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Meet Fatima, the 110-year-old financial 'mother' of Greater Cairo

Photo: Sarah Arafat

Photo: Sarah Arafat

If you ask Fatima where she’s from, she doesn't say "Sudan." She smiles and says, “from the land of dates and gardens.”

It’s a land she was born in over a century ago, but she hasn’t seen it in years. For the last 13 years, Fatima has been living in Cairo for with her youngest daughter, while her six other children live in different parts of the world.

“I dream of the day where I’ll have all my children surrounding me in the garden of my home in Sudan,” she says.

Fatima, a mother of 7, was the first person to open a school for girls in her hometown of Maqal, Sudan. Photo: Sarah Arafat/CARE

Mother’s money

Fatima is the oldest member of a “El Lama El Helwa,” a group of 29 women in Cairo who meet regularly to pool their money and make collective financial decisions.

It’s one of many Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) groups CARE has worked with around the world since 1991.

As the women of El Lama El Helwa — loosely translated as “the best company” — gather around in the small room, the smell of Būkhur incense fills the air.

Amidst the ongoing Sudanese conflicts, the the United Nations has reported that 57% of households registering for refuge in Egypt are headed by women like these, who are part of the large refugee population living in greater Cairo.

They call Fatima “Umena,” which means “mother.”

Safety, peace, and empowerment

Bearing tribal facial scars she has had since the age of two, Umena Fatima joins in with the laughter, music, and celebration of the group’s last meeting of the year.

The music turns down, and it’s time to announce the final savings amount. As Fatima and the others gather around, the group leader announces that they’ve saved over 100,000 EGP, which is roughly the average Egyptian’s annual salary.

It’s an extraordinary number, and the highest that CARE Egypt has seen from a group like this.

Cheers and zagharit, the traditional ululation uttered by women in the region during celebratory occasions, fill the room.

The women celebrate by saying a group prayer for the safety of their children, and for peace to be restored to their homeland.

Handouts at the Village Savings and Loan Association. Photo: Sarah Arafat/CARE

A sense of belonging

To women like Fatima and many others, the VSLA isn’t just a savings group; it has become like a family.

“When we first introduced the VSLA to refugee communities, we were surprised by the outcome,” says Mostafa Abdellatif, the Field Supervisor at CARE Egypt over the past 10 years. “We had never seen a group so committed, resulting in a turnout much higher than what we’ve seen in rural areas.”

Studies have shown that VSLAs offer women in vulnerable positions a sense of security, giving them a chance to gain financial literacy and sustain their source of income by launching small businesses through loans and micro-financing.

But not only that: VSLAs also give these women a sense of community and belonging.

As this VSLA group is coming to an end for the year, the women are visibly anxious and excited to finally receive their shares. It is an occasion so joyous that it feels more like a graduation ceremony. The group leader takes this opportunity to give the women space to speak and reflect on their 10-month journey.

Women of the VSLA group gather for their final meeting. Photo: Sarah Arafat/CARE

Zeinab* says that if it weren’t for the entrepreneur sessions, she wouldn’t have thought of earning profit by selling her special hair oil recipe; Aziza* says that it was the women in the group who encouraged her to sell her baked goods and use a loan to buy a hand mixer.

Each group member takes a turn to share their gratitude and aspirations, until finally, it’s Fatima’s turn. It’s a speech more than a century in the making.

“All my friends are long gone,” she says.”But I’m glad I’ve found this group of women to keep me in high spirits. And good company.”

*Name has been changed for safety.

This VSLA group is part of the activities implemented under the project: Safety and Empowerment for Refugees and Host Communities in Egypt, funded by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, US Department of State.

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