In the old Cairo neighbourhood of Al-Khalifa, the mausoleum of the Mamluk queen Shajar Al-Durr echoes with the sound of laughing children.
The nonprofit Al-Athar Lina, Arabic for “Whose monument”, has transformed the mausoleum, once a repository for trash, and a neighbouring historic mosque that had fallen into a community centre. This summer, Al-Athar Lina has been running daily workshops for local children featuring English lessons, games, story times and art projects.
The project serves a dual purpose, said Hadeer Saeed, the camp’s programme coordinator. It builds the community’s engagement with local monuments and provides extracurricular activities for children living in an underserved neighbourhood.
Many residents of Al-Khalifa, the old low-income residential neighbourhood, had never heard about the mausoleum before, Saeed said. At one point, the building was used to breed cattle. At another, a local house painter used it as a tool storage shed.
Al-Athar Lina cleaned out the mausoleum and the mosque, and commissioned a team of experts to restore the paintings and carvings that have faded with time. If the children establish a relationship with the place by building happy memories, the nonprofit hopes they will protect and care for the monuments once the restoration is complete.
The approach is in line with recommendations from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which, in 2012, named local communities as the first group that needs to be involved in the process of heritage preservation. The promotion of urban activities around monuments and historic buildings is one way to their sustainability, UNESCO reported.
An average of 20 children and young teenagers attend the camp’s art, drama, martial arts and storytelling workshops. In addition, the camp provides basic English classes, field visits to nearby monuments and workshops by local craftsmen. The Kuttab, a traditional Egyptian school that teaches children to read Quraan, is an integral part of the camp which also “helps children who dropped out of school with literacy problems”.
To plan the summer camp, Al-Athar Lina worked with residents from Al-Khalifa to determine what kind of programming they’d like for their children, Saeed said.
Aside from Al-Athar Lina‘s community centre, there is only one other public cultural centre that provides extracurricular activities for the neighbourhood of about 170,000 residents. Called Prince Taz, the centre provides arts and crafts workshops mainly for adults. Local children are not offered any kind of educational programmes aside from regular public schooling.
Getting residents involved in the project secures its sustainability, she said.
“We are trying to transfer the volunteer’s experience to the local community members involved so they can keep the project going,” she said.
Photos by Elizabeth Stuart