Floods hit Zarayeb garbage collectors the hardest

Saturday, March 14 – At a church in 15th of May City, just south of Cairo, Sabah Gamil holds her three children, grief showing on her face. It has been two days since the storm that brought the country to a standstill on Thursday, March 12, caused a flood that destroyed her family’s home and everything they own. 

“During the floods, I took my son and two daughters and headed for the mountain. My daughter’s toenail was torn off because we were barefoot. We left with the clothes on our backs. By the time we reached the mountain, we were like wet chicks,” Sabah says. 

She describes the flood as a sea swallowing everything. “Houses are damaged, our families are dead, and we can’t find the bodies of others until now. We only escaped with our children. And when we reached the mountain, we stayed in the rain until 10 o’clock at night.” People came to rescue them, and they headed to the church.

While on her way to the Virgin Mary and Saint Athanasius the Apostolic Church, Gamil feared that her husband, Emad Thabet, was missing, but she found him inside the church. He had been rescuing their neighbors by using his three-wheeled cargo scooter to transport people stuck in their houses to the mountain. “[After] a trip or two, the cargo scooter I own malfunctioned, it broke down. I had to leave it and the water swept it away,” he tells Mada Masr. 

Like Gamil and her family, most of the survivors in the church are from an informal housing area known as Zerayeb, which is home to a community of garbage collectors and has long suffered from a lack of infrastructure and government services.  

Reverend Armia Nayer told Mada Masr that the church has kept its doors open to survivors of the floods. “The situation here is really tragic. It’s difficult to calculate the number of families we received. We receive survivors every five minutes. There are families still looking for their relatives. Others are dead.” 

He says that the church does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, that its doors are open to all. After its community center reached capacity, they started looking for alternative places to receive any expected survivors.

At the church’s door, there is a beehive of people helping victims, shocked by what they have been through. Young people distribute blankets, while others prepare meals at their homes and bring them to the church’s door. Others are there to provide survivors with emotional support.

In the beehive, there is Nevine and her husband Tamer, who left their four children at home and came help out at the church. Nevine comforts children as she helps them change out of their wet clothes. Tamer identifies different families’ needs, and makes lists of who is present and who is missing.

At the church’s door, a young man carries a 10-year-old girl called Mariam. There is a burn on her leg, her clothes are completely soaked, and her hair muddied. She looks panicked but she is totally silent. Nevine carries Mariam to the survivors’ room, tends to her wound, and changes her into a clean set of clothes. Then a cry of both joy and shock rings out across the church’s halls: “You’re still alive, Mariam?!” Her entire family had survived. 

Mariam tells Mada Masr that during the floods, she ran towards the mountain and stayed there until someone found her and brought her to the church.

There is a power blackout in the survivors’ building. Darkness falls over the room and with flashlights beaming from mobile phones, people start talking about the deadly scenes they have lived through. Their voices seem steady as they tell of these tragedies and horrors.

At the foot of a small bed sits Manal Gamil, resting her head on a cushion. Eyes closed, she says in a muffled voice: “The flood water swept away everything in its path. We lost everything.”

According to Reverend Macarius Fayez, the community center holds 50 beds and is now full. He explains that survivors are emotionally unstable and in major shock. They need all kinds of support. 

Thabet is skeptical of the official government numbers for flood fatalities in the area, which is 12 deceased and 22 missing. He says he carried out five of his neighbors’ bodies — a 10-year-old girl, a young man and three women. 

“I ran during the flood,” he said. “I rescued whomever I could. I managed to lift bodies the flood brought my way. But the dead are many. We’re 700 families and the number of those who showed up so far is small. Many died and the water swept them away. Their bodies haven’t shown up yet.”

Thabet describes the experience of pulling out the bodies “humiliating,” adding: “They were floating in the water … We’d lift them from their hair or feet. The current swept away their underwear. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, calling out to those around me to give me blankets to cover people up.”

The Zarayeb (Arabic for “barns”) area in 15th of May City is one of six areas where communities of  garbage collectors live in Greater Cairo. It is located behind the city’s cemeteries and contains 1,000 members of the Garbage Collectors Union, approximately 700 families who service the areas of Tebin, Helwan, Tora and 15th of May, according to Thabet, who has been living in the area for 17 years.

On Saturday afternoon, two funerals took place at the same time — one inside Saint Mark and Ava Shenouda Church and the other at one of the city’s mosques.

Silence echoes across the church. Even the crying is done in silence. Screams only rise after prayers are said and the bodies are exiting the church, heading to their final destinations. There is intense security presence around the church, and journalists are only allowed to enter if they  are members of the Journalists Syndicate.

Anger overtakes Manal as a result of the neglect and marginalization suffered by the people of Zarayeb over the years. “Isn’t this job of ours in service of the people and the country?” she asks. “If we didn’t go around collecting people’s garbage, wouldn’t it just rot there? We pay for our equipment in installments; we bear its responsibility and suffer for it. Sometimes, it gets taken away and we pay thousands in fines to get them back. We don’t collect any money for it. We suffer all the diseases; we sort through the garbage.” 

She talks about where they live. “We don’t have money to rent apartments somewhere else. We’re forced to work this job so that we can stay where we are. We tell ourselves that it’s just a place keeping us together.”

Meanwhile, Emad Thabet and his wife Sabah Gamil are demanding compensation, calling on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to look with “mercy” on those afflicted by the floods. “We work in garbage collection and we’ve lost the equipment that provides us with a living,” Thabet says. “We deserve safe housing like everyone else. If we had safe homes, why would we live in a place where our children die before our eyes and we can’t do anything to stop it? We put up shacks and have lived in them because we don’t have anywhere else to go. If we were allowed to own the land, we would’ve built homes — even if we were to beg for our children’s sake. Everyone here has been saving up for like three or four years to pay for the equipment we use just so that we can support a child growing up in this cruel world — to pay for healthcare, for education. And now, it’s all gone. We’re human beings of God’s creation, not less than the rest. Look to us with mercy.”

Gamil directs her words at Sisi. “We go vote for you in elections. And when they said to go to Tahrir to support you, we did. Just give us our rights as we give you our votes. We’re simple [folks], but we have rights in society. Don’t focus on us, focus on our children. We don’t educate our children like other people. Our children reach fifth grade and refuse to go to school again because they tell them to go sweep the [school] yard because they’re children of garbage collectors.”

Government promises ring hollow to Zarayeb’s residents. “The government has been promising for years to develop the area,” Thabet says. “No step has been taken so far. Two years ago, they constructed a diversion canal in the area that cost millions of pounds. Weren’t we and our children more deserving of safe apartments?! We were in the area long before the canal.”

The New Urban Communities Authority met with Zarayeb residents at the beginning of last year. They agreed to develop it and make it residential, while allocating land in the southern extensions of 15th of May City to be a garbage-processing industrial area, according to Thabet. “In the end, it’s all talk,” he says.

Presidential Decree 305/2008 established a fund to develop informal settlements. The fund’s main task is to track and classify the settlements, renovate them, upgrade their houses, and install utilities.  But the fund’s website returns no results for Zarayeb in 15th of May City.

Former Deputy Minister of Housing for Urban Development and Informal Settlements Ahmed Darwish says, “There was a plan to develop Zarayeb in the 15th of May when I was at the ministry. It included constructing a diversion canal ending with a lake to collect flood water. This was the first phase. It also included building safe housing for them to allow them to continue their garbage collection work.” In 2016, Darwish announced an LE30 million development plan. When asked about why the area’s development plan is so far unfinished, he said that he does not know. 

“Important people who have protection … if one of their kids gets sick, they bring over a doctor to stay with them,” Manal says. “But we who sort through the garbage and sleep next to it are no good. Even when we go to the hospital, they tell us we’re not under [their jurisdiction]. I’m out of diabetes medication, so I went to the health clinic in neighborhood 25 and asked to be enrolled as a patient, but they told me that they can’t because I don’t have an address, because I’m in an informal area. They ask for an apartment address or a known house, but when we tell them that we live in Zarayeb, they tell us: You are garbage collectors.”

The process of recycling waste that the garbage collectors use treats household, industrial and agricultural waste with the aim of reducing its environmental impact and reusing it in various industries. This process, Manal believes, saves the state “millions in money [that would otherwise be used] to import raw materials.” Manal describes their work in garbage collection as a “beehive,” working non-stop. 

The journey begins early in the morning with collection, followed by filtration and sorting according to type, then the last phase, which is recycling. “From the youngest to the oldest among us, we all work the job. We can’t stop or else the garbage will build up on us.”

Garbage Collectors Syndicate President Shehata al-Moqadis agrees that their work saves the government millions of US dollars. “Garbage collectors remove 18,000 [metric] tons of waste in a single day.” He stressed that residents are entitled to compensation and safe environments to live in. After the latest floods, government agencies such as the ministries of Social Solidarity and Local Development headed to the area, calculated losses to provide compensation to the afflicted, and asserted that they will “re-develop” it, he says.

Basma Mostafa 

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