Mama Maggie: The Untold Story of One Woman's Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt's Garbage Slums

Mama Maggie: The Untold Story of One Woman's Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt's Garbage Slums


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718022037
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 604,186
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Dr. Marty Makary is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and New York Times best-selling author of Unaccountable. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Time, and Newsweek and is a frequent medical commentator of CNN and FOX News. He has led projects for the World Health Organization and is an advocate for quality and safety in healthcare. He lives in Washington, DC area.

Read an Excerpt

Mama Maggie

The Untold Story of One Woman's Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt's Garbage Slums

By Marty Makary, Ellen Vaughn

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2015 Marty Makary
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7180-2203-7


An Angel in the Dark

* * *

It's a place that feels as though it's beyond hope. It has existed on the fringes of Cairo for generations, a maze of crumbling, dark dwellings and narrow streets of packed dirt, trodden by emaciated donkeys pulling wooden carts towering with stacks of rubbish.

This is the place where the garbage pickers live. Fifty thousand of them. They pick up and sort greater Cairo's waste—the trash of 22 million people—and recycle what they can for a few coins a day. They separate rotting food, used diapers, hypodermic needles, broken glass, plastic, metal, and crumpled paper. They live in sewage, disease, and stench. There is little clean water. Among many families, violence, addictions, and abuse are a way of life. Electricity is scarce, and the nights are full of dangers. Almost half the children born here will die before they are five years old. Some starve; some succumb to dysentery. The residents of this place are known in Arabic as the Zabaleen: garbage people.

Because of their enterprise, however, the garbage village has its own unlikely infrastructure and hierarchy. Some people have jerry-rigged electricity and established small storefronts and tiny cafés, a bit of civilization in the midst of the chaos. If you visit the area in the morning, donkey carts and rusty pickup trucks are returning from picking up garbage in downtown Cairo, laden with waste. Men are sitting on plastic chairs in the street, sipping tea or thick coffee and smoking sheesha, the local flavored tobacco, from tarnished water pipes. Young men are making deals; women walk by carrying large loads on their heads.

A little boy named Anthony came with his family to this garbage slum when he was three years old. He was too young to know that as a Christian in a country where everyone's religion is listed on his or her identity card, he was part of a religious minority. He was too young to understand that his parents had fled from their village in southern Egypt when radical Islamists burned down their home, destroying everything they owned. He didn't know that the teeming garbage village of Mokattam was one of the few places his parents could go to find work. They arrived with nothing.

Anthony grew up in the stench, relentless activity, and remarkable resilience of the garbage village. He and his four siblings lived in a small room under the stairs in a crumbling multilevel building. As a young boy, he helped his parents gather and sort trash. By the time he was ten, he had left school and had a job ironing clothes in an area where people could actually afford such services.

But there was a problem.

The man in charge of the laundry shop took a liking to Anthony. He pressed in on him. If Anthony refused his advances, the man would burn him with the iron. Anthony dreaded the dark evenings, when the man would come after him. He had burns all over his body.

He knew of no way out.

But a determined woman heard of Anthony's plight. Dressed in a white T-shirt, plain white skirt, and white scarf, this lady came to him one night, when he was in a fever and a haze, lying miserably on the floor of his shack and resigned to hell. She took him to her own home, far beyond the garbage slum. She brought a doctor to see him. The doctor came every day for a week and dressed his wounds. The lady hand-fed him so he could gradually get stronger—stronger than he had ever been.

The lady talked to him as he lay in bed. She put cool cloths on his forehead. Struck by the stories he told her, she wept. Anthony felt like her tears matched his own. Then she said something astounding. She held his hand tenderly and asked Anthony to forgive her as a substitute for the man who had attacked and abused him. Initially, he didn't know what to think. Then he embraced her.

The lady in white was like an angel, showing him something he had no idea existed. Forgiveness. Dignity. Hope.


Two Women in the Street

If you're never able to live for anything bigger than your pocketbook, your stomach, and your career, then you'll never be able to bless those around you.

—Tim Keller

* * *

Maggie Gobran—the lady in white—was an unlikely person to spend her life among the poor. She says that she had no particular skills to help people in need. She had no expertise or training that would equip her to run toward the abused, the oppressed, and the needy. But something happened in her life that turned it upside down and propelled her toward the slums.

Unlike remarkable humanitarian Mother Teresa, who emerged to worldwide recognition from life in a convent, having taken early vows of poverty and chastity, Maggie Gobran came from wealth, privilege, and prominence. She had grown up as a well-to-do Egyptian. Her Coptic Christian family had always paid attention to the needs of those who were less fortunate. She was raised with a strong social conscience. But still, she had maids and vacationed in Europe. She bought clothes in Paris. Her father was a well-respected doctor.

As a young woman Maggie did all things well. She was well educated, married well, had two lovely children, and was affluent, acquiring homes, cars, jewelry, and comforts. She was fun and was admired for her thoughtfulness, her humor and kindness, her many accomplishments. She worked hard, wanting to make a difference for good in whatever she did.

Then, at a time of life when many young professionals keep churning ahead, beating their oars into the cultural current, intent on negotiating more deals, getting more power, and making more money, she paused. Surprising everyone who knew her, and herself most of all, she took a sharp turn away from the next acquisitive step.

A few unexpected observations, along with the altruistic values from her upbringing, began to tug at her. And at a certain point in her midthirties, she decided to make a radical choice.

It began on a day when, with friends from her church and other faith communities, she embarked on what was supposed to be a one-time holiday visit to Cairo's garbage slums. Maggie and her friends came from the suburbs. They were eager to visit an Egypt different from the one where they lived. They were connecting with people who had no social advantages. Many of the adults in the slum could not read; most were barely surviving.

But Maggie found an authentic connection with the children, women, and men in the slum. She hugged everyone, asked for their names, asked about their hopes and dreams.

Intent on mere survival, many had never thought in such terms. But the questions made them reflect a bit, sparking something new inside. They loved Maggie's interest in their ideas, and her confidence that they were creative people. Maggie fell in love with the privilege of being a part of their lives.

She returned again and again, sometimes to give of herself, sometimes just to fill her soul.

On one such visit, Maggie saw movement in a pile of garbage. Digging in the trash, she discovered a baby. Stunned, she pulled him out and set him on her lap. When she returned home, she wept every time she thought about the baby in the garbage and all of the children like him. That baby had a big impact on Maggie.

One winter day Maggie encountered a young woman selling corn in the middle of a narrow, stinking street. She was dressed in rags, shivering. Maggie began to ask her questions about her life. The woman told Maggie that ever since her husband had died, no one had cared for her. Tears poured down her face, and Maggie's too.

Two women, standing in the street. One rich, one poor. They wept together, hugging.

A few minutes later the mother left to go back to her shack to sort garbage. Her young daughter came to take over the mom's job of selling corn. The child's flimsy sandals were worn out, so Maggie took her to get new shoes.

Wide-eyed, the little girl chose a beautiful pair. Then she handed them back to Maggie. "Could I get an adult size instead?" she asked.

"Yes, of course," said Maggie. "But why?"

"My mother has no shoes," the little girl said. "She needs them."

"I went home that day in shock," Maggie says. "I looked at my young daughter. She could have been that little girl. I thought of the woman shivering in the garbage street. I could have been in her place. And I knew something: We don't choose where or when to be born. We don't choose where or when to die. But we can choose either to help others or turn away. We can choose to do nothing or be a hero. If you want to be a hero, do what God wants you to do. He will let you know what that is, as long as you are open to finding out.

Mama Maggie's decision to love that little girl seemed small-scale at the time, but little did she know, it was the start of something great.


Choosing to Care

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

—Flannery O'Connor

* * *

So Maggie Gobran chose to do something for people who had no choice about where they were born.

Maggie would never describe herself as a hero. She saw people in need and felt empathy. She would say that something beyond herself was urging her, in her gut and heart, pulling her to inconvenience and reconfigure her life to help them, rather than choosing to look the other way and do nothing but maybe give some money. For Maggie, it was more a matter of opening herself up to the fulfillment that comes when you totally put aside your own interests and take on the concerns of others.

Maggie wanted to help the poor beyond what she could do on her own. With her husband and others, she figured out a way to do—and multiply—good work in the garbage slums and in other poor areas in villages around Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. In 1989, she started an organized effort called Stephen's Children.

Most of Cairo's garbage collectors are Coptic Christians by background, but the organization helps Muslims and Christians alike, as more and more poor Muslims have come to the slums in recent years. Workers and volunteers visit people in their shacks, listen to their stories, find out their concerns, and help them with food, clothing, medical care, job training, and education. The charitable work revolves around building relationships with people in need, building up their dignity, and equipping them to help themselves.

She is now known in Egypt as "Mama Maggie," a name given her by the many children who see her as a second mother to them.

Mama Maggie's work among the poor has garnered the attention of foreign leaders, humanitarian groups, and human rights organizations. Members of the British Parliament, the U.S. Congress, and leaders from around the world have made the pilgrimage to Cairo's slums to see the power of radical love at work. Many of them now refer to her as the "Mother Teresa of Egypt."

Who is Mama Maggie? She is a slender, Egyptian woman now in her midsixties with light brown skin, gray-blonde hair, and an erect posture. She has deep laugh lines; they turn upward, making it look like her eyes are smiling all the time. Despite working in one of the filthiest urban centers in the world, she dresses entirely in white—a long, simple skirt, long-sleeved shirt, shawl, head covering, and socks with well-worn sandals.

But even though she looks like a nun, she is not.

A former marketing executive and university professor, she ventured beyond the borders of her privileged life in Cairo and found something she'd been looking for. Though she now looks ethereal, she responded viscerally to the pain of the people who live in the ghetto, with a core of steel to set things right that had been so wrong.

Mama Maggie's work involves managing staff as well as many volunteers, about two thousand people. More than 20 percent of the workers come from the very slums they now serve. They know what it feels like to live in poverty of body, soul, and spirit, and they know what it means to discover real and lasting change through the love and attention of caring people.

A young woman we'll call Hawwa, for example, grew up in one of Cairo's garbage areas. She met Mama Maggie when she was seven years old. When Hawwa was older, she went to a Stephen's Children's sports camp. Mama Maggie took notice of her.

"What do you want to do when you grow up?" Mama Maggie asked her. "Would you like to be a leader and join me?"

Hawwa knew nothing of the idea of "being a leader." The slum did not teach such concepts. But Mama Maggie helped her understand new things and have new hope for her life. As Hawwa grew up, she pressed toward goals she previously had no idea how to set. She finished high school and was encouraged to continue on in the university. She came back after college to join Maggie in the work of helping other kids in the same way she had been helped.

When Hawwa's mother became ill, Maggie gave her time off to care for her. Hawwa didn't have money for a doctor for her mom. Then one of her colleagues came to see her. She brought an envelope from Mama Maggie. Hawwa opened it. In it was the exact amount of money she needed for the doctor, a specific answer to her specific prayers.

Hawwa is shy when she talks about the values that Mama Maggie has instilled in her. One thing is clear: she believes in many more possibilities than she used to. Before, there were none. "I have a special life now," she says simply. "Mama Maggie has made a huge difference in my future."

It's a common theme among the life stories of her staff.

Mama Maggie has inspired many, many girls and boys the same way. For this and numerous other reasons, some have been tempted to call Maggie Gobran a modern saint.

She would be the first to say that she is not. She is full of very human, appealing paradoxes. She is confident yet soft-spoken, with nothing to prove, yet she has the instinctive, magnetic charisma inherent in great leaders. She is free in her own skin. She is the first to laugh and cry and confess flaws of every sort.

She is otherworldly, almost floating away in her layers of all-white clothing in contemplation of the mysteries of life and God one moment, firmly in the details of her work the next, giving members of her staff a month's worth of work to do in a concise phone call. (As her husband says, smiling, "You have to remember, before the ministry, she was in business!")

She keeps her friends close, yet removes herself to the solitude of Egypt's desert to meditate and pray. She's disinterested in life's luxuries; but in a restaurant, she will wrestle to pick up the check—and win. She uses words freely, but with great care; few are wasted. She knows the power of silence, and visits it more often than most busy people might feel comfortable.

She laughs in a heartbeat, cheering the small drawing of a cat sketched by a child in the slum. She weeps in a moment, confiding her weaknesses to close friends or thinking of girls and boys she wants to protect from abuse, neglect, and shame. She dispenses small candies to everyone, from poor children to toll collectors and soldiers.

She is the first to notice people who are grieving, struggling, or ill. Once a small child vomited in one of her classrooms. Other staff stood around awkwardly for a moment. Mama Maggie jumped up, got a cloth, and knelt on the floor to clean up the mess. She doesn't seem to mind the things that repulse most others.

Sharing is of paramount importance to her. After staff meetings in her Stephen's Children office—a converted apartment in a Cairo suburb—she passes out bananas for everyone. She insists she is not comfortable until everyone has taken a bite from hers.

In any account of her work, Mama Maggie is careful to direct the focus toward the children she serves and the team with whom she works. She has cultivated a movement of young people who are working in a selfless way among the poor, making a lifelong difference in children's lives. She is confident that they will continue the work they have begun long after she is gone.

Mama Maggie is an enigma even to those most often around her. She doesn't always make herself available. She is preoccupied with the children, or her spiritual mentors, or the history of those who have gone before her in the path of self-sacrifice. She is not particularly reflective about her motivations to sell all she had to help the poor or to live in a very unusual, countercultural way.

For her, it's straightforward: she simply experienced the happiness of serving others and knew that there was nothing else she'd rather be doing. She felt like God had told her to spend her life in a different way from the usual choices of busy, successful professionals like the one she had been, so she changed course. She sees nothing particularly remarkable in her decision.

The backdrop of Mama Maggie's story—Egypt's complex political, religious, and cultural setting—however, is replete with drama. The political landscape is volatile, changing frequently, sometimes punctuated by demonstrations and violence on the streets. Yet the context of Mama Maggie's work, the rich, ancient traditions of Christians in the Middle East, has not altered over the past two thousand years.


Excerpted from Mama Maggie by Marty Makary, Ellen Vaughn. Copyright © 2015 Marty Makary. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 An Angel in the Dark, 1,
Chapter 2 Two Women in the Street, 7,
Chapter 3 Choosing to Care, 13,
Chapter 4 Beginnings, 21,
Chapter 5 Garbage People?, 31,
Chapter 6 The Land Beyond Time, 37,
Chapter 7 Promotion, 45,
Chapter 8 Stephen's Children, 53,
Chapter 9 I Can!, 63,
Chapter 10 3:00 a.m., 77,
Chapter 11 Friends Everywhere, 83,
Chapter 12 Metamorphosis, 91,
Chapter 13 "Interior Fulfillment", 101,
Chapter 14 The Persistent Mr. Qiddees, 109,
Chapter 15 "The Dead Live Better than We Do", 121,
Chapter 16 Slow Going, 127,
Chapter 17 Pigs and Politics, 133,
Chapter 18 The Mama Maggie Cup, 139,
Chapter 19 The Dark Side and the Light, 147,
Chapter 20 God's Athletes, 155,
Chapter 21 The Next Generation, 167,
Chapter 22 Lives Touching Lives, 175,
Chapter 23 Real Love, 183,
Chapter 24 Mama Maggie in Action: Stop!, 191,
Chapter 25 Small Girls, Big Dreams, 203,
Chapter 26 Flames and Forgiveness, 209,
Chapter 27 Simple Work, with Great Love, 221,
A Note from Marty Makary: Beginnings, 229,
With Gratitude, 239,
Notes, 243,

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Mama Maggie: The Untold Story of One Woman's Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt's Garbage Slums 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
efm More than 1 year ago
Change can occur when people care. Easy Read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great, well-written read and super inspiring!