Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 13, 2013

Among Flies and Filth

Among the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s Garbage People

We arrived in Cairo late this morning after two days of travel. I was relieved to finally be here and anxious to get the day started. After lunch, we checked in to our hotel and then headed to Zariab Musturud, one of the Zabbaleen slum villages. The Zabbaleen are Cairo’s garbage collectors. They are essential for keeping Cairo from becoming buried under the tons of garbage discarded daily by the city’s millions of residents.

Zariab Man Grandson
For the Zabbaleen, one man’s garbage is indeed another man’s treasure — albeit only a tiny treasure in reality. As we walked among the Zabbaleen today, I became quickly convinced that they are among the hardest working folks I’ve ever met on any of my travels. Entire families specialize in sorting certain types of garbage in order to sell what they can. Most families only manage to eke out a little more than two dollars a day in exchange for their tireless efforts.

Zariab Paper Recycle
One thing is certain, there are no lazy people in the Zabbaleen slums because if they don’t work they don’t eat. Everywhere I looked today, people were hard at work. Being among these trash pickers was like walking through an ant hill. The activity was off the charts. And everyone works at home because that’s where they bring the garbage they collect. Families live in the garbage. Therefore, everything is covered with flies. Oh my soul, I have never seen so … many … flies. And then there is the stench that no one but us seemed to notice.

Zariab Sick Girl
We spent the entire afternoon meeting and talking with the people of Zariab Musturud. These families have the same concerns that all families have but they do not have the same access to help. They live in makeshift hovels that are falling apart. They deal with sick kids and no medical care. They are concerned that their children are not getting an education because they too have to work in order to help the family. Despair among the Zabbaleen is the only thing piled higher and deeper than the garbage they live in. I saw despair in the eyes of a young girl bedridden by illness and covered with flies.

Zariab Boys
In spite of the hardships, the children of the Zabbaleen manage to entertain themselves and to smile. They really are beautiful kids. They just don’t know any other life. As far as they are concerned, all kids must surely live like they do. No running water. Little food. Flies and filth. These are the factors of their childhood. They are neither dumb nor stupid. They have the same potential to succeed as any other kid but are held back by the fetters of poverty that are being forged one link at a time in the slums they call home.

Zariab Girl Bed
I am glad that we came to Cairo to meet the people who call themselves “The Nothings.” Along with our local partners, we are already formulating a plan to assist the Zabbaleen with some immediate needs but also to offer them a hand-up that will make a greater difference in their lives for years to come. We met one widow who lives in a 100-square-foot shack with her two young daughters. She earns a living by selling tea and bread. We were so impressed with her that we decided to give her a micro-grant (instead of a loan) so that she can purchase the supplies she needs to serve more customers per day.

Zariab Tea Seller
The needs among the Zabbalen are overwhelming but we can’t let the scope of the need paralyze or impede our response. We are determined to make a difference by working strategically to give folks a hand-up so that they can begin to find their way out of the poverty that owns and troubles them daily. We hope to loosen the chains that are holding them back and keeping them among the flies and the filth of their slums. We know we can’t do everything but we are prepared to do something. I can’t wait to walk among the Zabbaleen again tomorrow. The flies and filth can not and will not keep us away.

Zariab Slum House


  1. “Bow thy head & pray, that while thy brother/Neighbor, starves today, thy mayest not eat thy bread at ease, pray that no health, or wealth or peace, may low thy soul while the world lies suffering.” (Ps.82:3,4) (Prov.31:8,9)

  2. Thank you Omar. I am not generally a real compationate person. But your story stirred my spirit this evening. I look to hearing more about your travels in Cairo. God Bless You Brother.

    • Thanks for your comment and honesty, David. May God bless you as you seek to honor Him by being sensitive to opportunities to compassionately serve others. Thanks also for following our journey.

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