Located around 375 kilometers from Cairo, on the banks of the Nile is the city of Assiut. At a glance, Assiut’s facts are not impressive but there is a place in Assiut that has had world-wide impact since 1911. Lillian Trasher orphanage, the largest orphanage in the world and home to roughly 800 children of every size and every age. It can without hesitation be described as a “Light of the world and a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden“.
Lillian began the orphanage on February 10th, 1911. The story goes that this young woman, engaged to be married, felt a ‘calling’ to go overseas and help. She had previously worked in an orphanage in North Carolina and through a missionary talk at her church developed a deep compassion for people who lived thousands of miles away in desperate situations and circumstances. 10 days from her wedding day she defied all social norms of the time by breaking off her engagement and informing a non-supportive family that she was going to Egypt!
In all of Egypt there were no orphanages and after living there for no more than a few months a man came to her with a little baby girl, asking her to care for this child whose mother was dying. The word “child-saver” was given to her as more and more would come with the same request. This began what would turn into a home for over 1200 orphans by the time of her death in 1961.
So why tell this story? In the midst of the chaos in Egypt, the Centennial Celebration for Lillian Trasher was scheduled for this week, today to be exact. Feeling it was unwise to hold the festivities given the unpredictable events in Egypt, the Centennial is now cancelled. George Assad, who was raised in the orphanage, is the compassionate and gifted director of Lillian Trasher Orphanage and earlier this year sent out a world-wide message as well as a notice on the web site asking former residents of the orphanage to send any messages that they wished to have read at the event. People had purchased tickets from all over the world to head to Assiut to celebrate the memory of this woman and the legacy of her work and the orphanage. Practically speaking, adoption is not legal in Egypt. The government has strict laws governing any kind of adoption arrangement and stiff penalties for trying to go around the law. That is where this orphanage steps in as a refuge and community, giving food, shelter ,and best of all, peace.
With a shoe-string budget and against all odds, the orphanage has survived and thrived. It prides itself on operating as a large family, not as an institution. The current director and his wife, George and Fathiya, open their hearts to orphans on a daily basis, and and their home to visitors whenever they come. They raised a family of five- four girls and one boy who are now adults living in Egypt, the United States and New Zealand. The family is beautiful both inside and out. I’ve rarely seen so many good-looking people in one family!
Our family has the privilege of knowing the Assad family and call them our friends. We have been treated to the hospitality of the orphanage several different times and their son, Joseph, was a lifesaver to us as my husband’s assistant in the Middle East Studies Program that he began many years ago. My now adult children have great memories of weekends away from the crowds of Cairo, participating in a field day and enjoying great food cooked especially for us by Fathiya. An especially fond memory is that of our 3 oldest at the ages of 10,8, and 7 singing Jingle Bells in Arabic to a room full of Egyptian children, residents of the orphanage and drinking the home-made wine for communion that had the potential to turn them off of alcohol forever!
Although mass protests and unrest may stop a formal celebration, the enduring legacy of “Mama” Lillian and the faith that sustained her and gave guidance will never stop. The Assads and others at the orphanage continue to live out a love for God and care for widows and orphans. It will continue having an eternal impact throughout Egypt and the world.The words that guided Lillian when she first left for Egypt are just as compelling today as they were 100 years ago.
I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.