Sonoma’s role in cleaning up Aswan

(by George McKale) The Saharan heat is inviting this time of year. We are told, and I can attest to this from personal experience, that within a few short weeks the heat will become excessive. I am once again in Sonoma’s sister city of Aswan, Egypt. My traveling companions include Bill Boerum (far left in photo) and my 14-year-old son, Matthew. (George is at right, pink shirt). We are here to conclude two years of work on a Sanitation Project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and overseen by Sister-Cities International.

The project was initially developed by locals Sherri Ferris, Farrel Beddome and myself. Two years ago, Farrel traveled to Morocco with Aswan committee members Magdy Rabie and Soad Karmi, along with other potential recipients, to develop projects that would meet the specifics of the grant. At that time, it was only days into what has become known as The Revolution in Egypt. Tahrir Square in Cairo was packed with one-million protestors and chaos occupied the hearts and minds of the country. Through this difficult period, Farrel somehow managed to develop a Sanitation Project with Magdy and Soad. Their hard work paid off and the proposed project was funded.

The project was to occur in an extremely poor area of Aswan known as El Naseriya. In El Naseriya, one finds windy streets which are not wide enough for the city’s garbage trucks to maneuver between. As such, garbage builds up, which is great for the rat population, but not so great for the community. There is of course a health issue. Our project included the purchase of three small trucks, spare parts, gloves, boots, brooms and the like. It included enough money to provide gas and insurance for two years. It also included the cost of printing 1,000 T-shirts.

The T-shirts are a very important element of this project. They are to be given to community members while they pick up trash. The shirts are bright yellow and contain both of our cities logos. It is important to wear bright colors if one is working in the streets, as it allows drivers to know when they are about to hit someone. In Egypt, one crosses the street at their own risk. The shirts were also intended to create a sense of pride and belief that one day their streets will be clean. While Sonoma has clean-up days, whether it is at the cemetery or the creeks, the concept is rather unheard of in Egypt.

To be honest, the clean-up day was not as I expected, or more accurately, had hoped for. There were not hundreds of men, women and children lining the streets in jubilation, no gloves on hands holding brooms or bags. There were shirts and jumpers worn by a few young men with the Sonoma and Aswan logos. Those that wore the shirts and jumpers, ceremoniously picked up trash and placed it into a truck purchased by the project.

To be honest, I was jubilant, in that progress had been made, and a small glimmer of hope could be detected in the faces of community. Since the Revolution, the economic upheaval has progressively gotten worse. It is difficult to be jubilant about cleaning up one’s neighborhood, when most of the community does not make enough money to feed their families, shop for clothes or pay for adequate health care.

While this day represents the end of the Sanitation Project in Aswan, I do hope it marks a new beginning for those who live in El Naseriya. The community now has the means to make a difference in their lives. Providing trucks and materials that can be used to brighten the streets of El Naseriya was the easy part. Now, it will be up to them to make a difference in their community.

Bill, Matthew and I did witness a small and on-going miracle in Aswan. Bill and I had the chance to meet Sir Magdi Yacoub in the Bay Area just prior to my leaving for Egypt. Dr. Yacoub founded the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation and while in Aswan, we made a short visit to the Aswan Heart Centre. At this facility all heart surgeries are free. Not only that, all equipment at the facility is state of the art. How moving it was for all of us to see young children, newborns, recovering from heart surgery. I was taught much about giving at this facility.

See you next week.

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