Volunteering in Unstable Environments, Lessons from Egypt’s Coptic Diaspora

When a crisis erupts, the country’s diaspora is confronted with the difficult decision of whether to provide help on the group or stay engaged from a distance. Times of crisis are the most dangerous time for diaspora members to volunteer in their homelands, but it can also be the times that they are most needed. How does a diaspora-based organization work through the tough decisions about when and how to engage during crises?

In January 2011, we at Coptic Orphans followed the revolution in Egypt with great concern. Though our organization is based in the United States, we are part of the Egyptian diaspora (Copts are Egypt’s indigenous Christian minority). Our organization works to improve the well-being of Egypt’s orphaned and fatherless children regardless of their religious affiliations. Our service-delivery model depends on the Copt diaspora members that we send to volunteer in communities in Egypt.

During times of crisis, we want to be able to provide immediate relief. Nevertheless, the safety of our volunteers remains our top priority. Before sending volunteers to war-torn Egypt, we assessed the program sites, trained our in-country support staff, and developed explicit safety guidelines for our volunteers to follow in case of an emergency. Although we faced increasing violence after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, we ultimately decided to continue to send volunteers to Egypt.

We hope that by sharing our experiences working in Egypt during the revolution, we can help other diaspora communities who are also grappling with tough decisions about whether and how to engage their homelands during a crisis.

Yustina Riad’s Story

The story of one of our volunteers, Yustina Riad, shows how it is possible for volunteers to stay involved in their homeland during times of crisis and make a real impact. Yustina is a 17-year old second-generation member of the Coptic diaspora. She grew up in the United States, but the trips she took to Egypt with her family helped her maintain her connection to the country and its people. These visits also strengthened her Arabic language skills and helped prepare her for volunteering in the village of El Barsha, a community located 225 kilometers south of Cairo in the summer of 2010. Yustina planned on returning to El Barsha the following summer to volunteer, but the unrest brought on by the Arab Spring gave her pause.

Despite the risks, Yustina returned to El Barsha in 2011. She had a strong sense of commitment to the people and wanted to support the Coptic community of Egypt during their time of need. She knew that she had made the right decision when on her first day back in El Barsha, a boy rushed up to her and said, “You said you would come back, and you kept your word!”

Each day, Yustina and the other Coptic Orphans volunteers taught English in classrooms packed with eager children. Used to learning by rote and often under threat of physical punishment, these children flourished at the learning center where they learned songs in English, drew pictures, and lost track of time. Although the classroom was filled with joy, the reality of Egypt’s political instability could not be shut out.

One evening shortly after the volutneers arrived in El Barsha, Yustina and other volunteers climbed up on the village center’s roof to relax and enjoy the cool breeze. Suddenly, an announcementblared from the top of a nearby minaret: “Everyone who has weapons: get them, and get ready to come outside!” Yustina remained calm. She followed the emergency guidelines she had been taught by Coptic Orphans and called her emergency contact in the organization. Coptic Orphan’s headquarters confirmed that no similar incidents were happening elsewhere. As the volunteer group’s leader, she directed everyone to stay inside the center’s walled compound until security outside was restored.

Although there were no other incidents of violence, the risk remained throughout the duration of the volunteers’ time in El Barsha. But Yustina’s courage, passion, and commitment paid off. She continued teaching English classes in El Barsha to the most vulnerable children in the village. One of Yustina’s students, Mariam, has excelled in her secondary English studies and continues to build on the educational foundation that Yustina helped her establish.

Three Takeaways for Diaspora Organizations

At Coptic Orphans we take volunteer safety and our mission to help the most vulnerable children of Egypt seriously. Yustina’s story illustrates that so long as reasonable precautions are taken and the situation is continually monitored, diaspora organizations like ours can send volunteers into unstable environments without exposing volunteers to excessive risk. At Coptic Orphans, we learned that when operating in times of crisis, it is critical to follow the three M’s: mobile, manageable, and embedded.

1.     Prepare Your Volunteers and Staff to be Mobile

Coptic Orphans made sure the volunteers were ready for a quick evacuation, if necessary. Being mobile also means that volunteers can easily communicate and are aware of the situation. Our preparations included the following:

        • Maintaining contact information for each of our volunteers’ relatives in their country of primary residence;
        • Designating group leaders who had immediately-accessible communications channels with organization headquarters;
        • Registering volunteers with their embassies on arrival;
        • Having multiple means of transportation ready to evacuate volunteers.

Yustina’s Arabic ability made her the perfect group leader, and helped her group react well to what was happening in their village.

2.     Keep to a Manageable Scale

You can’t be a truly mobile operation unless your project has a scale that you can manage. Staying nimble means making sure that program coordinators know the whereabouts of each volunteer at all times and can quickly move all of them out of a dangerous situation .

Coptic Orphans normally posts volunteers in at least six different locations in Egypt, but in 2011 we decided to keep all of our volunteers at just one site. Streamlining our emergency communications and transportation networks helped us to ensure our volunteers’ safety during a time of political instability in Egypt.

3.     Embed Your Operations in a Supportive Community

What if the announcement that Yustina heard from the Minaret was a real threat? What if conflict in El Barsha blocked all ways to get out? In a worst-case scenario, the best protection is being thoroughly embedded in a local community that knows and respects your staff. The village of El Barsha is a majority Coptic village. Its leaders and ordinary citizens already knew our organizations well, as we had sent volunteers there for many years. The learning center that Coptic Orphans chose was part of the village Coptic Orthodox Church, the center of Coptic life in the village. Egyptian churches are true community centers and often include walled compounds, making them the safest possible place for our volunteers.

Great Impact, or Greater Risk?

Despite these precautions, sometimes sending volunteers into crises is simply too risky. Coptic Orphans saw the lasting impact that Yustina and her fellow volunteers made in El Barsha during Serve to Learn 2011. However, we decided to forgo sending volunteers this year. This spring, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory against travel to Egypt by US citizens. And the presence of rapid currency inflation, political unrest, and insecurity in Egypt meant that we could no longer adequately ensure our volunteers’ safety. Now Egypt’s  transportation systems are regularly disrupted and propaganda has generated mob hysteria about “foreign spies.” Copts and Coptic religious sites have been at particularly great risk of being targets of violence.

Diaspora organizations like ours must weigh the great benefits of engagement against the risks of sending volunteers to homelands in crisis. But our experience shows that those who can go in times of crisis after wisely calculating the risk will often find they can do enormous good for their homeland.



About the Author: Nathan Hollenbeck joined Coptic Orphans in 2006 and writes for the organization on a variety of issues, including the power of the Coptic Diaspora for Egypt’s development. Prior to joining Coptic Orphans, Nathan received his bachelor’s degree in Ancient Languages from Wheaton College and conducted further study at the Human Rights Institute of Purdue University at Fort Wayne and the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Nathan completed his master’s degree in Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in 2011.


The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.