They walked up the dusty road, passing by the houses made of mud and palm roofs. When they reached the orphanage, Merrifield resident Nermien Riad was shocked to see how much the orphanage, in rural Egypt, needed food, school supplies and clothing. But one of the nuns in charge at the orphanage assured her that outside of the orphanage conditions were much worse. She took Riad and her friend farther inside the village to see the siblings of those orphaned.
Riad discovered that the orphans she saw were the lucky ones. Their brothers and sisters, however, dropped out of school and spent their youths working at autoshops and running errands so they could earn money to keep their families afloat.
“I would’ve easily been one of those children if it hadn’t been for God’s grace that he brought us to this country,” Riad said, whose family emigrated from Egypt when she was 8.
The 1988 trip to the orphanage in her family’s ancestral homeland changed the Virginian’s life. Her involvement with supporting orphans and children in Egypt grew from personally sending money to the orphanage she visited to founding an organization to help Coptic and Muslim Egyptian children escape the cycle of poverty. From 45 female orphans to the 4,495 children that her organization, Coptic Orphans, helps today, what started as a family project grew to an organization with supporters across the North American continent.
The organization runs programs in both rural and urban Egypt that focus on food distribution, child sponsorship and school assistance.
“The whole idea is to get them education, and to get them to depend on themselves and to help others,” Riad said.
Run out of her home in Merrifield, Riad initially relied on her family to develop the organization’s programs as her project germinated into a nonprofit in 1992. While her husband drove around the area to collect the donated furniture, her sister helped draft Coptic Orphans’ constitution in her sister’s spare bedroom.
“I’ve been totally flabbergasted by the success,” said Riad’s sister Mimi Geerges of Oakton, commenting on the organization’s growth. She continued, “If I were in her shoes, I would’ve given up a long time ago. But she kept going. She kept pushing through. She didn’t give up.”
Even as her efforts grew, Riad continued to juggle family responsibilities and work full-time in the federal government as an engineer until she decided to leave civil service in 2000 to concentrate on Coptic Orphans as executive director.
“It’s very fulfilling, very satisfying. It’s no longer work, but a way of life,” Riad said.
The Copts, a Christian community, represent over 9 million of Egypt’s population of roughly 57 million. The teachings of the church came from Saint Mark, who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century during the reign of Roman emperor Nero.
Despite the fact that the Egyptian government adheres to separation of church and state, what can result in the predominately Muslim country is discrimination when searching for a job. Another factor that can prohibit children from getting out poverty includes what happens when one or both parents die. If the father dies, Riad said, children become the main source of providing income, as the mother is illiterate. If the mother dies, the father can remarry and the children can be abandoned.
“I thought, why not do sponsorships as they are done here?” said Riad on supporting the children from abroad.
While Coptic Orphans has a sponsorship program, they have also recently created another program in Egypt to combat gender bias in the classroom. The Valuable Girl Project pairs an older female student with a younger female student, with the older student mentoring and tutoring the younger one.
“There’s no reason to push girls to school unless we change that environment” of bias, said Phoebe Farag, international program manager for Coptic Orphans.
Other programs include supporting the living expenses of Egyptian college students so that they can complete their education and creating an English literacy program.
As Coptic Orphans continues to grow, the family involved now realizes that the organization is sufficient enough to survive on its own mission. After overcoming the difficulty of communicating long-distance with the Egyptian government, the initial reluctance of the American Coptic community to support another humanitarian organization and the gruntwork involved in grantwriting and fundraising, Coptic Orphans is poised to continue to serve into the next generation. Riad’s children, Yustina, 9, and Yosef, 13, fly with their mother to Egypt every year to help distribute toys to children.
Yosef expects that after he graduates from college, his first job will be in the family business.
“Probably my first job is going to be here,” Yosef said. He liked seeing the children smile when they get the toys. “As you’re working, you know you’re helping children.”