Ilaria Youssef
Ilaria Youssef
Cairo, Egypt 2023-2024
I was born in Egypt and moved to the U.S. when I was 11 years old. Now, I am going back to Cairo, Egypt to volunteer as a data analyst with BLESSEgypt for six months! Come along with me as I give back to the community that raised me. Read More About Ilaria →

Almost Christmas!

**I wrote this blog two weekends ago, but the site was down, and I didn’t get a chance to post it afterwards, so just pretend I posted it then;)

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Egypt doesn’t really celebrate Thanksgiving, obviously, so I honestly completely forgot about it until I started receiving “Happy Thanksgiving” texts. Nonetheless, I forced a big group of my coworkers to go out to dinner after work on Thursday, so I’m counting that as my Thanksgiving dinner. The weather here is still relatively warm, which helped me forget that we’re almost in December! Although most Egyptians are walking around with sweaters and coats, the temperatures are still in the high 60’s (Fahrenheit), so basically, it’s Nashville’s nice fall weather.

Cool adventures:

A couple of weekends ago, I got to take a day trip to the Red Sea to an area called “Al-‘Ain al-Sokhna.” It was a little less than a two-hour drive, and it was absolutely worth it. The water was definitely cold, but the sun made a quick dip in the water bearable. Seeing the sea and the desert intersect was mesmerizing. On the way back, I got to pass through a road between two mountains, and, in general, seeing the contrast between the beach, the desert, and the city made me truly appreciate Egypt’s beauty that much more!

The view of the beach meeting a little desert mountain

Driving through the desert

I also got to visit a church called St. MaryCoptic Orthodox Church in El-Zeitoun and hear stories about the people who witnessed St. Mary’s apparition there. Quick recap of the history/stories I heard: St. Mary started to appear, as a luminous figure at the top of the church’s domes, in 1968 and her apparitions continued for 3 years. People would come from everywhere, and they would shut down the church’s street, setting up camp all night until she appeared again. It was a great phenomenon, and some people in the crowds were even cured of their ailments whenever she would appear. Being at the church and hearing eyewitness accounts of these events was such a marvelous experience. Unfortunately, I went at night so my pictures don’t do it justice, but hopefully, I get to visit it again soon in the daylight.

St Mary’s church in El-Zeitoun

Volunteering Updates:

I’ve finally fallen into the groove of things at the office. However, since the big partner meeting is coming up on Monday, they’ve also been assigning me a bunch of documents, videos with subtitles, and PowerPoint presentations to double-check the English grammar and translate anything if needed. BLESS is kind of in a transitional period between phase 2 and phase 3 of their strategic planning. So far, I’ve been working on assignments pertaining to the 2020-2023 phase, so I don’t have much of an understanding of what’ll happen after the new year. However, my team has been invited to attend the meeting, so I’m excited to learn all about the new phase and to spend an entire day hearing mostly English.

Other good news:

My sister booked plane tickets to come to Egypt for January!! She’s stopping by Germany first, so I’m gonna take a couple of extra days off and go spend Christmas and New Year’s with her in Germany! I’m so excited to see her, and I’ve been learning German on Duolingo in my free time so I’m not totally lost when I get there.

Since Egyptians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, they’ve jumped right into the Christmas spirit. There are seasonal stores set up that are dedicated solely for Christmas shopping, and they go ALL out. I can’t wait for the weather to get cold and to wear ugly Christmas sweaters once December hits!

The decorations outside of a Christmas store

The inside of the store

Hopefully, I’ll be drinking hot cocoa as I’m writing my next blog.

Until then,

Ilaria Youssef

Becoming a Cairo Local

Hello again!

The past two weeks have been eventful! As usual, I need some sort of structure/list to help break it down, so here we go:

Updates about being a Cairo local:
For the past two weeks, I’ve been slowly transitioning into finally feeling somewhat like a local. After weeks of experimenting with different modes of transportation, I now feel the most comfortable riding the underground metro and even switching between metro lines.

Inside the metro, the names of the stations/ stops are written in both English and Arabic

A mural inside the metro station portraying influential Egyptian people: two of whom are Coptic Saints

A mural inside the Abbassya metro station: portraying the word Abbassya in the Coptic Language and showing a couple of the area’s landmarks

I’ve also started to get in the groove of things: I set up a routine for myself, and I familiarize myself with the areas I am going so that I can feel oriented whenever I go out. I’ve even been asked for directions a couple of times!! (Granted, I was only able to help once, but it’s a satisfying feeling all the same).

Update about work:
I have befriended some of my colleagues, and a couple of them even invited me out after work last week. Meanwhile, the others give me weekly recommendations of must-visit places in Cairo. I am surrounded by kind colleagues, and I feel extremely blessed to have met them. As for the actual work aspect: learning so much about what the NGO does and hearing Arabic 24/7 was very unexpectedly overwhelming in the beginning, but thankfully I’ve gone from the “observing and asking questions” stage to the “trying, being assigned a couple of tasks, and getting feedback” stage. This past week, I had to analyze and create charts portraying BLESS’ most prominent services for a partner meeting coming up later this month. I had the opportunity to work in a team and present my progress in small team meetings along the way. This was such a valuable work experience that I had yet to gain until then, but I’m fortunate to have such a supportive team helping me through it.

Update about my cat phobia:
The last two weeks started out being a bit rocky, with a major phobia freak-out. In short, I now absolutely have to double-check that there’s indoor seating before I go to any cafe. I think it’s calmed down a bit since then. All is good; I know that progress isn’t always linear.

Cool experiences I’ve had so far:
Egypt is full of history as it is full of life. I’ve explored that side of Egypt a little more these past couple of weeks as I visited a few ancient Coptic Orthodox churches. It also turned out that one of my childhood friends spent her summer in Egypt, and thankfully, I found out that she was still here just in time before she left. We got to reconnect and visit the pyramids together. Catching up with my childhood friend that I hadn’t seen in a few years while visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World wasn’t on my bingo card for 2023, but it was definitely a pleasant surprise.

A cavern, inside one of the churches I visited, where the Holy family stayed for three months

I am gradually acclimating to everything, so I am currently in the perfect balance of feeling like a local but not too much so that I can still recognize the magical feeling of living in this city.

I can’t believe I’ve been here for one month already. Keep praying for me so that I can get the most out of this journey!

I’ll write again soon,

Ilaria Youssef

Two Weeks In

Welcome back!

I’ve been in Egypt for a couple of weeks now, and it has already been the experience of a lifetime.

I’m not sure how to begin recounting or processing my journey over these past two weeks, so I’ll put it into a list of things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. Cairo is such a lively city!

In the first week, I was incredibly overstimulated every time I stepped out of the apartment, to the extent that I had to come home and immediately take a nap. The streets always seem to be bustling, and cars are everywhere! Where a car fits, there it shall be. The Egyptian people seem to have black belts in driving, but they also have their own unspoken rules when it comes to roads. For example, the lines on the roads, indicating lanes, are merely a suggestion that is quite often ignored. During rush hour, you can simply stick a finger outside of the car window, and you’d probably be touching another car (although I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home/street). As for the car horn, it seems as though there’s either a secret language behind each beep that I’m unable to decipher yet, or they just enjoy honking the horn for fun.

Crossing the street, on the other hand, should be an Olympic sport. There are pedestrians walking between cars on any given street. I have mastered crossing the smaller streets so far; wish me luck so I can level up.

Additionally, Cairo might be in competition with NYC for the title of “the city that never sleeps.” I can always hear cars beeping and people talking on the street from my bedroom window, even in the middle of the night.

  1. There are animals everywhere.

Mainly stray cats and dogs. (Small update on my phobia: I can walk past a cat in the street, but I can’t seem to sit down to eat in the open air while a cat is roaming around the table. I’m counting it all as progress, though:) However, I’ve also witnessed 2 small chickens walking around in a small side street, heard a rooster crow, and seen some goats. All the animals seem to coexist with each other, the humans, and the cars. I even saw a couple of stray dogs, on separate occasions, look both ways before crossing the street.

  1. Egyptians seem to be genuinely kind people.

From the first day at the BLESS office, all the employees showed me so much compassion and gave me a warm welcome. Many of them even offered me advice, tolerated my capacity to come up with endless questions, and were patient when my Arabic fell a little short. I am already gaining valuable insight into the nonprofit world, and I am excited to be volunteering in an organization that serves so many communities in Egypt.

  1. Egyptian food is glorious.

I have yet to taste one thing that hasn’t been mind-blowingly delicious. From sweets to snacks, to breakfast and dinners, it’s all unmatched.

Overall, Egypt is an absolute dream and I couldn’t be happier to be here. I’ve found myself in the habit of taking several pictures throughout the day, most of which are random, but they’re my way of admiring Cairo’s beauty. Enjoy a photo dump at the end of the blog.

Please keep me in your prayers, and I’ll write to you soon!

Until then,

Ilaria Youssef

A typical Egyptian breakfast

Street view of the Cairo Tower

Statue of Saad Zaghloul in downtown Cairo

T-6 Days!

Welcome to my humble blog!

I hope you enjoy my scattered thoughts as I venture into and process this new chapter ahead of me. 

A quick recap of my life lately: my summer has been eventful and the perfect send off before Cairo. I got to reconnect with old friends, meet new ones, and make memories that will last me a lifetime. At the beginning of summer, I finally became a United States citizen! I also got to go to my very first county fair. I partook in the “barbenhimer” craze and tried mochi for the first time (definitely would recommend). In addition, I visited a farm and satisfied my slight obsession with cows, as well as unlocked new obsessions with many other animals!

Checking “hug a cow” off my bucket list

Meeting a beautiful rooster at the farm

I leave for Egypt in six days, and I am overflowing with emotions. I have been preparing for this move all summer so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed as the travel date approaches. But alas, I still feel like there are a million little things left to do. As I am packing, my mom and I have an ongoing bet to see whether I will run out of space or weight in luggage first. Wish me luck that we both lose and neither occurs.

I had heard that the streets in Egypt are populated with stray cats. So, in preparation, I made it a point this summer to overcome my phobia of cats. Although my fear is not fully eradicated yet, thanks to Gracie, my friend’s cat, I can now be in the same room as a feline without running away screaming.

Taking baby steps in conquering my fears as I give Gracie a snack

As excited as I am to embark on this new adventure, I am becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I will not get to see my loved ones for half a year! I have been trying to cherish every moment with my friends and family over the last couple of months. A little fact about me is that this is by far the longest I will have ever gone without my family. I know that a slight homesickness will be an inevitable part of my journey, but I find comfort in the fact that my days will be filled with numerous new experiences that I can share with them.

On the other hand, I can’t wait to indulge in Egyptian food, experience what it’s like to work in a non-profit office, make new friends, meet family members I haven’t seen in years, and witness Egypt’s true beauty. I am also curious to see whether I will experience any culture shocks or if the transition will be seamless.

Amidst the chaos of getting ready to move, I find myself thinking about how surreal all of this feels. Around this time last year, Nardien, a fellow Belmont alumna, introduced me to Lumos, and we were researching which country we wanted to volunteer in. And now our dreams are coming true, and I couldn’t be more thankful to have her by my side through it all.

My next blog will be from Egypt, God willing. It doesn’t seem quite real yet as I am typing this. However, please send prayers my way. 

Until next time,

Ilaria Youssef