Four years ago, Shenouda was found on the doorstep of a Coptic church. Now renamed Yusuf, the boy is found in a public orphanage. In between are the cares of a priest, the devastation of a Christian family, and a sectarian bureaucracy undergoing partial reform.
Egypt is home to a Dickensian tragedy.
“Adoption is not legal in Egypt,” said Nermien Riad, executive director of Coptic Orphans. “There is no possibility of this happening as it is known in the western world.”
The boy’s surname and location have been kept anonymous as a precaution, as reported by Coptic publication Watani. Presumably left by a single mother, the child was found by a Coptic priest who presented him to the couple, who had been infertile for 29 years.
They welcomed him into their home, obtained a birth certificate as their own, and raised him with love and devotion. They gave him a first name meaning Christian, honoring the former Coptic Orthodox pope, and according to Egyptian naming custom, the four-generation quadrangle was completed with the names of father, grandfather and great-grandfather. – beloved father.
Everything was idyllic, until a jealous niece realized the impact on her legacy.
Egyptian Islamic law, which seeks to preserve lineage, forbids taking someone else’s child as one’s own. The niece reported the couple to the police, who investigated. The prosecution determined that there was no blood connection, but also no ill will.
The father signed a paper stating that he had found the child “in the street”, likely to protect the involvement of the priest. But although the case was dropped last February, the boy was taken to an orphanage. Without papers to prove his ancestry, he was assumed to be Muslim – and therefore forbidden to live with a Christian family – and given the religiously neutral name Yusuf, the Arabic equivalent of Joseph.
The desperate parents protested: What Muslim would leave his unwanted child in a church? Rejected, they were even forbidden to visit him at the orphanage. Their applications for employment in the establishment were rejected.
According According to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, Egypt has 11,000 children placed in institutions. According to a 2016 study by UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, the total number of Egyptian children with at least one parent dead is 1.2 million.
Not all have a sad ending.
“It turned out better than I could have hoped for” said Rasha Mekki, who discovered Egypt kafala program in his mid-40s after 20 years of IVF treatments. She visited orphanages for a month, completed government paperwork, and returned home with Mostafa.
Kafala means “sponsorship” in Arabic, somewhat akin to foster care.
Today, Mekki lives with her husband and not quite her son in San Francisco where she runs Yalla Kafala, a nonprofit founded in 2020 to promote “adoption” in Egypt. Its goal is an Egypt without orphans by 2030.
It is less ambitious than the Egyptian government, which Position 2025 as the target date to close all orphanages in the country due to widespread child abuse, neglect and overcrowding. Reforms in 2020 authorized single, divorced and unmarried women over the age of 30 to apply kafalaand lowered the level of education needed for one of the spouses to have a high school diploma.
Last year, further reforms allowed for a partial name change. After consulting Cairo al-Azhar, the main center of scholarship in the Sunni Muslim world, the Egyptian government permit the sponsoring parents must give the child the father’s name in the second position of the quadrangle, or the family name in the fourth position, but not both designations.
Combined with a scenario on kafala by the popular “Why not? » Egyptian miniseries, applications leaps to 2,700 in 2021, the highest number on record. Yet still far short of the total number of people in need, many orphans are seen as the unwanted children of sin and suffer from severe social stigma.
Even from those willing to try: A couple, after welcoming a child through the kafala system, revenue the three-year-old girl after his wife got pregnant.
Another advocate chastised orphanages in general, while acknowledging that their workers are doing their best.
“She will be raised by adoptive ‘mothers’ who are employed to care for her, who are overworked and underpaid,” Yasmina El Habbal, a single woman in her 40s, said in the post. his breeding experience Baby Ghalia on his public Facebook page. “‘Mothers’ who will leave to marry and be replaced.”
Mekki strives to remind Muslims that caring for orphans – Muhammad was one himself – is a great deed in Islam. And although the formal rules of inheritance exclude kafala child, sharia permit any number of “gifts” to be given during the parents’ lifetime. Additionally, their will may specify up to one-third of any inheritance distributed after their death to other than their legal heirs.
Breastfeed a kafala child, furthermore, removes the ban on non-familial gender mixing, allowing women to keep their heads uncovered after a sponsored boy matures.
Raymond Ibrahim, writing for Coptic Solidarity, was critical. Citing Muslim stories, he told how the Prophet of Islam adopted Zayd, an orphan believed to be the fourth person to accept the faith. But the practice became banned when Zayd divorced his wife and Muhammad later married her. Kafala took its place and a precedent was set.
And Christians are among the modern victims.
“The reason Shenouda and his family were targeted is because of their Christian faith,” Ibrahim wrote. “The child – whose background is unknown – was raised as a Christian, and that’s what prompted the state to act.”
Some critics say the Egyptian government should not have such a right. Article 3 of the Egyptian constitution allows Christians and Jews to manage their own personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, according to their religious traditions.
“If we submit this question to the religious concept, adoption is permitted in Christianity, but the opposite in Islam,” said Youssef Talaat, legal adviser to the Protestant Churches of Egypt (PCE). “But the current law has no articles relating to it.”
Talaat represented the PCE alongside the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches to present a new unified personal status law to the government. Completed last year, it is expected to be discussed in the next session of parliament, although due to Egypt’s Sharia-based ban – with kafala as an alternative — adoption (tabennis) is not included in the new text.
Coptic lawyer Naguib Suleiman wants parliament to further amend the family bill, and he is reported some members will push to allow adoption for Christians.
Until then, where will the orphans go?
“In the absence of a legal framework, civil society organizations must step in and fill the void,” Riad said. “Our work prevents Shenouda’s situation from happening.”
Coptic Orphans, founded in 1988, works in approximately 800 cities and towns across Egypt. Currently serving 9,000 orphans, the organization says it has helped keep 35,000 children out of residential care.
A 2017 article in the academic journal Trauma, violence and abuse interrogates 23 studies over 20 years, involving a total of over 13,000 children. Those raised in foster care had “consistently better experiences and fewer problems” than those in orphanages.
For example, in 2009, American scientist published research on 136 children in Romania. At age 3.5, only 18% of institutionalized children demonstrated secure attachment to their primary caregiver. But 49% of those in foster care have done so, and 65% of those in the community at large.
Working in cooperation with church-affiliated orphanages, Coptic Orphans aims to place vulnerable people in the care of loved ones. And Riad specified that most of the orphans supported by the Christian network are not entirely supported: 95% of the beneficiaries have a mother. But when the father dies, is imprisoned or otherwise disappears, the family is often plunged into poverty.
Even in cases where the mother is also deceased, the extended family network steps in, bolstered by financial assistance from Coptic Orphans. This makes kafala unnecessary, and the government does not need to be involved. And in the rare case where parentage is unknown, the church will quietly place the child with a family.
Spiritual support is also offered. “Typically it is the priest who places the child with a family,” Riad said. “They know their community and the necessary arrangements better than any social worker.”
Riad commended the government’s efforts to expand and promote kafala. But she wonders how Egypt will be able to care for all the children, if plans continue to close the orphanages.
Yet, just as the country’s Christians once had to circumvent the law to build churches until reformation happens, she hopes adoption will be included in legal revisions. And not just for rare examples like Shenouda, but for all Coptic children who need care.
“Families are already ‘adopting’ informally, in the shadows,” Riad said. “If there is legalization for Christians, that would be ideal.”
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