I’m somewhat disappointed that I don’t think twice when a man drives past with the bed of his pickup truck full of camels or when the women’s car on the metro is so full of people that I can lean all my weight back and nobody moves. Things like those have become normal to me, but the fact that such a different life can become normal to me is cool in and of itself. My name is Sara Olakowski, and I work at Nile Union Academy. The school is located in a poor small village outside of Cairo. NUA is the only boarding school in Egypt and is home to about 130 students—100 boys and 30 girls. The students are from all over—from small villages where it’s barely okay for women to go outside, to the crowded westernized cities. About 40% of the students are from Sudan as well. We are surrounded by at least five mosques that blast their calls to prayer five times each day. I’m not allowed to leave the campus by myself, but when we Americans do get out, we’re usually followed by excited kids who yell, “Welcome to Egypt!” or occasionally, ”You donkey! You donkey!” (I am very pleased when they don’t know English well and yell, “I am donkey!” thinking they’re insulting me. It’s beautiful.) I’ve never drunk so much tea, been so hospitably force-fed, or been given so much by those who have so much less than I do.
I taught English here in the 2009-2010 school year. It was by far the most difficult year of my life. I had never felt so low or weak. My most vulnerable weaknesses and deficiencies seemed broadcasted to the other 160 people on campus. My patience was tried in new ways that had me speechless. I was emotionally manipulated and guilt-tripped more than I had ever been in my life. My mercy seemed to breed entitlement. I heard the lamest excuses spewed out by people who had convinced themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that their arguments were valid. Fierce scowls accompanied legitimately angry tones, “I wasn’t talking—I was answering!” Oh yes, the injustice of it all! I got my share of stare downs and inappropriate comments from creeps outside the walls of the school. And to tear down the remaining fibers of my self-esteem, I gained weight and broke out like a fourteen-year-old from all the oil in the food. While weighing the pros and cons of an American guy who was interested in me, I caught myself arguing in his favor, “Well, he wouldn’t hit me,” which was when I realized that it was probably time for me to go home soon. That year shook me. A lot.
Three years later, here I am again. (I don’t know how many people warned me to stay out of political protests… which really dashed my plans because I had already packed my American flag suit to parade around Tahrir Square throwing rocks and lighting cars on fire.) Patience tried? You’d better believe it. And as the nurse and Bible teacher, there are many new ways. Lame excuses? Ridiculous ones. Construction men yelling down over the wall, “I love you!” one day and “Ya abiad!” (an offensive name for a white person with a sexual connotation) the next? But of course! “Where you live?!” Gabal Asfar. You’re looking into my backyard. Circumstantially not much is different from before. Despite the difficulties, my first year was one of the best years of my life. I love how Oliver Wendell Holmes said it: “A mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” I am not the same as I once was.
The truth is that I came back because of Saeda. She was in ESL (the first of five years at NUA) when I met her, and now she is in eleventh grade. I don’t think she’s quite five feet tall. She has a gorgeous smile and the thickest black hair I may have ever seen. She’s from the most conservative village that I know of, and I’m thankful to God that her parents let her come here. She loves to talk and laugh. She said some of her first memories of the school are my poster of English greetings and the alphabet song. We’ve been close ever since the microbus accident many of our students were involved in in 2011. It was in that accident that her best friend Lina’s brother died and in which Saeda lost some of her fingers. Sometimes when she and Lina talk to me, they knock into each other and giggle and tease each other about the boys that might like them. I smile and give them my perspective. They tell me that they never want to get married because of many of the examples they’ve seen. I tell them that the right guy might change their minds one day. Saeda comes and plays with my hair sometimes and tells me about her family and her dreams. We talk about God and life. I love her deeply.
I came back because of Saeda, but I also came back because Sameh asks me about Daniel and Revelation. I came back to buy Joseph a winter coat and to tutor Rafael in grammar. I am here to sit with Thomas on a bench as he cries—though he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic. I am here to teach my Marriage and Family class (though husbandless and childless) that female genital mutilation is ignorant and dangerous and that virginity is not determined by blood on a sheet. I’m here to send an incredibly disrespectful student to the principal so that he learns that some behavior is not acceptable, even in frustration—story of today, actually. But most of all, I’m here to bring the boundless love of God to life. Sometimes God blesses me with a glimpse of His love for them. I love them so much that my core almost aches. I hate and resist the thought of ever letting them go, but I reason that if I pour everything I am into showing them God, then neither God nor I have to let them go.
By Sara Olakowski
Olakowski is 23 years old. She’s from Hinsdale, Illinois. She graduated from Andrews in May 2012 with a nursing degree. She want to be a nurse practitioner in the future and she misses the sour patch kids.