Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Monday, June 05, 2006

Cairo's Trash Collectors

As reported by Jack Epstein on Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle, the door to door garbage collection business—which has provided roughly 70,000 Coptic Christians in Cairo, Egypt with a means of employment for over fifty years--has been battling major scrutiny from the Egyptian government. The government wants to replace the system with foreign professional sanitation companies.

The Copts began collecting and recycling Cairo’s trash when it became more and more difficult for them to make a living as farmers because the land was so tightly controlled by the Muslim majority. This community of Copts fills the job of garbage collector, (known as a zabaleen in Arabic) because Muslims regard the occupation as “unfit, unclean and shameful.”

The zabaleen face many health risks working amongst Cairo’s garbage. However, because Cairo has no formal trash collection system in place, many residents rely and admire the work of the zabaleen and would rather continue supporting the door-to-door garbage collection service rather than pay the government to hire a foreign sanitation company. The Garbage Collectors Association for Community Development, a nonprofit based in Cairo, represents the zabaleen and has worked hard to protect their ongoing existence.

According to the piece:

“At a school unlike any in the Middle East, 15-year-old Magdi Shenuda learns how to use a computer to track the number of plastic bottles he recycled in the past month.

“The Recycling School, in a Cairo district noted chiefly for its garbage dump, teaches about 100 poor children their ABCs, fundamental health and the arts -- and basic training in the collection and reuse of trash.

“Magdi lives in Manshiet Nasser, one of seven Cairo neighborhoods populated primarily by Coptic Christians who toil as zabaleen -- Arabic for garbage collectors. For more than five decades, city residents have relied on their cheap -- less than $1 a month -- door-to-door service, which hauls away trash by small truck or donkey cart. The zabaleen spend hours sorting glass, plastic, cardboard, paper, tin and torn clothes in their communities and sell it to local factories that wash, compress and resell the materials.

“Many residents of this poverty-stricken settlement of 40,000 in an abandoned quarry at the foot of the Muqattam Hills are descendants of poor farmers who came to Cairo in the 1950s. They turned to garbage collection because the majority Muslim population -- only 10 percent of Egypt's 70 million people are Coptic Christians -- considers such work unclean.

To read this article in full, click here


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