Marie Bassili Assaad
By Yousriya Loza Sawiris
I first met Marie Bassili in the early 1950s, as a student at the American College for girls in Cairo, and as the aunt of my friend Therese (Titi) Milad, Marie’s sister’s daughter. Like most of my friends, I tried to join the new girls’ scouts movement, the Blue Triangle for Girls Movement, and was lucky to obtain a coveted place in the group Marie was leading. Alas I left school to get married that same year.
A decade later, I vividly recall my mother calling the members of the YWCA board of which she was part, lobbying to get Marie elected as the new Secretary-General, stressing how a young educated dynamic leader was needed. Years later, while recounting this to Marie, she told me she remembered working closely with my mother especially on the YWCA Alexandria camp, cherishing her wisdom and quiet strength.
Life brought me closer to Marie, when she left the YWCA and married Assaad Abdel Motagaly a close friend of my mother. I was then a married young woman, and always enjoyed my visits to Marie and found them enlightening and fascinating. On the other hand, as she told me years later, she found that Titi her niece and me were empty headed young women who could only think of matching bags and shoes. She was not wrong- at that time. Titi had just graduated from school, while I had not even finished secondary studies. Thus, Marie took it upon herself to educate us both, and give us a purpose in life. She encouraged me to go back to my studies, which I did, enrolling in the GCE. She followed up on me weekly, and when I got into the Faculty of Commerce, Cairo University, I rushed to let her know- wanting her to realize I had not let her down.
Marie was a monument of strength, wisdom, and love. When her beloved husband passed away, she mourned inside her, with dignity focusing on taking care of her large family, her two step children Adel and Laila, as well as her two young boys Ragui and Hani. As a woman on her own, she was the loving mother, managing the family wealth while continuing her work.
In October of 1973, we were both sent by the Coptic Church, together with Bishop Samuel with whom she had set up the Social Development arm of the Coptic Church, to Tanzania for the All Africa Women’s conference. Due to the declaration of war, we were stranded outside Egypt with all airlines cancelling their flights to Cairo. Marie was not to be outdone; plan A, plan B, adapt to different opportunities, and call upon your network of friends, and your social capital. Within 48 hours, we had taken a flight to Nairobi, another to Tripoli, a car to Benghazi and a bus to the Egyptian border.
In her greatness, Marie was always humble. As Deputy Secretary-General of the World Council of Churches, she lived for six years in Geneva. As I traveled yearly to visit her, I was struck by her humble lifestyle- she slept in the smallest bedroom, keeping the bigger airy en-suite bedroom for her guests. The times we spent together were precious as she guided me to true happiness and success through contentment. Her words “Count your blessings” have accompanied me all these years.
But I was the luckiest once Marie came back from Geneva and I had her mentor me for years and years. I have a vivid picture of the sign she hung on her door back in Cairo “Retired- no more work”. But this was Marie... she could not stay idle. We were blessed that she joined the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) board. On her first visit to the Mokkattam zabbaleen comunity, she looked at the brand new empty white building and called it a white elephant. She rolled up her sleeves and asked for full support and acceptance of her ideas on social development, in general, and the development of the individual, in specific. Her efforts gave birth to the Paper recycling unit, the health visitors teams, and the holistic approach that APE is known for. During these many years, we had our formal board meetings where we set the strategies of APE, but more importantly, we had our weekly brainstorming breakfasts in my home, where all kinds of issues, items and ideas were discussed, hashed out and revisited with the different volunteers, friends, experts and practitioners, which made us all grow in parallel to the growth of APE.
During these years I learned from Marie’s actions, which stemmed from her belief that every human has good in them, that it was up to us to find it, and work on their character to bring it out so it would outshine their negative traits. “Never define a person’s opinion from your own mind”, she always told me “do not define me, I have my own mind based on different circumstances.”
In her unrelenting strife against FGM, I observed her pioneering work when it was still a taboo subject, even tackling high officials at social events, adamant on making women’s voices heard. She accepted to appear in programs even as they were aired at 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning, believing her message would eventually come out and FGM would be be banned . Marie you won the battle.
And as Marie saw me growing , she encouraged me to engage myself more meaningfully and deeply, telling me that it was about time my family institutionalized their giving and start a foundation in social development.
To sum it all:
To really know Marie was to love her, to come closer to her and to be enlightened by her wisdom, intelligence, based on true, strong spiritual faith. Marie shared her wisdom with all who knew her. And the closer you came to Marie, the wiser you became. She always left a mark wherever she went, lived or worked. She will always remain my mentor and a role model to future generations. As such, I would like to share two of her principles which live in me and who must be familiar to all who knew her:
“Nurturing a community of love, which entails collective wisdom and collective prayers and communications.”
“Promoting effective communications which are based on listening well to what people are saying and expressing clearly one’s ideas to others.”
Marie ! I will always thank God for knowing you, loving you, and for your loving guidance.