Interview | Jeremy Barker, Director of RFI Middle East Action Team, interviews Nermien Riad, Founder of Coptic Orphans

May 26, 2020

COVID-19 Impact in the Middle East: Interview with Nermien Riad (Egypt)

This interview is part of a series of short interviews seeking to understand the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East, with particular attention being paid to vulnerable communities such as refugees, IDPs, and religious minorities. 

Nermien Riad is the Founder and Executive Director of Coptic Orphans, a international Christian development organization that has been working with vulnerable children in Egypt since 1988. 

She joined Jeremy Barker, Director, Middle East Action Team on May 20, 2020 to discuss the impact of COVID-19 in Egypt and particularly its impact on vulnerable communities. 

Related Resources:

Coptic Orphans:

Nermien Riad: How Coptic Orphans Is Responding To The Covid-19 Outbreak

Guidance Note: Protecting Vulnerable Religious Minorities in Conflict and Crisis Settings: (RFI, 2020):


*Transcript has been auto-generated and lightly edited for clarity though errors may still be present.

Jeremy Barker: Hello I’m Jeremy Barker, the director of the Middle East Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute. The mission of RFI is working to secure religious freedom for everyone, everywhere and as a part of that we’ve been doing a series of interviews to understand the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East, with a particular attention on vulnerable communities and today I have the privilege to interview Nermien Rad, the founder and executive director of Coptic Orphans – a development organizations that’s been working in Egypt for over 30 years with a focus on fatherless children but involved in many things in education and economic empowerment throughout Egypt. So it’s a privilege to have Nermien join me and Nermien, thank you so much for being a part of this interview series.

Nermien Riad:  Jeremy, it’s always my pleasure. It’s wonderful seeing you.

Jeremy Barker: Good to see you as well – you’re at the moment locked down like many people. I know your team and colleagues are busy at work in and through Egypt. Describe for us a little bit of what the impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been in Egypt over these last weeks.

Nermien Rad: Yes. well as you know, Egyptians are in the same boat as many people in developing countries and with the global economy contracting so dramatically, people’s livelihoods are really hurting. And it’s really sad to see many people being pushed back into extreme poverty. Countries that rely on trade and tourism as a significant source of income have been hit – I would say – the hardest and Egypt of course is a prime example. Tourism in Egypt makes up about 12% of its annual GDP and to add to that, of course, all the sectors that we’ve seen slowed down here have also slowed down in Egypt – so the coffee shops, the barber shops, the mikkel bus and even the tuk-tuk drivers.

Well they’re not anywhere near in the level of activity prior to the pandemic and many many people are losing their jobs. Now if we look at how the poor have been affected, it’s really not that good news. Many of Egypt’s poor live in rural areas and while this may limit their exposure to the virus, unfortunately the locations where they’re at also limits their access to health services. And then on the flipside, the people living in Cairo who may have access to health services – while they’re living in populated areas, they risk being infected by their neighbors in these highly densely populated areas. And then you have both rural and urban people are more than likely to be working in the informal sector – meaning that they lack social security and have little or no savings. It’s very disheartening to hear the phrase “if we don’t work, we don’t eat” but to make matters worse remittances also coming from the Gulf states that once kept families financially afloat – they’re drying up – and with many families, their incomes going down, poverty is basically biting at their toes and children will suffer malnutrition.

And just to give you one data point according to the 2019 Global Hunger Index, malnutrition now is a growing public health concern for Egypt, with over 21 percent of children being stunted. These are children under the age of five so the situation in Egypt is tough at the moment but the government is doing the best that it can to meet the needs as well as NGOs and charitable organizations – they’re also stepping up. So we’re hopeful that all these efforts can get Egypt to the other side of this crisis.

Jeremy Barker: Yeah, I think that’s a useful overview and this has certainly showed how many families and communities really live on kind of hand-to-mouth and so when you have that contract in day laborers or remittances it’s felt very quickly by those families. You hit – you touched a little bit on this but what are particular challenges that minorities or other vulnerable communities are facing? 

Nermien Riad: Exactly, Jeremy, always. Vulnerable groups end up suffering disproportionately when it comes to crisis and such things and their sufferings are often invisible in the mass media. So we’re talking about what kinds of vulnerable groups, we’re of course talking about the poor; we’re talking about the elderly children, individuals with disabilities and of course, women, victims of abuse and such. So each of these groups really face a specific challenge in this period and then we can say like the elderly – of course – for example, they may be feeling isolated and there’ll be some suffering of loneliness and depression, on top of already their health problems.

And then also you have women that might find themselves trapped in much closer quarters with an abusive partner but it’s imperative that all of these groups – like everyone – are to receive the adequate support and resources to cope with this pandemic. I’d like to also mention about the Christians, which, the Christians in particular now have a unique challenge. And for the minority Christian community in Egypt, the church is their place of refuge. I mean – it is the mother who protects them from whatever discrimination that they may be feeling outside. And for the churches to close its doors, the Christians – to them – feel that this is the one of the greatest hardships. And as you know Holy Week – this is the week that all Christians look look forward to – came during lockdown.  And as one of my dear friends had said – he was lamenting this and saying it’s easier to go without food than to go without the prayers of Holy Week.

Jeremy Barker:  Yeah the timing of this has been really challenging and it brings out the impact that this has in the relational realm, not just material impacts, but communal. And being cut off from the ability to worship together with co-religionists and especially during that –

Nermien Riad: It’s the very center of their community as well. So yes, it’s a big deal for them.  

Jeremy Barker: Yeah, Well for you as the executive director of a development organization  that’s providing tangible assistance in many ways, how has this impacted your ability to work in rural areas and urban centers as well – so how has Coptic orphans been able to work during this time?

Nermien Riad: Well that’s a wonderful question Jeremy. And basically the way we see it is th
at we have the responsibility to take care of our children and we recognize that COVID-19 poses a really big threat to our operation in Egypt. And we knew that we had to act quickly and that we had to adapt to the conditions that are on the ground. So firstly, what we did is we had to come up with some innovative methods to stay in touch with our 12,000 fatherless children throughout all of Egypt. And we had to meet their needs and do this while protecting everyone’s health – everyone that’s involved in their health – and we knew also that the monthly financial assistance had to continue no matter what. So that was the first thing. 

Then the second thing is – since the volunteer reps couldn’t go to them and to their homes as frequently as before, they instead began to use the phones to check on them and then also to regularly disseminate health and hygiene information because that was a very important piece of this puzzle. And remarkably in the past, we had done some extensive extensive work around hygiene and the idea of teaching children rigorous hand-washing was originally conceived as a preventative measure for hepatitis C -you know – Egypt has one highest prevalence of hepatitis C. But certainly all of this work that we have done in the past came in very handy to avoid the spread of COVID-19. So while the children are waiting out the virus in their homes,  Qatar Conference has made plans to ensure that they’ll be able to continue their education. Schools have closed for the rest of the academic year and students are expected to complete a research project from home in lieu of taking the year end exams.

But how can young children with illiterate mothers be homeschooled? And even for older children – you know – this places a tremendous strain on them because they lack reliable internet? So we got right on it and we invested heavily in purchasing internet services for remote learning and we trained our volunteer reps to organize online tutoring sessions so that disadvantaged children are not left behind in this academic year.

Jeremy Barker:  Well that’s some creative pivots of programs but it highlights the value of the relationships and the networks that have been built before and even it’s interesting – as you mentioned on kind of past work in hygiene – how that was able to to be resurrected and applied to this issue as well. As you look at the responses of local governments whether on the local level or the national level – NGOs, international organizations – what are recommendations that you would make for those actors for how they can more effectively assist vulnerable communities as we see the impacts carrying on? 

Nermien Raid: Yeah. So one of the things that we do at Coptic Orphans is that we try to focus on building up our families’ self-reliance and internal resources so they’re not entirely dependent on the government, especially in moments of crisis. So naturally where local governments can intervene positively by bringing goods and services to underserved communities, we definitely applaud that. The same is true for international organizations – where there’s hunger or a lack of other resources – really, it takes a united effort by all of these actors and I think the most important thing is that we all act together in the face of this pandemic. 

Jeremy Barker: Yeah those lines of communication are so important between communities, organizations, and government leaders and I think the experiences have been mixed of which governments – which countries – have done a good job at opening lines of communication. And it highlights the value of having engagement before a crisis.

Nermien Riad: Yes.

Jeremy Barker:  important that you have lines of engagement and trust built that you can draw on in a time of crisis like this. As we kind of bring this to a close, any last points that you would want to highlight for our viewers?

Nermien Riad: Actually yes, thank you for asking that. Two things that I’d like to highlight. First, I want to say that I saw a lot of compassion during these times. I’ve seen a great, great generosity being directed to vulnerable groups. But the most heartwarming of it all are the kids – we’re talking about the orphaned kids. When they’re hearing about the increasing deaths in the United States – they’re worried about us. So we’ve got kids messaging back to their sponsors saying “we want to see you and we want to make sure you’re doing alright. We want to make sure you’re okay. We’re praying for you.” So it’s one of these really quite remarkable moments in which the tables have turned and it’s the children more worried about their sponsors in the United States than they’re worried about themselves. So I thought that was really really sweet.

And then I suppose the second thing that I’d like to say is that we have to wake up every morning with the knowledge that families are growing hungry and that their children are suffering from malnutrition. And this is a problem for today – it’s not one that we can put off until tomorrow. And it’s on all of our shoulders to reach out to those that are most impacted by the crisis and just as COVID-19 can’t wait to claim its victims, well we also can’t wait to protect and support our brothers and sisters. And so it’s imperative for all of us to act towards this. 

Jeremy Barker: Yeah. That’s an important point – it’s something that really is urgent and can’t be put off . Well Nermien, thank you so much for speaking with me today to learn more about Coptic Orphans’ work – you can visit their website and to learn more about the work of the Religious Freedom Institute, you can find our website at Thank you again Nermien.

Nermien Riad: Thank you Jeremy, it’s been a real pleasure.