It’s that time again, where we are asked to write our top story of the year.
Although a couple deserve mentioning, my top story had the greatest effect on me.
The actions of Dikla Smith and Mikka Heaney, organisers of a ‘Gift of Love’, which ensure children of needy families in Paphos get a present at Christmas should be mentioned, as should the Hearts of Gold Cyprus awards, where I was able to reconnect with toddler, Zoe Dhull, a 2016 nominee.
In 2013, her fight for life and life-saving heart operation in Israel featured on the Cyprus Mail’s front page. She is now a healthy and happy three year old.
The ‘terrible threes’ meant she repeatedly screamed ‘no’ at both Father Christmas and I, not wanting a hug or a gift. Happily, her lungs seem to be operating at full force and she now possesses boundless energy and cheeky infectious laugh.
These are both important to mention, but the story that moved me the most was that of father and daughter, Maher and Dina Elgohary, persecuted Coptic Christian converts who fled to Cyprus in hope of a new life.
I have continued to stay in regular contact since I initially interviewed them for the newspaper in November.
Just last week they told me that if they had still been in Egypt they would have been caught up in the explosion that ripped through a church they used to frequent in Cairo.
On Sunday, December 11, St Peter and St Paul chapel, adjoining St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, was packed with worshipers celebrating Sunday morning prayer. It was bombed and 25 churchgoers, mostly women and children, were killed and dozens were severely wounded.
Maher tells me this is where they used to pray regularly.
“We would most probably be dead now, we would have been there,” he said.
The father and daughter have escaped violence and death numerous times. They recently came to Cyprus, after three men forced their way into their apartment in Egypt and made them participate in a video, holding up signs denouncing their faith and claiming they had found Islam. Their lives were threatened to make them comply.
Dina tells me that if she hadn’t been there her father would have refused and they would have killed him.
Maher has faced years of abuse after he converted from Islam to Christianity more than twenty years ago; he had secretly been a Christian for far longer. His daughter has suffered the same fate, he said.
The pair have suffered a litany of abuse, both verbal and physical and persecution. Dina, now 22, has spent much of her life in hiding.
As we get to know each other better, she breaks down recounting some of the horrendous situations she has found herself in. She reflects on the beating she received at the hands of the police, where they pummelled her legs and punched her front teeth out to try to force her back to Islam.
She weeps as she recounts her father’s actions, as incensed he leapt to her defence only to receive a fearsome assault.
She also tells me that she has never understood why, whilst living in hiding in 2009 aged 15, a letter she wrote to President US Obama asking for help remains unanswered, despite gaining worldwide media attention.
She also doesn’t understand why ‘everyone hates her.’
“The Muslims hate me and the Christians are afraid of me. They think they will be hurt if they befriend me.”
It’s hard to look away from her eyes, which are brimming with tears. She longs to finish her studies, she wants to be a fashion designer and live in peace.
“I didn’t used to sleep much in Egypt, I am always scared for mine and my father’s life,” she said.
Maher, who is fiercely protective of his daughter, admits that they both need psychological support to try and rid them of the demons they carry with them everywhere.
“We need help to try and get all of this stuff out of our heads. We need to try and clear it all away.”
He weeps openly.
It must be exhausting for them, and at times, they seem to teeter on the edge of paranoia, but it’s not hard to see why.
Radical Muslims have called Maher an apostate, and sheikhs have issued fatwas, demanding that he and his daughter be killed. They have been beaten and tortured. Dina survived an acid attack, Maher a beheading attempt. He was also branded with hot metal, their water was poisoned, their pet dogs murdered, the list goes on.
Tired of running, exhausted with life and moving house every month, the Elgoharys want a ‘normal’ life, a permanent home, warm clothes, food and friends. Maher is desperate to work.
They are being helped by a Paphos church and other offers of help came from Cyprus Mail readers after their story was published.
Just a small example is the help offered by Paphos businessman, Neophytos Constantinou, who provided Dina with a free eye test and glasses, which she desperately needed.
“The people here in Cyprus have been so good to us, we really hope that they will protect us and we will be allowed to stay.”