The Power of the Pen

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By: Alexandra Kinias —

Original article published in Kalimat Magazine

In June 2010, Yasmin Helal was attending a film festival in Cairo. Three children approached her asking for money. She had no change to give them, but Helal had three school bags in her car trunk that she was donating to a charitable organization. So instead of sending the kids away, she gave each a school bag. This simple act of goodness changed not just the children’s lives but Helal’s as well. The events of that night culminated with the young engineer quitting her job and founding Educate-Me, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was initially founded to help reinstate dropouts back to school. In its short lifetime, however, Educate-Me has broadened its mission, becoming an organisation that also tries to improve the well-being of underprivileged children. Educate-Me is also developing special educational programs for children to help them improve their skills and enable them to pursue their future dreams. Helal was attending a conference in Boston, Massachusetts where I had the chance to talk with her.

“I was selected among ten other candidates, after winning the entrepreneurship competition of NEGMA, the American-based NGO, back in March 2013, to attend an accelerator program and to present my project at MIT,” Helal explained.

NEGMA was established by seven Egyptian-American and Egyptian professionals from the Harvard and MIT communities after the January 25th uprising. They wanted to have an impact on the social and economic needs in Egypt by empowering entrepreneurs and innovators who are developing programs to solve some of Egypt’s significant challenges. To support this vision, the NEGMA Conference was established to help translate ideas into action for a brighter future for Egypt. And since education is a topic that cannot be ignored, it was no surprise that Educate-Me was among those selected by NEGMA.

Helal goes on to say that the “accelerator program started with attending the Harvard Arab weekend conference then followed by workshops and field visits to other organisations and schools. The workshops have been really helpful in terms of covering different topics that we had identified as potential areas of development, and the field visits gave us access to a network.

Helal recalled how this organization project started. On that same night she gave away the three school bags, she was approached by a middle-aged man asking her for school bags for his daughters. “I had no more bags, but I promised to bring him the bags the following day. I also learned that his daughters dropped out of school because he couldn’t afford the small tuition. I told myself that I will confirm his story and if in fact he was telling the truth, I will pay for their tuition. At the same time, I thought this is not enough, because I was certain that there are many similar cases like his. These cases needed more effort from our side to be able to reach them. At this point I decided to start this project with a goal to look for dropout children who could not afford the tuition and reinstate them back to school. I wanted to give them a chance like the chances we were given in our lives.”

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Educate – Me classroom

Helal, who graduated with a biomedical engineering degree with honours from Cairo University, was also a player for the Egyptian Basketball National Team. She quit her job at the telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent, where she worked as a Middle East and Africa Network Design Engineer, to launch her NGO—which raised a lot of eyebrows. When asked about the challenges she had launching her project, Helal responded, “One of the main challenges I faced was the social pressure I was exposed to when I decided to quit my engineering job and dedicate my full time to Educate-Me. This was not familiar to our culture. The whole social entrepreneurship ecosystem is not yet mature or empowered like it is in the West. It was also challenging to find the right people who shared the same passion and vision for a better education.”

Helal continued, “Even though my initial aim for Educate-Me was a small fundraising initiative that assists in reinstating school dropouts back to school, I was lucky to be joined by my co-founders Mohamed El Haw and Amr El Salanekly, and together our journey changed course. Educate-Me evolved into a foundation that is now fully established in the community—with a community development centre and with its own educational system and educational curriculum. We are not just reinstating the children back to school, but we are also helping them develop their skills and talents that enable them to compete in today’s world. We are helping them grow up with goals, ambitions and vision, and to become of benefit to their communities.”

Since its founding, Educate-Me has been well received by both the children and the parents of the village of Konayyesa, Giza, where it was established. This positive reception inspired Helal and her team to establish their first community development centre in this neighbourhood. “So far, we have reinstated more than 200 children back to school over a period of three years, and recently we have established illiteracy sessions for mothers in the community. We have also created jobs. The illiteracy classes are delivered by four women from the community who are trained to deliver the service. So our service is from the community and to the community.”

When asked about the method that Educate-Me has developed for its tutorial program, Helal explained, “What we do generally is let the kids decide for themselves what they want. They come to our centre and decide what they want. We offer them many options they can choose from: English, handicrafts, digital literacy and other subjects, but it is their responsibility to decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. We’ve been getting more than 75 percent attendance rate in the centre, which means that kids are actually interested in the project.”

There’s no doubt that the education system in Egypt is in peril. The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014 rated Egypt as the worst country in the world in the quality of primary education. Egypt is listed 118th overall, eleven spots lower than last year’s ranking. Providing some insights about the poor quality of education in Egypt, Helal said, “Among the major problems that students face in public schools is the learning environment itself. The classrooms are not well equipped, the desks are broken and some classes are crammed with more than 100 children. It is impossible to learn in this environment, especially when you have just one teacher per class. Moreover, these teachers are underpaid so they force the children to get private tutoring with them. And this is the decisive factor for whether the children will pass the exams or fail. One of the children showed me his mathematics test results where he scored 23 out of 25. I tried to resolve it again with him to help him understand what he had missed, only to realize that he doesn’t even know how to read. The teachers give the answers for the test to those who take private lessons with them. Education should have a purpose and not just to get a good grade or a certificate. Another problem in the education system is that it relies mainly on standardized testing and getting the children to score well on exams, which defines what is going to happen in their future.”

In spite of the political turmoil in Egypt, Helal admitted that the current situation has benefited Educate-Me. After the revolution, a lot of Egyptians started feeling the urge to contribute to the development of the country, and accordingly, the number of Educate-Me staff and contributors increased immensely. And because Educate-Me started before the revolution, Helal and her team has managed to be ahead in terms of understanding the depth of the problems the country is facing. However, given the security issues and instability in the country, many of the organisation’s activities have been periodically interrupted.

Educate-Me is a long term project. It will grow and evolve, just as the children do. Helal and her team recognize that there are no speedy solutions. Success is achieved and milestones are met on daily basis, but the project will really bear fruit when the children complete their high school diploma. Educate-Me in not just a tutoring program, but is rather a second chance handed to underprivileged children who have been living in harsh social conditions and with bleak futures. When their world turned against them, Educate-Me reached out to them and allowed them not just to dream of changing their world, but also showed them how to strive towards achieving a better and more hopeful future.

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