise all the events. It's a real grass-roots organisation that teaches young people about how the "other," the impoverished, live in Cairo and give help to give their fellow citizen their dignity back.
In a city where everyone gives little thought to their neighbours and community members because of the fast pace of life and the harsh conditions they all face, it's refreshing and hopeful to see neighbours really helping one another. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.