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» Zaballeen
» Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner
» Garbage Dreams



The 16 million people who live in Cairo, the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, generate over 9,000 tons of garbage every day. At no cost to the government, a group of poor and displaced settlers from Egypt's rural south, the majority of who are Coptic Christians, have developed an economy and community from collecting the city's trash. Known as the Zaballeen, or "garbage collectors", they not only help to maintain the cleanliness of the city, but sort out all recyclable materials to sell back to the manufacturers. Because of their efforts, 80-90% of all the garbage they collect is recycled and re-used. This unique income-generating model is an extraordinary example of environmental sustainability that has been lauded, studied and replicated around the world.

While the estimated 65,000 Zaballeen provide a valuable service to the city and the environment, they are not formally recognized by the government and are largely rejected by Egyptian society because of the stigma associated with their work. Most are illiterate and suffer from health problems due to the piles of waste that occupy their district. In addition, the government has recently secured contracts with foreign multi-national waste disposal companies in an attempt to modernize Egypt. These contracts cost millions of dollars, demand collection fees from the citizens of Cairo, and require only 20% of the waste to be recycled. They also threaten to destroy the already meager livelihoods of the proud, spirited and hard-working Zaballeen.

As the struggle over Cairo's garbage disposal continues, the children of the Zaballeen will inherit an even more uncertain future. They mainly work alongside their parents and stay within the community. The little education that exists is of poor quality, and many children do not attend school regularly or cannot afford the necessary tutoring to excel in their studies. The opportunity for artistic self-expression is virtually non-existent.

In September 2006 project director Teriz Michael, a native of Cairo, began a photography workshop for a group of children in the Moqattam Hills, the largest of the five Zaballeen districts. Held at the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner, the classes were designed to allow the children to explore the world outside their garbage community, as well as discover their inner voices and creativity.

Over the course of two months, fifteen children between ages 8-12 learned not only how to take pictures, but were encouraged to dream and recognize their own potential. Photography and the artistic process became the catalyst for building self-esteem, discipline, and respect. For many, these classes helped them to trust their own instincts, make better decisions and attend school regularly. They meet every two weeks under the guidance of Teriz and a local mentor to help sustain the network of support the children have become for one another.

The children's photographs, which we will share through exhibitions and print sales, offer a rare glimpse into their unique worlds, and all the pockets of beauty in their garbage-filled streets. Most of all, the images reflect the spirits of these children, who are the true treasures among trash.

For more information about this project or exhibit inquiries, please contact terizm@gmail.com.