Surprised by Joy

by Rebecca Atallah

Rebecca is a senior leader at the Center of Love, Mokattam Garbage Village in Cairo, Egypt.

When people walk into the Center of Love, they are usually amazed by the sense of joy and fun they find there. Aren’t these children and young people disabled, living with special needs in challenging circumstances? And aren’t they living in the Mokattam Garbage Village (MGV) in the midst of the overcrowded and polluted city of Cairo? I usually reply, ‘It’s all a God thing.’ Only He could have helped us to build the nicest, cleanest building in the whole village for these whom some others consider not normal or even useless.

The Center of Love was a dream, which God implanted in the youth of the church of the Mokattam Garbage Village (MGV). They sacrificially served the challenged, disabled and chronically ill for years with little money and lots of hard work. Then 15 years ago, God made it possible for us to make it better, to build and open this lovely centre. Now it serves almost 100 children and young adults living in and around the MGV, Muslims as well as Christians. The centre offers literacy training, physical and speech therapy, nursery classes, early childhood development and vocational training. We also provide regular seminars and social events to the hard-working caretakers, most of whom are the mothers and are also involved in the sorting and recycling of Cairo’s rubbish.

Almost all of our staff are local from the MGV itself, although we also depend heavily on volunteers, both Egyptian and expats, who live in other parts of Cairo. As volunteers, we all feel that it is a great privilege to work at the Center of Love.

Unconditional Love

I have learnt an enormous amount from the mothers of these young people. Their unconditional love for their children never ceases to amaze me, as well as their faith and belief that they can count on God to help their kids to grow, learn and be happy!

In most parts of Egypt, Omm is the traditional way of addressing a mother. When I think of some of those terrific mothers, I think of Omm Boula. She is very proud of her severely autistic 16-year-old son because he can read so well in Arabic and he is also learning to read in English. Omm Boula loves to get her son to ‘show off’ for us whenever she gets a chance.

Then there’s Omm Malak who already had three children when she gave birth to quadruplets, all of them boys, and one of them disabled! She is cheerful, hard-working and in love with all seven of them.

Omm Mahmoud is the mother of three, all of whom have cerebral palsy and have learning disabilities. She faithfully brings them to the Center of Love each day, pushing a wheelchair that carries two of them. She greatly appreciates getting a few hours off each day, as well as the fact that we have taught Mahmoud, one of her children, to use the bathroom by himself.

I first got to know Omm Ahmed in another garbage village centre, where I was involved. At the time, she was young, beautiful and had a deaf brother. I was thrilled when I saw her again, many years later. She had grown up, married and had four children. However, her husband also married someone else and her life became very difficult. Omm Ahmed brings her youngest son to the Center of Love three times a week for speech therapy sessions, travelling by public transportation an hour each way.

Examples of God’s Grace

When I first started working at the MGV 40 years ago, almost no one was educated or even literate. I had the privilege of helping to establish the first school there – always working under the church leadership. However, 25 years later, when we started hiring teachers for the Center of Love we were delighted to find many who had been to university and were happy to receive further training in the areas needed at the centre. This is an example of God’s miraculous working, which we have experienced for many years at the MGV. As people there gave their lives to Jesus, He gave them a new heart and a desire to send their children to school so that they would be able to read the Bible to their parents. Therefore, these children were educated, able and prepared to later go on to serve the disadvantaged in their area.

their faith and belief that they can count on God to help their kids to grow, learn and be happy

The Family of Love

Long before the Center of Love was built, some of these same young people had started the Family of Love. They had noticed and been disturbed by the fact that many of the villagers couldn’t make it out to church each week because of their disabilities and illnesses. So they started visiting their homes and bringing them to church – sometimes even carrying them on their backs! They also provided breakfast for them afterwards, supporting their ministry from their own limited resources.

When I became aware of their efforts through my work at the MGV, I was drawn to these young people. At their request, we started planning camps for the people they served. We have held camps for 25 years, which now also include most of the children and youth who attend the Center of Love.

Every spring the children at the Center of Love start asking when we’ll be going to camp? Even those who can’t talk make motions of swimming, as that is the only time these dear ones get anywhere near the water. We hold four-day camps for the boys and for the girls as well as the same for the chronically ill, who are mostly adults. My favourite camp is the one for the mums of the children with cerebral palsy, in which we try to give them time off – time to just be with each other, rest, eat well and have fun. They all accept and appreciate the daily times of singing and learning from Bible stories.

Years of Blessing

As I look back on my 40 years of serving at garbage villages in Cairo, my greatest feelings are those of gratitude! Why did God choose me to do this rather radical task of working in a garbage village so soon after moving to Egypt? At that time very few Christians from outside the villages were involved there. Why did He so consistently protect me and my children from getting any of the diseases that were then rampant there? How did the church there so readily invite me to volunteer with them when I was an expat and still weak in Arabic?

My answer is simply grace! It was the Lord’s gift to me and our family to know, love and be loved by the people who live in the MGV. It was His way of teaching me to have greater faith, patience and unconditional love, for these qualities are best learned by observing those who practise them.

In all sincerity, I want to say that anything I have been able to contribute to the wonderful, hard-working, loving people of the Mokattam Garbage Village is very small compared to all they have given me. For that I thank our gracious God – to Him be all the glory!


  • for the staff and volunteers who serve at the Center of Love
  • for the mothers as they are helped and as they serve others
  • for the disabled children and young people as they learn and develop
  • for the witness of the centre and for God’s grace to be seen and bring people to the Lord.
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