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Inside the struggle to save American Cemetery in Cairo as ten graves remain a mystery

Jean Isteero and a group of people from the Friends of the American Cemetery are working toward saving the deteriorating ancient graveyard in the Egyptian capital
The American Cemetery Committee members (L to R) Greg Olson, Anne Shalaby, Jean Isteero, and Nazli Rizk (National Archives of the Presbyterian Church USA)
The American Cemetery Committee members (L to R) Greg Olson, Anne Shalaby, Jean Isteero, and Nazli Rizk (National Archives of the Presbyterian Church USA)

CAIRO, EGYPT: Located among several other cemeteries, the only American cemetery in Egypt's ancient capital is meticulously maintained. However, this was not the scenario a few years ago. The condition of the cemetery was deteriorating with every passing year until a group of people decided to save it.

Narrating the ordeal via CBS, Jean Isteero, a retired missionary teacher who went to visit the grave of a friend in 2011 in Cairo, said the condition of the cemetery bothered her and she decided to do something about it. "I contacted some of the families and started raising some funds to get it cleaned and renovated," Isteero said, who started a small group called Friends of the American Cemetery.


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Even though she left the country in 2021 after spending six decades, she still has been working for it from her current home in Baltimore. "I am very persistent. I believe that individuals who devoted so many years of their lives for the good of the church and country should be buried in a lovely, peaceful setting which their relatives will be proud to visit,” she expressed. At the same time, she told that "some people are not interested in cemeteries," but she has found a few other individuals who share her passion. 

Greg Olson, a retired international development specialist and now a member of the group, said, “The cemetery and the stories of the people buried there are a reflection of the involvement of Americans in Egypt over the past 150 years.” Olson, who lived in Egypt for more than four decades, is working toward building a digital map of the cemetery which will help people to search for a name, locate the person's burial plot and learn about them, reports CBS.

Explaining it, Olson said, "I found a map of the cemetery made in 1925, and it shows who's buried where, but I didn't know anything about the ones after that. Then I found a list of all the people buried there through 1965, and now, I am adding to that list."

On the other hand, there are 10 graves at the cemetery that are severely damaged so it is impossible to identify whose remains they hold, and is a complete mystery. However, Olson is reportedly determined to finish his map, states the outlet.

Olson further noticed that there are five Norwegians buried in the cemetery with the same date of death in 1959. “I searched the newspapers around that date. Didn't find anything. I contacted the Norwegian Embassy, they didn't know. I asked the oldest Norwegian in Egypt, she had no idea. I contacted a friend in Oslo, he had access to the archive of a leading daily newspaper, and he found the story. They were seamen waiting in a convoy to go through the Suez Canal and they bought, illegally, some homemade alcohol from the locals, and were poisoned."

Though history remains intact, going forward, Isteero and Olson are now hoping that the US Embassy and the American University in Cairo (AUC) will step in to help them maintain the physical form of the cemetery and the area around it.