November 2, 2014, Cairo –Mennatallah Sabry, a second year graduate student in the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at The American University in Cairo (AUC) and recipient of the Al Alfi Foundation Sustainable Development Fellowship, developed a passion for environmentalism during her undergraduate years at AUC. Today, she is working through the master’s program to spread awareness of environmental issues, particularly in underprivileged areas, and to empower local communities. It all started when Sabry was studying at AUC as an integrated marketing communication major, with a minor in business, and traveled with her class to a recycling center in Manshiyet Naser shantytown to work on a promotional campaign. This experience inspired her to learn more about environmental preservation and sustainability.
“The master’s in sustainable development is beneficial because it takes an Egyptian perspective on things I have read before, such as UN reports,” said Sabry. “And the community projects give a practical application of the theories we learn because we understand the difficulties in real life.”
With her background in advertising and communications, Sabry is especially interested in communicating and promoting concepts of sustainable, environmentally conscious living, especially to children in informal settlements and poor areas. “What’s interesting for me are after-school programs, informal education and things that are not related to school, because I think children are generally not very fond of school,” she explained. “I thought after-school programs for children would be beneficial for parents because they would have less time with the children. It would also allow us to get kids involved and have them understand and think creatively about environmental problems.”
Sabry became involved with a nongovernmental organization targeting children in Establ Antar, one of the most underprivileged areas in Cairo, as part of a practicum course in AUC’s sustainable development master’s program. “This NGO realized that the reason why children in this area drop out of school is because the parents don’t have enough money, so they put the children to work to earn more money,” Sabry noted. “The NGO decided to develop a combined school and workshop. In the morning, the children learn how to make handmade carpets and other skills, and in the afternoon, they teach them the school curriculum. At the end of the month, these carpets are sold, and the children receive the money. So the NGO helps the children make money and get an education. A group of us from the CSD collaborated with the NGO to teach the children about the importance of water, sources of electricity and the scarcity of these resources.”
Sabry and her colleagues from the CSD found that people in the community had misconceptions about the abundance of resources even though they did not have a constant supply of water until about a year ago. “They used to go down the mountain to get water and then come up again, so they understand that water is not a constant thing to have, but in Egypt, we don’t have the culture of conserving because water and electricity are practically free,” she said. “It was interesting to realize that these people, even though they didn’t have enough water, think water will be there forever. They think the Nile is too big to be finite, and they feel this way about electricity too.”
Through a series of activities, CSD students taught the children not only about scarcity of water and energy, but about more complex concepts such as renewable and nonrenewable resources, conservation and sustainability. “We took them to Sekem farm outside of Cairo, where there is a community that makes organic foods, like Sekem tea,” explained Sabry. “They have a sustainability school there where they teach children about sustainable energy and water, how to use water and electricity conservatively, so they did some activities with the children, such as teaching them how to make a small windmill. It was fun.”
At the end of the Establ Antar program, the children underwent an assessment to see what they had learned. Sabry found that the kids who participated in the program were passing on what they learned to their families. “We discovered that they had started to tell their parents to turn the TV off if they left it on and to take shorter showers, things like that,” she said.
The support of the Al Alfi Foundation has been indispensable in helping Sabry reach her goal of spreading education about environmental issues. “Throughout the classes I take,” she said, “I always choose a project that will teach me something new that I can apply to my goal for the future, which is to create more awareness of environmental problems. I think that one of our biggest issues is that people are not aware.”