Sara Hanna has spent her last five years in a desert oasis, but despite this she is as normal a young adult as you could find anywhere: a 29-year-old university graduate keen to make a difference with her life.
‘I want to do something with meaning, to give my life for other people,’ she told Lapido Media. ‘I have a good education but others haven’t had the chance. I must create these opportunities for others.’
Many restless youth will dabble in volunteer social work for similar reasons. Others will seek a career in the field. But few can match Hanna’s experience on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, or hope to witness the transformation she will help create.
Her last five years were spent at Anafora, an experimental community created by Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
And on 23 November in Anafora, she was one of 26 Egyptian MA graduates of the Catholic University of Lyon, France, in a ceremony coordinated with the community’s fifteenth anniversary.
‘I have lived here because I believe in the vision of Bishop Thomas and the message of Anafora,’ Hanna said. ‘It is to lift up every person.’
The name Anafora means ‘to lift up’ in the ancient Coptic language, and is used of the sacrificial offering presented in the Orthodox liturgy.
Bishop Thomas presides over the diocese of Qusia, 270 kilometers from Cairo in the heart of Upper Egypt. The Asyut governorate where he is based suffers from 70 per cent poverty and 33 per cent illiteracy.
Couple these statistics with a traditional, conservative mentality, and Bishop Thomas concluded that drastic measures were necessary.
‘We wanted to be more free, more relaxed,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘To do this we needed to have Anafora outside their local setting.’
Today around 100 people, mostly from Qusia, have come to work in the retreat centre and various farming and educational programs on the 120 acre property. Hundreds of young people come every year and mix with international visitors, cross-pollinating in cultural exchange.
And like Hanna, some of them stay.
She is from Cairo and now directs the educational programs at Anafora. She supervises the tutoring of 50 high school dropouts, aged 16-41, to prepare them to return to Qusia and complete their high school degree. Fifteen others are in a vocational training program, learning skills through which they can gain employment or start small businesses back home.
In development is a nine-month certificate course in addiction counseling, in cooperation with the NET Institute in Florida.
Sister Partheneya, Hanna’s fellow graduate, estimates 40 per cent of male students in the Qusia ‘Son of the King’ youth program suffer from addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or pornography. Five priests are enrolled and plan to create Qusia’s first addiction recovery center, which will be open to all.
But the joint program with the Catholic University is Bishop Thomas’ highest level of educational investment. Hanna and her colleagues received the equivalent of an MA in Local Development and Human Rights.
Furthermore, within five years Hanna will become the leader of an Anafora team and take on all the training. Until then professors will come from France and adapt their teaching to the local context.
It is the first extension program offered by the university, but they hope to replicate it elsewhere.
‘Bishop Thomas is a visionary and helped create a new idea,’ Olivier Frerot, the vice-rector at the Catholic University of Lyon, told Lapido Media. ‘He is creating civil society from the bottom up.’
Among the graduates were 15 priests and two sisters. It is normal in Qusia for the better-educated priests to also serve as community leaders. The next batch of students has much more laity.
‘When you want to implement a new culture and elevate the whole society, you must convince the leaders first,’ said Fr. Angelos Faltas, one of the graduating priests. He partners with Muslim NGOs to combat illiteracy, and has begun an internship program with five local factories to train 100 men for the labour market every three months.
But it is not just the leaders that Bishop Thomas needs to convince. It took 10 years before Anafora finally saw local acceptance of his transformative vision.
One proof is in the prestigious American University of Cairo’s scholarship program. Each year since 2004 the university selects two students from each governorate, and 60 per cent of those from Asyut have come from the diocese of Qusia, said the bishop.
These students are honoured as role models for the community, representing Egypt at the highest levels. The only challenge is to get some to stay. Internal migration draws the best and brightest away from nearly all villages in Upper Egypt.
The priests will stay, as they are bound to the church. But from distant Anafora, Hanna explains her hope for the training.
‘It helps people know how to develop their local community,’ she said. ‘Now they will think how to stay and serve, rather than how to leave.’
This article was originally published at Lapido Media.