I recently visited Garbage City, a slum at the base of Mokkatam Hill on the outskirts of Cairo. Its economy revolves around the collection and recycling of the city's garbage. The Zabbaleen community (garbage collectors) in Mokkatam Village has a population of around 30,000, over 90 percent of which are Coptic Christians.
The city's garbage is brought to Mokkatam Hill by the Zabbaleen people who sort through the garbage to retrieve recyclable items. As I walked down the narrow dirt streets in the village, I saw large rooms stacked with garbage with men, women or children crouching and sorting the garbage into unsellable or sellable piles. Families typically specialize in a particular type of garbage they sort and sell: one room of children sorting out plastic bottles, while the next of women separating cans from the rest. Anything that can be reused or recycled is saved, sold or recycled. Carts pulled by horse or donkey are often stacked more than 10 feet high with trash and recyclable goods.
Most families typically work very hard in difficult conditions, but they manage to eke out enough money to support themselves from selling the sorted garbage and recyclables. Despite the hard life, the Zabaleen people have a lot of pride and dignity.
"We have been living here for years doing this,” says Adham Refaat, a young man from the community. “Our work is critical for the city. Without us Cairo would drown in garbage.”
Many environmental experts agree that the work of the Zabbaleen is incredibly important. They have created one of the most efficient recycling systems in the world, which recycles up to 80 percent of all the waste that they collect. The efficiency and environmental-friendliness of the Zabbaleen "waste collection and recycling system" has received major world recognition.
But despite the importance of their work, the Zabbaleen people are often discriminated against and complain that they are a despised minority and looked down upon because of their work with garbage.
The January 25th Revolution in Egypt has the Zabbaleen and other minority groups in Egypt concerned. Although the Coptic church and most of the Zaballeen community members supported the revolution, they are worried about what the future will bring for minority groups.
“We have no security, the economy has suffered terribly from the revolution, and our fate is very uncertain now,” explains 25-year-old Adel Rashid. “We cannot afford this new freedom because many people may misuse this opportunity.”
The recent referendum vote in Egypt has heightened the fears of the Zabbaleen. There was widespread speculation that the Muslim Brotherhood influenced people to vote in line with their position by using religion. Religious leaders reportedly told the people if they voted in accordance with their views, the people would be good Muslims and go to heaven.
“The newly established political parties must work hard to educate the people about their choices in the next election,” says Adham Refaat. “People need to understand how to make their own choices and not vote on a religious basis. We need the youth who started the January 25th Revolution to continue to stress we want a civilian country, not one based on religion.”
The road ahead to democracy, freedom and economic opportunities for Egypt will be difficult, but the Zabbaleen people see opportunity, as well as cause for concern and action.
“We won the key to free ourselves,” says Adel Rashid, “but we don’t yet know how to use it to open the gate.”