x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Charity is the spur for restless youth

For many young people in Egypt, finding a job can take years, even if they have a good education.

Shahinaz Mohamed also volunteers at a blood donation clinic in Cairo.
Shahinaz Mohamed also volunteers at a blood donation clinic in Cairo.

From the outside the collection of shabby rooms in a building that typifies the decay of Cairo holds little promise. But inside the voluntary group Resala's offices is a buzz fuelled by the energy of dozens of young people. A couple of university students have dropped by and want to help to install water pipes in slums. Upstairs some girls are keeping an eye on orphans taking an afternoon nap. In another narrow room, young women chat away on phones to potential donors.

And in the alleyway outside, piles of carrier bags bulging with macaroni, rice, sugar and beans - bought with donations from the Egyptian public - await distribution to the poor. Some 5,000 families rely on this branch of Resala to provide every meal, says Shahinaz Mohamed, 24, during a tour of the building. She has thin, birdlike hands and gesticulates liberally while emphasising her reasons for joining Resala, the largest youth volunteer organisation in Egypt which has 65,000 registered volunteers - nearly all in their twenties - and 33 branches.

Resala wants to foster a spirit of benevolence among Egyptians and teach them that giving to the less fortunate can be a joyful experience. "Probably a day will come when I will be in need and I will find someone to help me," she says. "Life is never the same, it changes all the time."  Resala's volunteers are drawn overwhelming from the middle and upper classes, and it raises one million Egyptian pounds (Dh680,000) a month from these sectors of society.  Ms Mohamed walks into a room where a class helping 500 blind pupils to read has just ended. Some of their schoolbooks are being typed up by the volunteers and printed in braille.

Asked why the schools do not do this, the girls giggle.  "I am not going to say anything," Ms Mohamed says. "No comment."   It is a typical answer when volunteers are asked why they provide services such as recycling or cleaning the streets which in most countries are the responsibility of the authorities.  "That's what we do, to change society through the culture of volunteering," says Ms Mohamed.

Why not go into politics?  "Perhaps you think if I want to do good I have to do politics," she answers. "I don't want to do politics. It's too much trouble. Why don't you join our Friday caravan? We will go to a poor area to help people and then you will see what kind of change we are making in Egypt."  Young people are signing up to work for the network of voluntary organisations spreading across the country, according to a report by the Brookings Institution/Dubai School of Government, entitled Youth Exclusion in Egypt.

"In the last eight years, we've identified five volunteer groups in Cairo alone," says Dr Barbara Ibrahim, the director of the John D Gerhart Centre for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo, whose research contributed to the report. "This generation is stalled from working, from getting married. So they have no voice, no institutions. Some are responding by taking it in their own hands. One way is youth-founded organisations."

The appeal of such groups is perhaps not surprising since unemployment has a disproportionate impact on the young and well educated, who also have the time to help. An astonishing 95 per cent of unemployed young people have a university or vocational education. On average they are unemployed for two-and-a-half years. It is worse for women; they are four times as likely to be unemployed as young men.

"Like me," says Maram Mahmoud, 21. It is early Friday morning and a large crowd begins assembling near a large bus outside Resala's office. The caravan is going to Atrees, a poor village on the Nile Delta where food and other goods will be distributed. As the volunteers arrive, Ms Mahmoud explains that she studied English at college and is taking courses in human resources in the hope of finding a good job.

"This a good way to organise our time," she said. "All of us are coming here instead of sitting at home and watching TV."  By now, so many volunteers have arrived that two extra buses are needed to take them all. Ms Mahmoud directs girls onto one bus and the boys to the other. As the bus for females pulls away, one woman in full black veil recites a hadith about the importance of helping the poor.

"Out of 70 million people in Egypt we are 70 girls who have been chosen by God to do this," she says as the vehicle navigates the narrow and polluted streets of Cairo before they give way to wide green fields on the banks of the river Nile.   Ms Mahmoud passes a small rucksack to collect zakat, money donated for good causes. She rubs each note with a lump of sweet, heavily scented musk that mingles with the bags of guava fruit the girls have brought for the residents.

In an expression of Islamic revival in Egypt, all but one of the girls on the bus are wearing hijabs. They say religion motivated them to join Resala. "We want the people in Atrees to know they are not forgotten," says Ms Mahmoud. "I am doing this for God. We have a hadith that says we are all one human body and if someone feels bad you feel bad."  However, Resala is not a religious or a political organisation.

If it were, it would have been banned in officially secular Egypt where dissent is not tolerated. And the volunteers will not criticise the government.  This generation has come of age at a time when Egyptians have turned to religion to cope with the social and economic despair they feel powerless to change. Student activism of any kind on university campuses is severely restricted by the state security apparatus.

The powers of the feared police and intelligence services have expanded under the emergency laws governing Egypt since 1981. The state's repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, brutal suppression of Islamist insurgents and the moderate political parties alike have reinforced perceptions that it is unwise to hurl yourself against the might of the Egyptian state.  Instead, young people who wish to make a difference, but fear being picked up by the radar of state security, are turning to charity work.

As the bus arrives, Ms Mahmoud gives instructions to the girls about their behaviour.  "We are from a different culture," she says. "Girls in the villages do not go on the streets like us city girls. What we are doing is revolutionary. Do not laugh out loud either because the village people will not like it."  It is nearly 35C but everyone immediately gets to work.  The boys begin loading boxes of food on a lorry. There are long planks of wood for houses with no roofs. Ms Mahmoud's male counterpart is Mustafa Risq, 22, who will supervise the men as they fix ceilings and dig trenches for the water pipes. The computer technician is wearing jeans, white trainers and a pink Lacoste shirt.

The week before they visited the town to ask residents what they needed and came up with a list. "Today we will deliver it," he says. "To see the joy in their eyes is wonderful. Fundamentally it is religion but it is also about developing society, to raise the level of people, to help them to do better."  He moves aside to allow some girls to load new washing machines and gas stoves onto another lorry for distribution to brides. When the appliances are stacked up, there is a scramble and about 25 young women climb the back, unwilling to miss the spectacle.

For them, it is also an exciting day out in a culture with many restrictions on females socialising outside the home.  "My parents argue with me, 'why do you need to go out every Friday?' But they realise it is a good deed I am doing and will be rewarded in heaven," says one girl, clutching the side of the lorry.  The vehicle plods through the unpaved streets and past walls with simple paintings of the Kabaa to mark the homes of pilgrims who have made the journey to the holy shrine in Mecca.

"The bride cannot get married if she cannot bring a washing machine and stove to the marriage," Ms Mahmoud says, picking her way through a street strewn with rubbish. "We're helping them start a new life. The groom has to bring the house and she brings this."  The female volunteers give the traditional shrill cry of joy as each stove is unloaded. Ms Mahmoud congratulates one bride, Dawa, and kisses her on both cheeks.

"What have you bought so far?" she asks the bride.  "Nothing yet," Dawa answers. "Would you prefer a washing machine or a stove?" Ms Mahmoud asks.  "Anything you can give," Dawa answers demurely.   Her grateful father smiles broadly.  "May God bring more people like them," he says.   Outside, Mr Risq expresses a wish to give each bride both a stove and washing machine. "We found that 24 brides are in need so it would be natural to give them one each," he says in a low voice.

"But with sudden price increases and inflation our income can barely buy eight cookers and 15 washers. So we give each person one or the other."  Across town, several male students are digging in the blazing sun to clear a path for water pipes because some houses have no running water.  "Volunteers will have a bit of basic training on how to dig and attach pipes and build a ceiling," Mr Risq says. "Resala pays for the transportation. The raw materials, the beneficiaries buy and we pay them back. We will always have a carpenter or someone like that to make sure it is done properly. A plumber will come and do technical work and we will pay them."

Earlier in the week, Ms Ibrahim argued that volunteer organisations like Resala could be a precursor to a more democratic Egypt.  "What we are arguing is that the assumption in international relations, in political science etcetera is that this religious revival is an antithesis to democracy. But our hunch is that this could be a viable pathway to gaining voice, organising, learning the arts of compromise, pulling together to make things better and to demand democratic institutions."  She describes the volunteers as wanting to give back something rather than aspiring to government change.

By the end of the day, 220 food packages have been delivered, 14 brides have received stoves or washers, six households have running water and five families have new ceilings.  It is nearly dark when the caravan leaves and sweaty and exhausted volunteers fall asleep in their seats. Sherif Abdulazeem, an assistant to the founder of Resala, rings to say there is a party for the organisation that night in the capital.

There, the whoops and cheers from the young crowd can be heard on the street after Mr Abdulazeem finishes his speech. Stepping out on the balcony for some cool air, Mr Abdulazeem, 45, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, says Resala was the result of eight years of reflection on why the West was so advanced and the Arab world, Egypt in particular, was not. At the time he was studying for his doctorate in electrical engineering at Queen's University in Canada. When he returned home, he gave a course at Cairo University about ethics in engineering which sparked a debate among his students.

"I talked about apathy," he says. "Why was it so widespread among Arab youth? Because of discussions my students approached me and said, 'we have to do something because all our life is slogans and speaking'. It is complex but people have been raised to be apathetic. Here, if you are passive and quiet you are good. You are safe from harm."  He has been surprised at the rate of Resala's growth and believes he has tapped into something natural; a desire among young people to help others.

"For the first five or six years Resala was just going as a student club," he says. "I think this question, 'what is wrong with us?', this was the magical question. The key element of success is young people have the energy to volunteer. They learn to channel their energy into doing something. We provided this."  But you are not political?  "We tell volunteers, 'if you want politics go somewhere else'."

Yet it is, he says, the start of real progress. "There is a better word for it. Renaissance of this society, this retarded society. "People always wait for the government to do something. But it is our job, not the job of government to help fellow citizens. If we wait for government to improve things we will wait forever."  hghafour@thenational.ae