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Home News Cairo rag-and-bone men mourn ‘saintly’ champion

Cairo rag-and-bone men mourn ‘saintly’ champion

Published on October 21, 2008

Oct 20, 2008

CAIRO – Cairo’s rag-and-bone men recalled with fondness on Monday the Belgian-born Catholic nun who spent two decades sharing their blighted lives and championing their education and advancement.

 "She’s really dead?" asked Amgad Adli, 34, when told the news that Sister
Emmanuelle had died at the age of 99.

"I had no idea she was so old. That’s so sad. She was an angel, she was
incapable of doing anything but good."

Adli was just one of many among the tens of thousands of residents of Cairo’s impoverished southern suburbs who make a living from recycling
the Egyptian capital’s waste to pay tribute to the nun’s mission among the
poor between 1971 and 1993.

The "zabbalin" as they are known in Arabic, many of them members of
Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, remembered her modesty, her simplicity and how her strictness was always combined with a sense of humour.

"She always insisted on punctuality – if you were a minute late, she would
move on," Adli recalled.

Hanan Roshdi, who studied at one of the schools which Sister Emmanuelle helped to set up, recalled how she would join in the children’s games in the schoolyard and never passed up any opportunity to persuade parents to educate their children.

 "She never hesitated to go from house to house to talk to people in her broken Arabic and make them laugh," Roshdi said.

"She was a great lady. Even when she became well known, she remained
very modest and without an ounce of pride."

The head of a local campaign group, the Youth Association for the Environment, Ezzat Naim, said Sister Emmanuelle had been the prime mover in bringing the suffering of the zabbalin to the world’s attention,
particularly in France and Belgian where she became famous.

"All of the associations you see in the neighbourhood today flow from her
actions," said Naim, now 44.

"She was saintly, she was mother to everyone.

"We were all ashamed to be rag-and-bone men until Sister Emmanuelle came along and told us: ‘There’s no need to be ashamed – it’s you who clean the streets of Cairo, who look after the environment.’ She taught us the value of our work."