After growing up in a wealthy New York City suburb, Mira Riad, 32, could be leading a life of privileged leisure. Instead, the Egyptian-American attorney uses her good fortune to help the neediest Egyptians - orphans and street children.
"It’s something I had been thinking about for a while," Riad says about the orphanage project that she founded in 2007. "My mom used to take us to Egypt since we were little kids every summer and didn’t hide us from the poverty that was there."
The Littlest Lamb
There are an estimated one million orphans and street children in the country, about 50,000 in Cairo alone.
Slated to open next year on a 3.5-hectare site near Heliopolis, a prosperous Cairo suburb, The Littlest Lamb will offer about 200 orphans a home and education which could vault them into Egypt’s elite.
Riad's family owns Fortuny, a luxury-textile company, but she had little interest in the business, which is run by her two brothers. She first trained to become a social worker and later earned a law degree. She now works for her father’s legal-trusts firm in New York. But her passion is the orphanage, for which she recruited a governing board of six other young Egyptian-Americans. She says each child will be offered a university education.
"That’s going to be a huge expense," she says. "Many people have told us that it’s not practical and not reasonable, but it’s something we absolutely believe is necessary, to give them the highest possible education. That way, they can compete for better jobs. And when they have better jobs, the stigma, hopefully, will be broken. Because if your doctor is an orphan, if your professor is an orphan, then you won’t have that stigma that orphans are nobody."
Designed by Egyptian architect Maher Andraws, The Littlest Lamb will have family-sized suites of several bedrooms, with each group of 10 or 12 children living with one "parental figure." College-age residents would live in other buildings nearby.
"They would still help out with the younger kids, as their siblings, but they would move maybe to apartments a little further from the orphanage, even on the same property, but a different building, so they could be more independent," she says. "And then after college, if they’d like to stay, if they couldn’t find a job, or whatever, if they couldn’t work, they could basically remain there as long as they want to be there."
Riad, whose family is Coptic Christian, says the Littlest Lamb will be reserved for children from Egypt’s Christian minority only because mixed-religion orphanages are not permitted in Egypt. "It only can belong to one religion, because that’s just the rules of the game there," she says. "And Christians are the minority in Egypt and the opportunities for Christian orphanages there are less than for government-sponsored Muslim orphanages."
Making a difference
Riad doesn’t want children of her own and found her social work internships draining. Now she laughs at the prospect that she might end up living much of the time at The Littlest Lamb, helping to raise hundreds of children. She says it’s the freedom to walk away that makes all the difference. Riad does not see herself as unusual.
"I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else," she says. "It’s just that different people use their skills, their opportunity in life, and every story gets painted in its own way. And mine just happened to get painted in this way."
Her connections are undeniably special, however. Pope Shenouda III, head of the Orthodox Coptic Christian Church, attended the ground-breaking in July 2009 to bless the orphanage. He placed a little toy lamb - the orphanage’s mascot - in the cornerstone.
Also, retired soccer legend Pelé and former basketball great Walt Frazier have both appeared at Littlest Lamb fundraisers. Riad says they’ve reached the half-way point of their $5 million goal for completing the orphanage, and welcoming its first young residents.