Coptic Orphans

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Coptic Orphans (CO) is a non-profit organization founded in 1988 with a focus on paternal orphans and their families in Egypt.


Coptic Orphans incorporated as a US 501(c)3 nonprofit in 1992, but cites 1988, when founder Nermien Riad began her work among orphaned children in the Cairo area, as its year of origin.[1]

Dr. Jennifer Brinkerhoff of George Washington University, who has studied the organization as part of her work on Diasporas, describes these beginnings:

During a tour of duty to Egypt with the U.S. State Department, Nermien Riad, an engineer by training, visited a Coptic orphanage in Cairo. She was moved by the children’s predicament, and when she lamented it, the Sister replied, “Why do you say ‘Poor things’? You should see their families!” Riad then learned that the orphanage was filled with children who were not orphans but whose families could not afford to feed them. The Sister took her to visit one such family so she could see directly their poverty and dismal quality of life. Riad was moved to provide a small donation—the equivalent at the time of US$10. This set the stage for what giving and service mean to Riad and laid the foundation for the creation of CO, her life’s work:

Ten dollars meant absolutely nothing to me, and I give it to them and it’s like the biggest thing they’ve ever gotten in the longest time, which actually made me feel more guilty. Shame on me for not doing more. The only time you can say “I’ve done something” is when it begins to hurt, when you’ve actually sacrificed something. I knew very well that if it hadn’t been for my father getting a visa to the United States, I could have easily been one of these too. . . . God was the one that brought us here. We can never say “Oh, I worked hard. I made a lot of money.” I did nothing. And so, having gotten that opportunity, shame on me if I were to forget these people that are worse off.[2]

Riad organized family and friends to sponsor 45 girls in an orphanage when she returned to the U.S.; however, with the departure of the nun who oversaw the orphanage, Riad turned her attention to paternal orphans living with families. She recruited the "church servants" of local Coptic parishes who visited the families. This formed the core structure of Coptic Orphans' flagship program, which would later become known as Not Alone.

As the organization grew, it incorporated life skills workshops and other means of targeting educational, vocational, and personal potential.[3]

It also incorporated an array of programs and projects that complimented Not Alone.


On its internal identity statement, (last revised, December 2011) the organization's mission is stated as "to unlock the God-given potential of children in Egypt, and so equip them to break the cycle of poverty and become change-makers in their communities."


Not Alone[edit]

Coptic Orphans’ flagship program, Not Alone. According to Brinkerhoff,

Of its four programs, Not Alone covers the largest numbers and geographic area in Egypt. The program begins with a request to a church to nominate a representative to serve the children within the geographic scope of the congregation. The volunteer representatives (or reps) must be educated (college degree preferred) and become responsible for identifying needy children who havelost one or both parents. Reps are trained to be child advocates and visit each child on a weekly basis.[4]

"Reps" in Not Alone use notes from their visits that set individualized goals for each family to connect them to resources using their local expertise. Resources include emergency housing and medical needs, microcredit loans and small business training for widowed heads-of-household through B'edaya, another program of the organization, hygiene and nutritional coaching, assistance with legal documents such as national ID cards or pension requests, literacy and educational tutoring, and various workshops.

Participation in 'Not Alone is conditional on children staying in school, due to the organization's concerns to correct the phenomena of parents pulling their children out of school for child marriage[5] or child labor[6] in Egypt, along with high illiteracy rates.[7]

Brinkerhoff again writes,

The mentorship reaches beyond the children to the families as a whole. Surviving parents and guardians are encouraged to comply with the requirements of the program to maintain the assistance; over time they come to change their priorities about what is important, valuing literacy, for example. As Riad (2004) reports,

"The Mothers know our policy more than the reps. If the kid doesn't know how to read, they're not going to get any more assistance... When we go and visit the children, the mother would say, 'Come, my son is reading! Come see!"

Riad credits this as CO’s biggest impact.

Our ability to change people’s thinking. This is what matters most. Not that we bought them food or we got them clothes—big deal, they’re still illiterate. [Our impact is] to be able to change their minds and their thinking and then to make that come out in changes in the children.


Sponsors outside Egypt support the program and correspond, provide gifts and special individual assistance, and visit children who participate in Not Alone.[9]

The Valuable Girl Project[edit]

Phoebe Farag Mikhail developed Valuable Girl Project in 2003 based on her work at George Washington University towards an MA in international education.[10] The program pairs "big sisters" in secondary school with "little sisters" for academic mentoring at a village or neighborhood center, often a church or a school. It later developed organically to create a safe space for girls to address and discuss a wide variety of issues affecting them, and to include home visits by center volunteers to reinforce the learning they gained during workshops and discussions they developed at the local center.

The Valuable Girl Project also gained international attention for bringing Muslim and Christian girls together despite rising religious tension in Egypt.[11]


B'edaya, Arabic for "with my own hands," is a no-interest microloan program for widowed mothers of Not Alone participants[12]

Serve To Learn[edit]

Serve to Learn targets Coptic diaspora youth, who teach a three-week English course at various cites in Egypt.[13]

International Volunteer Program[edit]

The International Volunteer Program targets those outside of the Coptic diaspora, those whose knowledge of Arabic is minimal, or those who wish to volunteer in Egypt at other times of the year besides the three-week window for Serve to Learn. It enables individuals or groups of volunteers to design their own project, which Coptic Orphans facilitates through local partnering NGO's in Egypt.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Brinkerhoff, J. M. (2008). Diaspora Philanthropy in an At-Risk Society: The Case of Coptic Orphans in Egypt. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly , 37 (3), 411-433.
  3. ^ 2007 Annual Report,
  4. ^ Brinkerhoff, J. (2009). Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 186.
  5. ^ See
  6. ^ see
  7. ^ Demographics of Egypt#Literacy
  8. ^ Brinkerhoff, J. (2009). Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 187.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Brinkerhoff, J. (2009). Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 187.
  11. ^ For example, the Associated Press filmed a short news story about the program:
  12. ^
  13. ^ Brinkerhoff, J. (2009). Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 188.
  14. ^

External links[edit]