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CATHOLIC SCHOOL
from issue no. 11 - 2007

Don Bosco in Cairo


The Salesian Don Bosco Institute is among the most sought after in the Egyptian capital. It teaches six hundred pupils in the two streams of professional school and technical institute. Without counting the language courses and professional refresher courses that are attended by three thousand specialized workers per year. And, without much din, Italian firms are taking on hundreds of the Egyptian workers that train here


Interview with don Renzo Leonarduzzi by Giovanni Ricciardi


The city of Cairo

The city of Cairo

It seems almost incredible. In Cairo, in the heart of a crowded working-class district, the language most spoken after Arabic is Italian. In the sizzling days of July and August every year, two hundred Egyptian lads face a full immersion course in Italian, with very respectable results. They are the aspirant students of a very particular school: the Salesian Don Bosco Institute among the most sought after in the Egyptian capital: where the teaching is done strictly in Italian and that teaches six hundred pupils in the two streams of professional school and technical institute. Without counting the language courses and the professional refresher courses that are attended by something like three thousand specialized workers per year. An experiment that is functioning very well: so much so that, without too much din, firms in northern Italy have for some years now been taking on hundreds of workers and technicians in Egypt, provided they have been trained by the sons of Don Bosco. When they come to Italy, they already have a contract in their pocket and the enormous advantage of knowing our language well. A situation unique of its kind, perhaps even a model for Italy, that oscillates between fear of uncontrolled immigration and the need to find manpower in sectors unattractive to Italian workers. 30Days met Don Renzo Leonarduzzi, a Salesian and headmaster of the Cairo school, who has spent more than thirty years in Egypt.

What drives many Italian firms to take on specialized workers in Egypt through your collaboration?
DON RENZO LEONARDUZZI: The fact that our schools – one in Cairo and the other in Alexandria – unite professional training at different levels with in-depth linguistic preparation. Those who attend our courses arrive in Italy already able to speak Italian.
How do the employment requests come about?
LEONARDUZZI: We’re in contact with firms in the north-west, in particular with Italcementi and Iveco, interested in taking on our lads. But it’s been several years now that quite a few firms in northern Italy have been relying on the Don Bosco Institutes to train the workers they come to employ here in Egypt.
How does the system work?
LEONARDUZZI: The firms know that it’s possible to train the workers here both in technical specialization and in Italian. And they make agreements with us through the Italian embassy, to take care of the training of workers employed by them using the database of the Chamber of Commerce. Last year we trained a group of young men employed by firms from Milan and Bergamo who were getting ready to go to Italy. For this year, we’re in negotiations for the training in Italian and technical specialization of two hundred and fifty young lads. We work on the language, on the regulations on safety at work, and we check the professional training. It’s a mechanism that functions very well, not least thanks to the extraordinary work done by the Italian ambassador to Egypt, Antonio Badini, in backing the school. He is following and encouraging our work in really admirable fashion.
Is it a unique experience of its kind?
LEONARDUZZI: I believe so, at least at the level of countries of the Mediterranean. A center that links professional training and linguistic preparation can’t be created from scratch.
Are the Salesians present in other areas of the Mediterranean?
LEONARDUZZI: We have two centers of professional training in Israel, one in Bethlehem, the other in Nazareth. But they are schools embedded in the local context, teaching in Arabic, and whose students find work in their country of origin. Two years ago we opened a new professional school in Lebanon that is suspended at the moment since it became a center for gathering refugees.
Is the Salesian presence in Egypt recent?
LEONARDUZZI: On the contrary. The Salesians arrived in Egypt in 1896, following the many Italian workers who emigrated to find work on the big building sites, like that of the Suez Canal, or who expatriated for political reasons. Apart from assuring spiritual aid to a community that reached more than 50,000 members, they immediately founded a professional school in Alexandria for the sons of the emigrants. Whereas the foundation of the Cairo one dates back to 1926.
A pioneering experience, considering the times…
LEONARDUZZI: Undoubtedly. History relates that in 1904 the school in Alexandria even hired a sailing ship to bring from Sicily the material necessary to set up a machine shop. With the passage of time various Italian schools were founded in Alexandria, on the Salesian example, sometimes even in competition with us, like the royal commercial schools, that only lasted while the Italians were a significant presence, that is up to the Nasser period.
The Salesians instead remained…
LEONARDUZZI: Up to the ’sixties our pupils were only Italian or European boys, such as Greek and French, but when nationalization began and the foreigners began to leave, our professional schools decided to take in local students. Then, in the ’seventies, Egypt asked the Italian government to open a technical institute in Cairo. So Italy, instead of founding a school ex novo, decided to avail itself of the Don Bosco. That’s how the five-year technical institute was opened, and the Cairo Don Bosco effectively became an Italian school abroad, recognized by an agreement between the two governments. Since when the Cairo institute has become more important than the one in Alexandria, which is in some ways a branch.
Some shots of the Cairo Don Bosco Institute

Some shots of the Cairo Don Bosco Institute

So you are financed by the Italian Foreign Office?
LEONARDUZZI: Not much, I’d say. In the early ’seventies the Italian Cooperation provided some support in terms of staff. Then, from the ’eighties through to the end of the ’nineties they helped us by sending teachers paid by the Foreign Ministry. But in recent years the aid has been reduced considerably and now we have only three teachers in Cairo and two in Alexandria that are the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry, out of a total of about ninety teachers. We have to see to the rest. And finding in Egypt teachers that teach in Italian is not easy. Now 90% of the staff consists of Egyptian former students who mainly teach the technical-professional subjects. Whereas the teachers of Italian come from Italy. They are women who live in Egypt for family reasons or people on contract, brought from Italy for a couple of years, as well as a retired teacher who is with us as a volunteer.
How is the school organized?
LEONARDUZZI: In Cairo we have two sorts of school: a professional institute for industry and craftsmanship lasting three years, that awards a certificate recognized both by the Italian and the Egyptian government; and the industrial technical institute, that trains skilled mechanics, mechanics and electrotechnicians. All the students come from the Egyptian secondary school and when they reach us they don’t know a word of Italian. So, during the holidays, in the months of July and August, the new pupils go through an intensive course of Italian and in September classes given entirely in Italian begin. Only history, geography and religion are taught in Arabic.
Is the school sought after?
LEONARDUZZI: This year, after two and a half days we had to close admissions. We already had three hundred and fifty applications for the two hundred places available.
How many students are there overall?
LEONARDUZZI: Currently we have two hundred and eighty boys in the professional and three hundred and twenty in the technical. But the school doesn’t stop there. Every year we organize other courses – varying in length from two to six months – of technical-professional training for adults, for young people who have abandoned the school in the past or for university students who want to specialize. They are technical courses that go from soldering to turning, from general mechanics to electrotechnics and computer science. These courses, given in Arabic, bring almost three thousand students to our institute every year.
How is the school financed?
LEONARDUZZI: The fees for the curricular courses go from 190 to 300 euro per annum. But the families of our students are mainly working-class and not all can afford the whole sum. So, after a personal interview with the families, we discount part or all of the fees for some, as in the Salesian tradition. The shortfall is in part made up by the course fees for externals – low, when you consider that a two-month course costs about 25 euro – thanks to the number of enrolments. Then we try to keep the workshops active when the school is closed.
What do the students do when they leave your schools?
LEONARDUZZI: First of all we must say that it’s difficult to find lads out of work among the ex-students. Apart from Italy, there’s much demand in Egypt also, though few choose to work in the local industry that offers very low wages, especially private industry. But knowledge of Italian enables many to find work in the tourist sector. Quite a lot, besides, enrol in universities in Italy.
It must be difficult from the economic point of view for an Egyptian to study at an Italian university…
LEONARDUZZI: I’d agree. In fact we’re putting together a contract with UniNettuno, the Italian Long Distance University, whose lessons are all given on internet. This will enable our students to go in for a three-year degree, in Italian, directly from Cairo and also take the exams in Egypt.
What are your relations with the Egyptian authorities?
LEONARDUZZI: We’re well respected at the Ministry of Education and University level. They’d almost like us to “multiply” the Don Bosco. Last year they even proposed that we take on the coordination of all the professional schools in Egypt, something that we can’t allow ourselves for lack of manpower. Whereas when it’s a matter of getting ahead with some bureaucracy and setting down signatures, sometimes there are people who, out of envy or jealousy, try to put a spoke in the wheel. But we get ahead all the same.
Is the situation in Alexandria different from in Cairo?
LEONARDUZZI: In Alexandria we only have the professional school, but there too the teaching is done in Italian. On average there’s about three hundred pupils. We also run an elementary and middle school with classes in Arabic.
How many Salesians are at work in Egypt?
LEONARDUZZI: In Cairo there’s nine of us, in Alexandria eleven. Some of us are elderly and not all of us, also for reasons of age, are directly involved in the school. But we have brothers of eighty who are still teaching. We say that we Salesians never retire.
Some shots of the Cairo Don Bosco Institute

Some shots of the Cairo Don Bosco Institute

Are you the only Catholic school operating in Egypt?
LEONARDUZZI: No. There are the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the Jesuits and some orders of nuns, that run institutes among the most sought after in the country. But at the level of professional school, aimed to the sons of the people, there’s only us.
Do Christian and Muslim students co-exist at the school?
LEONARDUZZI: In Cairo Christian students, almost all Orthodox Copts, are in the majority, 68% as against the 32% Muslim. In Alexandria the percentages are inverted: 30% Christian, 70% Muslim. Of course the Christians – in Egypt estimated at between 7% and 10% of the population – are attracted by the fact that we are a Catholic school, but unfortunately also by the problems that are beginning to arise for them in the public schools. Unfortunately, co-existence is becoming more difficult of late, the atmosphere gets heavier every day. Nothing like the calm air one breathed when I arrived in the country, between the ’sixties and ’seventies.
Do your schools also suffer from the atmosphere?
LEONARDUZZI: No, thanks be to God. Episodes of tension between Christian and Muslim students are very rare. The boys, and also the Muslim teachers we have, feel the respect and esteem that is the atmosphere of the Don Bosco. At moments of shared reflection we seek to highlight the things that unite us, respect, sharing of study and relaxation, sincere and disinterested friendship. Living, studying and playing together for so many years makes for the creation of friendships that arise freely, without bothering about origins, and contribute to breaking down distrust and prejudice. Indeed I believe it’s the only situation capable of taking the poison out of the air and creating tranquil relations amongst us all. A couple of years ago a Muslim boy, just before the leaving certificate, confided to me: «When I came here I hated Christians, because that’s what they taught me. Now it’s precisely among them that I’ve made my best friends».


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