Building Another Pyramid for Egypt: How to Organize a Diaspora

Diaspora Engagement Pyramid(Groups)

By: Nathan Hollenbeck
An article  which highlights the work of Coptic Orphans and shed light on the findings of the first in-depth study of the Coptic Diaspora conducted by George Washington University in collaboration with Coptic Orphans.


The Great Pyramids of Giza represent the biggest cornerstone of Egyptian pride. The same is true among all Egyptians, including the Coptic diaspora. If you attend any of our gatherings, you will hear at least one person appeal to the pyramids as proof that Egyptians can do great things again if they just work together. We are Egypt’s indigenous Christians, and we still use the ancient Egyptian language and music in their religious rites.

Coptic Orphans, an international development organization, agrees. Through child sponsorship and a network of hundreds of village-based volunteers supported by  local churches and organizations, our programs help fatherless children stay in school  and reach their  full potential.

To support our work, we have created a three-tier model for building a new Great Pyramid of diaspora-based development in Egypt based on the engagement of diaspora individuals, groups, and the diaspora at large. You don’t have to be Egyptian to build this pyramid; it will work for other diasporas, too.

I. Individuals
One impressive thing about the Great Pyramid is its careful construction stone by stone from 2.3 million individual blocks. Likewise, since diasporas are scattered across the globe, there’s no way to avoid the hard work of building thousands—or millions—of links from diaspora to homeland, person by person.

Coptic Orphans has found that child sponsorship and individual volunteer opportunities are great ways to reconnect individuals to Egypt. In the first large-scale Coptic diaspora survey we commissioned, 95 percent of respondents said that the future of Egypt is important to them. Yet we found early on that the ones who translate their interest into action are those who make a real-life connection to Egypt. Both child sponsorship and volunteer opportunities create a way to see and become part of Egypt’s life in some way.

II. Groups
When you engage individuals, they come together in informal associations united by common interests. That’s when you begin to see feats far bigger than the sum of their parts. The Coptic diaspora survey revealed that 80 percent of Copts outside Egypt want to contribute to Egypt’s social development more than to its political or economic growth, so informal volunteer groups have been a particularly important target for us.

Coptic Orphans formed a program that has sent groups of 130 volunteers from six nations to Egypt.  All the returning volunteers became ambassadors in their churches and diaspora associations, and at the same time impacted the lives of 5,045 Egyptian children to whom they taught English.

Informal groups tend to inspire other groups when they return to their countries of residence. A young woman came with a Coptic Orphans group to teach English to children during the summer of 2007. The next year, she brought 12 university students back with her to build an education center in rural Egypt. We saw the same ripple effect with other volunteers who formed other groups and brought them to Egypt again and again.

III. At Large
By adding value to the Coptic diaspora at large, we improved some of its more important institutions, such as prominent dioceses in diaspora. We also drew the attention of others, such as legislators in nations of diaspora residence.

The Coptic Diaspora Survey gave leaders and institutions inside the Coptic diaspora valuable information about how people remain connected to Egypt, how much they are giving to Egypt, and how their sense of “Egyptian-ness” interacts with their sense of host country identity. By learning more about the dynamics of our diaspora and making it available to the international development and political spheres, we also educated legislators and donors about the potential in the Coptic diaspora.

While diasporas are never reducible to their most important institutions, its institutions are key to creating the level of synergy among diaspora individuals and groups that can drive diaspora accomplishment. This is the capstone of diaspora effort; it requires the least work, but powerfully unites the whole structure when built on a broad and solidly constructed foundation of individual and group mobilization.

We hope that sharing our experience will help other diasporas find success through similar projects. We have learned that it is essential to formally understand what ties people in the diaspora to their country of heritage, in what ways they hope to contribute to its development, and what institutions or initiatives are required to transform their passions into concrete action that can change lives. The Great Pyramid was not a triumph for Egypt alone; it is one of the wonders that the world shares. Likewise, diaspora engagement is the future of global development, and our successes will be something we can all be proud of.

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. He has a passion for the causes of the fatherless and widowed in Egypt and around the world.

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