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In Cairo: Breaking Old Molds Through Service-Learning


james curielDr. James Curiel holds a Masters in Ethnic Studies from San Francisco State University, and a Masters and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California at Davis. He has written and presented internationally on transformative action learning.  Dr. Curiel is an Assistant Professor in Urban Affairs in the Department of Sociology at Norfolk State University in Virginia.

You might be surprised by what can be achieved through service-learning in a foreign country under a military dictatorship with extreme censorship. My story is from fall 2010, but it is one worth telling and I am proud of what my students and I accomplished.  From 2009 to 2012, I was a Visiting Professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), in Egypt, where, as an advocate of action learning, I worked closely with the Office of Community Based Learning.

In Fall 2010, I selected Manshiyyet Nasr as the community my Sociology of Inequality class would be working with to see if we could put our course concepts into action in the real world. Manshiyyet Nasr is home to approximately 17,000 Zabaleen, the Coptic Christians who earn their living by collecting trash.  No taxes or services fees are paid to the Zabaleen, for they only earn money by recycling materials from the rubbish they collect. The illiteracy rate among them hovers around 52 percent with many of the children working full time to help support the family instead of attending school.  Poverty, low education rates, and high mortality rates among the Zabaleen abound with prejudice and discrimination all around them.

My AUC students, many from the wealthiest Egyptian families, were quite eager to use their sociological skills in interviewing and conducting surveys to see if we might be able to ascertain Zabaleen needs and aspirations in order to facilitate changes that might improve their lives. We would be working with the Association for the Protection of the Environment, APE, a NGO working to raise the quality of life among the Zabaleen. Limitations included being restricted to doing interviews and surveys on APE property and not being able to ask any questions about water.

Our first order of business was for my students to self-organize into ten teams with three people on each team. It was critical that each team had to have at least one member who had a license and who had access to a car they could use.  Each team presented me with a plan and schedule for conducting interviews and surveys, a plan I had to approve, including the questions they would be asking. 

Our first contact with Manshiyyet Nasr was to take a tour of the APE facilities before meeting with the APE Director to get briefed on restrictions placed on us by the government.  APE has an elementary school, trains young women in weaving rugs and other products from recycled cloths, provides them with purchasing looms to work at home weaving, trains women in making recycled paper, teaches them the arts of making cards and other products from recycled paper, provides instruction to men on making gardening compost and provides the community with land for making compost and for gardening.  In addition to offering classes on family planning, literacy and learning English for adults, APE runs a store that sells their weaving and paper products.

My students and I were skeptical as to what we could achieve, if anything, especially when our busses first entered Manshiyyet.  We began closing the windows because almost immediately pesky flies and foul odors began infiltrating our busses. The flies and odors accost you because the entire first floor of their homes are built with a garage like area devoted to separating garbage by hand, and with narrow streets these separation areas surround you, replete with maggots and stench.


The morale of my teams was quite low, and skepticism was quite high in the midst of our first day at APE. My students had read articles and a book on Manshiyyet, but the initial physical reality of the neighborhood was overwhelmingly depressive.

However, at the end of our first day there, my students began to interview the Zabaleen, and this social interaction lifted their spirits tremendously. One team interviewed a gardener and found out his children were attending high school and his oldest daughter was attending a trade school for hotel service. The gardener himself could not read, but he said it was of the utmost importance that his daughters were going to get an education.

The optimism of the Zabaleen themselves infected my students, and another team returning from purchasing snacks at a store across the street told the class of the interest the locals had in seeing us arrive and were particularly fascinated in finding out why we there. We had arrived on busses as a class, but the teams themselves would be returning in their own vehicles and it was with renewed vigor my students looked forward to coming back.

Interviews among the Zabaleen led my students to alter and fine-tune their surveys, and their findings were a little bit surprising. For example, they found education was a high priority for the Zabaleen, just as it was to the gardener, but a key obstacle was transportation. More surprising were the interviews and surveys found the Zabaleen preferred having a high school built in their neighborhood rather than having improved transportation to high schools outside of the neighborhood. Parents said it was extremely difficult to persuade their children to attend outside schools because their sons and daughters find the discrimination outside the community to be more than they can bear. Thus, while outsiders might speculate the main obstacle to the Zabaleen receiving secondary education was a physical barrier of transportation infrastructure, my students found in listening to the Zabaleen that the main obstacle was a social barrier of demeaning spoken words and body language communicating discrimination and disgust. 

The most important information my students gained was the plea from the Zabaleen for Cairo residents to, “Please separate your kitchen scraps and biodegradables from your paper, glass, and metals into separate bags. This would help us the most.” 

This informative plea began to filter through informal channels typical of the Cairo grapevines that fueled the January 25th Revolution after television, radio, the Internet, and all telephones were shut down. This information led to many residents in my neighborhood, and others, to begin separating their vegetable, glass, metal, and paper refuse.  Actually, it had been a question many ex-patriots had already been asking, but for the first time they had hard information as to what the Zabaleen wanted them to do.  Our information helped people to work with the Zabaleen.

This service-learning gave my students a chance to work with people from the lowest caste in their society, and it allowed them to discover the human face of people living in those circumstances.  It gave my students and myself the desire to dream of a possibility when the Zabaleen would not have to face daily discrimination.

The lessons in our book were on paper. The learning we did in our work with the Zabaleen was in our hearts and our minds. Concepts came to life as we struggled to fathom how people could be forced to live under such horrendous conditions and social discrimination. You can turn the page of a book and it is easy to forget. Talking to a real person makes it easier to search for understanding and to find ways to change the situation.

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