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Out of Darkness

Franciscan sisters bring hope to visually impaired children in Egypt

by Sarah Topol

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For most of Gerges’s childhood, he could scramble and play outside with his little brother, but with difficulty. Gerges was born with a visual impairment — he can only see light and dark. There were no facilities for blind or partially sighted students in his impoverished village, and though he was enrolled in school, keeping up was impossible.

“Writing was very difficult for me,” he says. “I couldn’t see the letters.”

Living in a hamlet near the city of Sohag in Upper Egypt, some 285 miles south of Cairo, Gerges did not know any other children like him; the only visually impaired people in his village were two elderly blind men. His father, a farmer of limited means, was not sure what to do.

When the local parish youth group heard about the Santa Lucia Home, a special boarding facility for blind children run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria, they told the family at once. Though concerned an older child would have trouble catching up in school — the Santa Lucia Home usually admits younger children, starting boarders from the age of 4 or 5 — the sisters welcomed Gerges with open arms. The boy was afraid, however.

“I was leaving my family and I was worried they were sending me to some kind of jail,” he remembers.

That was three years ago, when he was 11, and Gerges took to Braille with gusto.

“It was easy to catch on, it came quickly,” he says. “It’s amazing, now I can read and write.”

Today, Gerges is thriving, recognized as of one of the program’s best students. A sensitive boy who is always asking everyone how they feel and what he can do to help, he likes to garden and has decorated the nave of the adjoining Santa Lucia Church with flourishing golden pothos vines. Recently, he started learning to play the keyboard.

In Egypt, children with special needs such as Gerges have many disadvantages. Yet at Santa Lucia, the nurturing environment and commitment to higher learning provides some balance. Named for the fourth-century saint and patron of the blind, St. Lucy — who, according to tradition, was blinded before her martyrdom — the home encourages children to rise above their limitations. They are taught that nothing is beyond their reach, and the children are expected to shine.

“We teach them independence,” says Sister Souad Nohra, the director of the home.

At the home, children who once might have spent their lives in the shadows — helpless or hopeless — are receiving an incalculable gift. Darkness is giving way to light.

The center cares for 5 girls and 11 boys between the ages of 4 and 18. Most students come from poor farming villages in Upper Egypt or the outskirts of Alexandria. The sisters provide for every need — from clothes and books to food and extracurricular activities, such as sports and music. They also organize field trips to the beach.

Upstairs in the center’s immaculately clean dormitory, the children have their own numbered cupboards. The children are expected to dress themselves. At meal times, students procure their own cups and silverware from dining room drawers, and then clean up after themselves.

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