The sounds of the banging wooden frames of the looms, Egyptian pop music playing from cell phones, and side conversations fill the rooms of the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE). Located in the outskirts of Cairo’s Mokattam Hills, in a neighborhood of informal settlements popularly known as Al-Zarayeb, the APE acts as a haven for a number of the women in the area. There, they can spend time making handcrafted, recycled products to sell for a source of income, while at the same time attend literacy classes.

Working on the loom

During lunch, women cross the courtyards with pots of pasta and walk through the hallways, telling others to join them for their meal. All the women take a break and eat together before getting back to working on their crafts.

Al-Zarayeb is home to a population of approximately 60,000 people, most of whom are Coptic Christians, Egypt’s largest minority group. Most of the residents living in al-Zarayeb were already established in earning a living through waste management and recycling, so the APE selected this area for the site of its center in 1984. According to Bekhiet Rizk, the media spokesperson for APE, the association began as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) to help women find self-sustaining work by recycling waste materials and also provide education courses. Rizk added that the association was founded by Yousreya Loza Sawiris, who is a prominent businesswoman and figure in Egypt’s development sector. Currently, the association works with more than 250 women.

Ne’ma Daniel said that she began going to the association at a young age. “But after I got married, I stopped coming for a while. My husband was doing well just working in waste management. Then, after that, there was a campaign kill pigs because of swine flu and it really affected us economically, so I decided to come back,” Daniel said, referencing the Egyptian government’s decision to kill off pigs during the 2009 swine flu epidemic. The move impacted Egypt’s Christian population, especially in the Al-Zarayeb neighborhood where many Christians relied on pigs for their livelihood.

“Most women cannot afford to take time off for literacy classes, and that’s why most other educational initiatives don’t work. Here, they can come learn, but also work on crafts that provide them with a source of income,” Rizk told MENASource.

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Hanan Saeed first came to the APE when she was twelve years old. Having just dropped out of school, the association’s literacy program seemed like a good opportunity to continue learning when she first heard about it from a relative. Saeed continued to come to the association to work and learn until she was twenty-five years old.

“Then I got married and took a bit of a break, had a baby, and came back,” Saeed said. These days, her daughter goes to the association’s preschool, reassuring Saeed that “if my daughter is tired or sick or anything, they call me, and I can go get her right away.”

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“I have tried working at a factory, but it was so far away, and my life became too mechanized. I would wake up at 6 am to go to work, and by the time I was back home it would be 8 pm, so I would eat, sleep, and do the same thing the next day,” Saeed told MENASource.  “So, coming here is much better even if I did get a little extra money in the factory,” she added.  In the association, there is more flexibility regarding the schedule. “For example, I can go with my husband to visit our family in Upper Egypt for two weeks and it won’t matter because we are paid per piece,” Saeed added.  Whereas the factory has strict hours and a limited number of absent days, the women at APE can work as much or as little as they please since they are paid by the number of products they produce.

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“I dropped out of primary school. I left because I wanted to, not because my parents forced me or anything. They were actually upset when I left. My mother heard about a French woman working with the association that gave sewing classes, so she suggested that I work there,” said Huda Fayek, who has also been coming to association since her early teenage years. Fayek then began attending literacy classes offered by the association. The classes facilitated her educational journey and she managed to receive a business diploma by the time she was thirty years old.

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“I basically grew up here. I have good company. I see and meet people. I travel. I get access to general and reproductive health information. This is the difference between working here and working anywhere else outside,” Fayek said.

At the end of their classes, the women may receive literacy certificates from the association. The classes are primarily focused on equipping the women with at least secondary levels of writing and reading skills. Recently, the center has begun considering providing English classes as well. The association has also held workshops on sexual reproduction, child rearing, and first aid.

Occasionally, as a community building activity, the association holds recreational trips to different places around Cairo. Some women who have reached managerial positions within the association have traveled internationally to display their work as well. The building also has a small daycare center where the women can leave their children for the day. This has been a deciding factor in many of the women’s choice to continue working with the association.

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Um Adam began working at the association seven years ago; when she became a widow and had to support herself and her children.

“The work here is nice. You create art, which is really impressive, but it is still very exhausting,” Um Adam told MENASource. She continued “Everything has its positives and negatives. Here, the income is very low, and the work takes up a lot of energy. We get paid by the piece, so we have to constantly be productive. If I were to work at a factory outside, I might be getting paid more, but I wouldn’t be as close and readily available for my kids.”

The association also provides free medical care. Hepatitis C  is widespread in Egypt, with some scientists claiming that Egypt has the highest prevalence rate in the world.  The medical services at APE are available for the women, and their families to seek treatment and medication. According to Rizk, the APE has provided services for over 26,000 people since its founding. Of those, 1,000 people have been treated for Hepatitis.

There are two small shops in the association that display the handmade items the women create. They include earrings, necklaces, and bracelets made from recycled magazines, cans, and other forms of aluminum and cloth. There are purses made of ties, blankets made with different recycled patchwork, as well as notebooks and cards made out of recycled paper.

“Some factories actually ask us to take their leftover fabric and cardboard to make recycled products out of the materials for them,” Rizk said, as he displayed several coasters and bracelets made from cardboard paper that a Stella factory had given to the association.

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Many of the women have been coming to the association since they were children and have grown up in the organization; using it to create a community for themselves. They spend hours keeping each other company, laughing, crying, and sharing stories as they weave thread into bags, clothes, blankets, and all sorts of products they see as their own “art creations,” as Um Adam, put it. At the end of the day, the APE provides a refuge for vulnerable communities with a steady income, education courses, and daycare support for their children; all vital resources they are unable to find elsewhere in one place. “I have been coming here for over a decade now and I see these people every day…they have  known me since I was a child,” Hanan Saeed told MENASource, “and we’ve become a family.”

Jihad Abaza is a freelance journalist and anthropologist in Egypt.