Child Prostitution, Empty Swings and Mental Health

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Photo by Tim O’Brian

They started running away from the orphanage when they were 11 years old. Nesma was the girl she felt closest to there. Maybe because like her, Nesma wasn’t really an orphan, but had grown up in a “proper” home. And both these homes were abusive. Reena’s sadistic stepmother subjected her to heart wrenching torture, whenever she fought with the little child’s father to spite him; burnt skin still tells of the hours of torture that the young Reena had endured.

Like most children that arrive on the street, escaping familial or institutional abuse, Reena and Nesma were picked up, within an hour, but the local pimp. Their first night in prostitution, sold as virgins for “deflowering”, was in 6th October city to the Arabs that came from the Gulf looking for young virgins. These clients paid the children and their pimp well. So well, in fact, that Reena managed to organise her own clientele and eventually be independent of the older lady that had sold them to these men.

But when at 14 she fell pregnant, and had her baby, she looked for her birth mother. And enticing her with money, she agreed to keep the baby as long as the cash kept coming in weekly. And it did. But a few years later, Reena turned up at the door and her baby was gone. No death certificate, no burial certificate; just the repeated verbal confirmation that her baby had died, that God had “remembered him”. It was then that Reena stopped combing her hair and started roaming the streets looking for her child. The well-groomed teenage prostitute, who only slept with the elite, was now picking up clients at street corners and at microbus stops, just for night-time shelter while she looked for her baby during the day.

There are many situations that you find yourself in when you work with street children that you wouldn’t have imagined to find yourself in otherwise. These are mainly situations of devastating tragedy. Stories that should never involve adults, let alone young humans, who may have not developed the resilience and coping strategies that come with time. But the more I spend time with these children, the more I realise that they have incredible resources, given the circumstances.

One of those situations that I found myself in was roaming the streets of a certain square in Cairo looking for Reena. I had been preparing myself for days for that ache that I would no doubt feel when I saw what I imagined as a child with dirt under nails, wiry hair, ripped clothing and eyes that I knew would haunt me. I knew that talking to her I would see the image of the child she was at 11 when she started leaving the shelter and every age she could have been that would not have led her to that particular traffic light, in those particular clothes, with that particular look in her eyes. I knew if I saw her and she looked at me, that those eyes would have seen the underbelly of human nature and they would look at me with caution at best, with detest at worst. But I also knew that somewhere deep, deep inside, there would be some comfort that three random strangers would roam the streets at night for her.

I remembered the story of why Shaymaa had stuck with this job for so long. On Shaymaa’s first day at the shelter, she saw a nine-year-old girl sitting on the swing, the seat dripping blood from where she had been raped by ten men. The child swinging, while monsters had made that childhood bleed out of her at she sat on it. Preserving that chance of childhood, fighting for the right of children not to be anything but children, in any way they wanted to live that childhood, as long as they are not harmed, not abused, that’s what we were fighting for. That’s what made us do this work. That’s why we braved going out in the streets looking for Reena.

We couldn’t find her begging at the coffee shop that Shaymaa had spotted her in a while ago, so we began asking the other children if the had seen her. The words coming out surreal: “Habeeby (sweetheart) have you seen a girl with uncombed hair, roaming, talking to herself, she looks and acts a bit mad”. I have so many reservations about the vocabulary we are using. I don’t want us to use the word “mad”. I don’t want us to describe her hair the way we have, reducing her to a habit or hairstyle. But the restricted code the children are used to talking in, the small number of minutes we have with them before a street adult appears and we put them and ourselves in danger, are all limited and so “uncombed hair, mad girl, talking to herself” will have to do.

I advocate for street children a lot. I am always humbled by what they teach me, not about the academic subject matter, but about life and friendship. I actually mean that. After my first year of the PhD, I ripped my university cards and created my own ones that read, “I go to university to teach and I go to Street Kids to learn”. The children we spoke to on the street that day taught me about caution and looking out for the less fortunate. To be a child on the street was unfortunate, to be a child on the street with uncombed hair, mad and talking to yourself, was even more so.

The first child we spoke to, wearing oversized, olive coloured overalls and slippers so small all his toes were actually on the ground, was pulling a big rubbish cart behind him. He was from the Zabaleen area in Cairo (an epic percentage of recycling goes on in this secluded area of 600,000 Christian Copts, and poverty and marginalisation and disease – many documentaries are available that I urge you to look at… It always surprises me how many Egyptians don’t know about this place and it’s incredible struggle and history). When we asked him about Reena, his first questions were why we wanted her and who we were. Only when he was satisfied that we were there to help her, he told us he knows who we were talking about, but that she answered to a different name, was working for Sheeba, the street adult that the kids in this area worked for, the he made her work all night and we could find her sleeping on “that” street corner from 7am because that’s when she came after her “work” was finished.

We asked a few other children, the name they all gave us was the same, and all the children making sure it was safe to share her information with us before talking. One child stood out for me. Realising we could help “mad” people he said “look, I don’t honestly know where or when you can find her, it depends on her work you know and how long they keep her. But, I’ll tell you something… There’s an old man that I can point you to, he’s mad and he talks to himself. Do you think you can help the poor thing too?” My heart cracked at the caring spirit of this boy who could not have been older than 7 or 8, with torn slippers and faded trousers and dimples that shone when he smiled, the child who on stumbling on potential help asked for nothing for himself and wanted us to help the older man who he felt such pity for. I ached at the potential within this human being to love society and others and I prayed that some change in circumstance would happen to preserve that spirit and not replace it with the bitterness and justified vindictiveness with which this kindness is often replaced.

Though we didn’t find Reena that night, we spoke to many children telling them about the shelters and the work we do. We let them know they can drop by and eat and play and leave when they want to. This in itself, the outreach work is important. But then, what of Reena?

Do I need to even say how society and structural violence let down Reena as a child? Do I need to talk about the lack of alternative care and social services that weren’t there to step in when Reena’s parents got a divorce and her stepmother started burning her for satisfaction? Where were the official documents that her uncle (didn’t) use to sign her into that orphanage when she was 6 years old telling the shelter her parents had died and they had to take her in. He was a man with good intentions kidnapping her from her father and stepmother because of the physical signs of torture on her body… Where was the orphanage staff when she started spending nights outside the shelter at 11? Where were social services when she gave birth at 15? Where were the mental health institutions and support when her child was either sold, killed, lost or actually had died? And how many of us are guilty of walking hurriedly past tens of Reenas in the street, blaming the children for “running away”?

The reason we were looking for Reena was because when I heard her story, I looked for, and found someone who could help us with the mental health problems of the children I work with in a humane and compassionate manner; two qualities that are incredibly scarce in the world of street children and those with mental health illnesses. I found one such human. We’ll find Reena and we’ll convince her to come with us and we’ll meet her with the psychiatrist who’ll look after her and we’ll help her move into an institution where she can be protected from the harshness of the street. But, is that good enough?

Saving one child at a time is not the goal. The goal is fighting for a system that doesn’t need to save kids because it’s so amazing it already protects them from things they need to be saved from! That’s the goal; lobbying for a change in the structure and services and outlook and attitude. But I’ll tell you what; I’m going to take my own advice “don’t be ashamed of doing little, because little is more than nothing”. So until we can reach that goal, there’s definitely no harm helping one child at a time.

A Photo Essay: Street Children – The Achievements where Little is More than Nothing.

This post will be regularly updated to collect the happy moments that the children enjoy as a result of all your incredibly responses to this blog – thank you for being the alternative world, a world we’ve created to work parallel to the one that subjects these children to daily oppression and violence.

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This photo will forever remain incredibly dear to my heart… It was taken this week after the SAFE team had delivered training to my street babies on how to protect their bodies from sexual abuse and had just received their certificates of completing the training Thank you Sara Aziz and your lovely team for agreeing to deliver the training completely free to the shelter… i love you xxx

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Perhaps nothing in the world that I have done, or will ever do, could feel as good as being able to facilitate this… This is the angel reconstructive surgeon who generously invited me and my street girls to remove the scars I often talk about… I have blurred the girls face for obvious reasons… He performs these procedures for free… these are my alternative communities and the reason why I don’t fundraise. Up till 2012 Dr Hany Hamam had performed 137 reconstructive surgeries free to Libyan and Syrian refugees… he has since then also honoured my requests that he extend his offer to children who get bitten by stray dogs in Cairo, but are not necessarily street children. The one glimpse of heaven on earth, is to fight a losing cause; and not lose it.

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The great Rugby club in Egypt, moved by the blog offered training, donations and access to their grounds for the street kids they met.

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Mia who once wrote to me saying: “Hi Nelly, I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan of your work with street children and I was wondering if there is anyway I can help.” Mia has since been a reliable and dedicated friend and art teacher not just to the one girl I was looking for a mentor for, but to the street girls at shelter more generally. The feedback from the girls has been wonderful. It always means so much to them to have volunteers. They told me knowing people helped them for no money was the closest thing they felt to having good family. Mia is another beautiful example of how skills, and not money, build a more beautiful world, how we have the power to create kinder alternative communities to the ones we sometimes find hateful or unsatisfactory. Thank you Mia for helping me still believe in this world and for not just reading the blog and thinking it’s a sad world but for getting in touch and giving your all. You literally made the world a better place xx

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I personally believe that one of the best things that we can give these children, beside the basic rights and services, is love. The comfort and love that Shariff shares with the children is next to none… You honour and humble me with your gentleness towards the children and it’s no wonder you are able to calm the most irritable and comfort the most distressed of them… I love you for this xx

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A beautiful photo of the hands of little children in Canada and the bracelets they have been making for me to give to the other beautiful street kids that I meet along the way… what a happy moment this is to know that little hearts across the continents are touched and giving to other little souls so far away… These little children were so touched by the stories of street children in Egypt that I shared and wanted to make something they could post and that would be easy for me to carry around… They have an afternoon club called HOPE (helping other people everywhere) and they make stuff to sell for local charities… their project this time was for the street kids

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When the coldest winter hit Cairo, I used the blog and social media to ask everyone to share their winter clothes with the street children… An incredible effort started and the people involved are too many to even start to mention here… but the photo shows where the clothes were collected in London (thank you Judy and Tara) and packed and organised in Cairo (Thank you Ahmed Nader)… and the getting them from one country to another involved strangers and friends and everyone was just incredible with this… special thanks to Rabia, Tom, Su Zee who carried luggage… and all those who donated their kids clothes!!!

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The night before my wedding party in Cairo, I was at the hair dressers getting my hair done (yes, the local one, the night before lol|). Afterwards, at around 11.30pm I was meeting Nawara, Roba and Shady for the first time three angels who had been reading my blog who I had never had the pleasure of meeting before. After a couple of hours sharing some stories of the street children I had known, after they were moved to both laughter and tears, we agreed they would visit the shelter to meet the street children. What they did not know at this point was that I always have a filtering session with people while I was in Egypt to make sure the children would not be “used” by anyone for their work and projects (a decision I had taken when I dedicated my time away from PhD research to make sure I could give back to the children and not use them as mere subjects for my PhD data). But I loved Nawara, Shady and Roba. I loved the passion with which they spoke of their plans. Caravan – the group of story tellers and performances these three were part of, planned to engage university students, amateur story tellers, with the street children to tell their stories. A few sessions were arranged at the boys and girl’s shelters. None of the children’s stories were changed or edit. 13 children’s stories were told with the exact words and expressions chosen by the children, creating a new avenue for the most marginalised voices to be given a window of expression to an audience that would normally not have access to it. It was only when Shariff came looking for me and said “we’re getting married in a few hours, do you wanna go home get some rest” that I had to leave and that they realised I had a wedding in a bit But I left my heart and passion with the three who did an incredible job and something I am so proud of having somehow contributed to just by writing a blog, and they took this, turning it, through their weeks of practice and hard work into something extremely real, extremely valid and credible. One of the beautiful reflections made by the team was team: “By the end of the rehearsals period and performance date, we were able to identify a conceptual change to the tellers personal commitment towards the kids and their stories, and to identify with the show as an ethically challenging responsibility towards those kids and the acknowledgement that by telling these stories we are only connecting dotes between the young boys and girls and an audience of not more than 150 attendees.”

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The ability and the opportunity to inspire people into action, is an incredible gift.. The photo below is of two 14 year olds in America that I have never met. The children have been reading my blog posts on street girls and were moved into action. Diana, one of these 2 girls wrote to me over the last few months on how her and her church friends spent their spring break baby sitting, doing yard work and “hiring (themselves) out” to raise enough money to buy feminine hygiene stuff to put these bags together for each one of the street girls at the shelter. They’ve asked me to find a way to get these bags across so the children I work with know that other children think of them, care about them and are working towards helping them in some way. In the midst of all the horrific statuses and news and pictures shared on Facebook these days, these photos and this status are equally important. This is a reminder that you can inspire and be inspired and that you have the power to do and not just be ‘done to’… There is still good in this world; if you can’t find it or see it, then do it and be it.

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This photo was drawn by a girl who has been raped by her step father since she was nine years old. The incredibly brave mother gave up the little security she had in the form of a home and husband and having no shelter to turn to, left to the streets with Amal and her 4 sisters. The sisters got separated in different shelters catering for different ages, while the mother searched for a hospital who would issue a report saying Amal was no longer a virgin due to rape, so she could be admitted to a shelter. Having been subjected to two virginity checks at their local hospital where her step father worked, he was able to bribe the administration to change the report. Amal’s mother did not give up and took her daughter to a different town and after the third virginity check, Amal was admitted to Hope Village for Young Street Mothers (a shelter that homes non virgin girls – and yes, this split is necessary in a culture where a woman’s value is hinged on a thin membrane between her legs). Each of the girls was at a different shelter and their mother had nowhere to turn to but the streets, highlighting another gap in services that vulnerable women in Egypt must face. After reading the post about this girl, an amazing human in Egypt paid a very long period of rent upfront and we bought the woman off the streets and she is now in her own home with her daughters around her again – I’m currently working with Esraa on getting her trained on a handy craft so she can generate her own income.

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I received a call about a girl in Alexandria that was burnt so badly her bones were showing through. 3rd degree burns in over 80% of her body meant she was a liability to any hospital. Added to that was the fact she was a street girl so had no papers or ID. After 6 hours of media pressure, I received a call from the Minister of Social Solidarity who assured me that in the morning, an ambulance would pick the girl up and take her to hospital for admission. True to their words, the girl was admitted, her daughter allowed to visit and she has been promised a kiosk to be able to live off once she’s recovered. Thank you Nesma for being affected to get the right people on board :)

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Donna Coyle is one of the beautiful souls who having read about the street girls in my blogs got in touch to offer to be a part of this parallel world we create Since being in touch, Donna has faithfully and regularly visited the street girls shelter, after getting her friends to donate shampoos and creams. She arrives with her gifts to pamper the girls, do their hair and also teach them the skill of hair dressing so that they may pick it up and maybe earn an independent living from it themselves… Thank yoy Donna for reminding me of the absolute beauty that humanity still has to offer us… and on a personal note, thank you for giving a very real meaning to the impact of the work I do that sometimes leaves me frustrated, heart broken and poor you remind me it’s all worth it xxx

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a few days before Eid, one of the older girls asked me what time I would be arriving on the day of festivities… then she stopped speaking and looked at me for a moment before saying “Of course you’re not going to come… you have family and friends outside of here that you’ll be spending the day with”… She had shamed me without knowing because I hadn’t thought about Eid or who I would be spending it with… but in the end, me, Shariff and Adelazim bought the kids gifts and balloons and spent the day with them… it was the best Eid ever!

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After a day out, the little ones in the shelter who are starting their first day at school, were trying on their school uniforms bought by the lovely May AbdelAzim. New starts and hopefully a new life where these little ones can be spared the pain of their mothers… Also… thank you for the IceCream trip that was made to the kids :)

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It’s such an incredible achievement that this blog is being read in over 172 countries by over 105,000 people… The amount of awareness raised and help shared through it has been incredible… thank you xx

Street Children: The Hymen and the Stamp of Shame

I sat rocking baby Summer, I held her vertically so that she could lay her head on my chest while I hugged her in her entirety. The rocking and the hug were calming me. As my tears fell on her face, she began to smile at the funny feeling of teardrops touching her skin. Despite the burning pit of anger, fear and pity they came from, these droplets must not have landed on her cheeks with the cruelty of the blood her whole body was covered in only moments earlier. She reached out with her little fingers that, unlike other babies, were rough, covered in rashes, to touch my eyes. This was a huge achievement for baby Summer who’s been receiving physiotherapy; calcium deficiency and crooked bones make it difficult to sit up, reach and hold things. The baby who had not completed her first year smiled looking right into my eyes. It broke my heart that she was smiling. I kept whispering to her how sorry I was. How incredibly sorry I was that I could not save her. I repeated it over and over again to the child now smiling, unaware that her mother, who was also still a child, was packing their well-worn hand-me-downs and would spend the night on the street; that if her mother did not leave her at the shelter, she would be her begging tool.

Today I learnt that I was braver than I thought, and that I was more of a coward than I had thought. Life as you live it every day limits this self-discovery. Only when you are pushed into the depth of darkness of human nature, when you are exposed to the rawness of human cruelty, pain and fear do you discover who you really are. I have been working with street children for a while. As a writer, you will notice that I have not written about the children, even on my blog. It has become too personal, I become too angry at the writing because of how sensational it may unintentionally sound. I want to protect the children I have grown to love and their stories from reducing them to words. No matter how skilled you are, no matter how much excellence you have in the craft of writing, you can never do justice in portraying the injustice of life and humans towards these children.

But I want to write today. Not because I have gained some extra writing skill over night, and not just because there is a societal concern and lesson from the incident I will write about, but because I have not been able to stop crying. I have not been able to sleep. Because, selfish as we humans are, I need to escape. It is no lie, no exaggeration when I tell you, reader, I am dipping the pen into my heart, and the blood of it, is the ink that writes this post.

The shelter today had a different vibe. The more I go, the more natural things seem to be, the less acting “happy family” there is. Today there is an “institution” feeling bouncing off the walls, each for their own, survival of the fittest. I am taken aside by Shaimaa, the shelter psychologist who has been working with street girls for over six years. She asked me not to give Shosho the headphones she has asked for because she listens to her mp3 all night and she doesn’t hear her two month old baby cry and so doesn’t feed her. I hear past what is being said and wonder how many girls are unlike Shosho, who have all the comfort and safety in the world to listen to their music when and how they wish, who do not have their an eye poked out by parents who abused her for being a disabled child with Parkinson’s, who have not had to prostitute themselves in the street for survival. This could have been a topic on it’s own for a blog, really. But Shaimaa went on to tell me that she was worried for the safety of Laila. Laila was the only virgin at the shelter.

Usually, the virgin girls are separated from the street mothers. The virgin’s are kept at 10th Ramadan Shelter for girls and Moqattam is home to the young mothers and their babies. Before working with the children, I was horrified at the split, I condemned the NGO for it’s segregation and joined a human rights campaign meeting where we, well meaning good doers tutted and shook our heads pointing fingers at the NGO heads who had taken this decision. Today, I went home understanding why this decision needed to be made, and that you had to start somewhere else. You had to start with society before you could keep the girls safe together. I understood today how very sick our society was. We are a hypocritical society concerned with which hand we should teach our children to eat with so that the devil doesn’t eat with them, who point out how heinous it is to walk through the door with our left foot while we forget the children that eat with their right hands out of the rubbish bins and we turn a blind eye on the children who get walked over with both feet. In the name of religiosity people condemn the broken hymen regardless of the circumstances a girl will carry that burden to her grave.

Shaimaa told me that she was worried Laila will be attacked by the girls tonight who were conspiring to break her hymen. Laila is due to get married in a few months. In a society that judges a girl’s suitability as a wife and mother based on a hymen that is in tact, this would be a catastrophe for Laila who would be rejected by her fiancé and will be sentenced to a different life than the one she wants. The hymen, even if broken in an attack by other girls who decide that they would seek justice by destroying something that was valuable to a girl who had been spared their trauma, the hymen, broken, was a stamp of shame to the girl in a society that kids itself into thinking it is pious, kind and merciful.

In the group session, things today were different. None of the girls were asked how she feels. Instead, sat in the circle we always sit in, we went round, each of the girls being asked to explain what was different in the shelter the last four days. Each girl said that Laila was annoying her. When asked how or why, no one gave any concrete answer, no one could put their finger on the reason. Sarah said “Laila is a clean freak, she can’t see something dirty and shut her mouth, but does she think she can remind us to clean just because she’s a virgin and better than us?” Pregnant Rania said “I could pay 500 pounds and come back to you tomorrow a virgin and better than Laila.” Maha said, “Laila annoys me, I don’t know why she just annoys me I don’t want her to talk to me”. Maha is a new arrival at the shelter that has been in many institutions since she was 5 years old. It unfolds in the end that Maha is responsible for planting the idea of attacking Laila. I am shocked at this because she appears the quietest, the sweetest of the lot. The same story about Laila is repeated till we get to Maya. During the time I have spent at the shelter I have noticed Maya has two voices, one she uses when she wants something and is trying to act feminine, and another when she is being defensive, when her body language is like that of a wounded animal. She was using this voice now. That was not a good sign. She said, “I hate Laila, she is better than me, I know she is better than me and I hate her”. Shaimaa told her she admired her honesty but that we should work with that and find out where that feeling was coming from and what made her feel Laila was better than her. She was not getting a response and so she said, “So far you’ve all spoken and I don’t feel there is any valid reason why you have all ganged up against Laila”.

At this, Maya stood up pointing her finger right between Shaimaa’s eyes telling her “I don’t need a gang to help me deal with Laila, I will give you institutions here, I will break her so she is like us, so she is not better than me, I will show you what real institutions are like. I will do it on my own, I don’t need anyone’s help, you can lock her in a cell and I’ll still break her.” At this, she stormed out of the circle, she grabbed baby Summer by one arm slamming her into the wall as she stormed passed, tore the curtain that separates the humble living area and the bedrooms. Shaimaa got up and asked all the girls to sit on the other side of the room. They all obliged, not saying a word. Everyone was somber but no one looked worried. I sat where I was, right in front of that curtain. I usually am one good for emergencies. Maya has grown attached to me and I’ve been used often to encourage her to behave well, I sat praying this friendship would support me in helping her. She appeared out of the bedroom with something in her hands that she unwrapped and threw the wrapper on the floor so we could see it had seconds ago covered a blade. When Maya grabbed Summer off the floor I got up to take the baby but Shaimaa told me not to, that Maya would harm the baby if we gave her attention. Shaimaa banged on the toilet door and told Maya she can cut herself, but not to hurt the baby. As Maya stormed out of the bathroom, we all tried to get the blade out of her hand, I kept saying, “for me Maya, for me, we all love you”. You could tell from the way her eyelids drooped she was not hearing us.

The shelter manager was called for. Maya returned to her room waving the blade in the air, dripping blood as she moved from the bathroom to the bedroom, she leaned on the wall covering it with blood. As soon as the shelter manager walked in, she stripped her clothes off so that he would leave. He walked out waiting for her to put something on. I told him we needed the baby out of there. Shaimaa walked in, I walked in behind her, as soon as she saw us, she took Summer and swung her across the room, the baby landed on the floor, her face and body were covered in blood. I grabbed the baby and as I picked her Maya came for me, I crouched over Summer in the corner, and Shaimaa screamed for Sami to come in, Maya had just slashed Shaimaa’s arm with the razor. I guess he saved us by storming in and slapping Maya. I took the baby and ran out almost crawling on the floor. But as soon as I had passed those curtains back into the living room, I froze. I carried Summer away from her, blood dripping off her, I could not move.

A younger child came up to me and said “we have to fix her, come to the bathroom”. I followed this little human who appeared far braver, far more experienced than I was, she skillfully held the baby over the sink and cleaned her, she told me where the antiseptic was, I went to get it and we covered the baby in it. We dressed her, and I sat with her back in my chair where Maya could see her child as she went back and forth. I could tell she was sad for Summer; she wanted to make sure she was ok. I was going to give her that. Sarah sat next to me. She said, “this reminds me of the institute days. But this is much better, in the institute; there were at least four girls who cut themselves every night. You don’t get help like you do here, its just girls after 4pm, there’s no supervision after that, so the girls wait till we’re all alone. You need to try and not learn that. You know, she can’t feel the pain at all; it’s like a chronic illness. What day is it? 10th September? It’s a black day, my mother was born on the same day.”

Shaimaa asked Sarah to help. Sarah, without saying a word got up and in seconds had Maya held against the wall. Such skill, so fast, so effective. These children had fought for survival, this was clear. They held Maya to the wall as they emptied her pockets to make sure she wasn’t hiding anything else she could hurt herself with. Stripped now to her bra and trousers, the scars across her stomach were clear. As she swore at them, telling them they shouldn’t waste their time with her, but go to the virgin they all loved, Shaimaa kept stroking her head telling her she loves her, that she cares about her, that she wouldn’t leave her till she cleaned the wounds and bandaged her.

Maya waited till they helped her, but she felt that she had to go through with what she had started and she packed her stuff to leave. There is no law in Egypt that can help us stop Maya taking her child and leaving. Child protection laws in Egypt mean Shaimaa hears her neighbour electrocuting their son every night and there is nothing she can do to help him. Maya came up to me shaking saying she was sorry I had seen this, she said “you came here to find out about us, there is nothing you can find out in those stupid conversations and interviews of yours, this is us, this is our life, this is the real story.” She hugged me. I, articulate as many think I am, could not say anything but, “please don’t hurt Summer”.

We sat in reception downstairs watching Maya leave. She had been in the shelter for years. They were all sure she was coming back, she’d done this before. Everyone was exhausted. I sat in awe of Shaimaa, arm now bandaged, Sami who had hugged Maya after hitting her sat justifying why he had to slap her across the face, worried that my zero tolerance to violence towards the girls would mean I would sit here judging him. Maher, the manager who had been called in, smoking, planning the session he was going to have with the girls to make sure Laila was safe that night. None of what happened had sunk in. I said, “where’s Jude, Mirna and Menna? I was here when their mother came to take them three weeks ago for two days for a Eid family visit, why aren’t they back?” I was concerned most for four year old Jude who has hepatitis C and recently developed a lump in her head. Shaimaa answers, “Family visit? Hmm. When they stop bringing in money from begging she’ll get tired and drop them back off.”

Flames of Cruelty; Setting Fire to Childhood

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Fire. That seemed to be the common theme of my work with street girls in the short visit I made to Egypt this time round. Flames. Burns. Scars. Pain. Fire.

I asked Shaymaa what her name was, the little new arrival that I had not seen there before. She couldn’t have been more than two. She stood with her little crisp packet away from everyone. She hadn’t run to the boxes Shariff had bought, like the other little ones had, she stood and waited. Noor was the one who gave her a packet – I love watching the little ones share, perhaps it’s they who heal one another because no one knows, like them, what needs to be healed and how. She opened it up for her too. Little Hannah stood right where she was given the packet and ate, not making eye contact with anyone, not saying anything, and not making the happy sounds the others were making when excited.

I asked her name and the answer was, “we think it’s Hannah, we spent three weeks calling her by all the names we could think of, but when we said Hannah, she looked at me”. I called the little human by the name she had responded to and asked her to come to me. She came, limping, heavy bodied, the toddler walked towards me like she was a 100 years old. When I lifted her on my lap, she also felt heavy; I am not sure whether it was her physical weight, or the weight of whatever it was that she had suffered. It immediately became clear that she had suffered. Copying the other babies on my lap and around me that were trying to share their crisps by ramming them in my mouth, I saw her little fingers make their way up to my lips, and they stood out between the others. Hannah had not nails. My stomach turned. “No, no please no”. I could hear those words shooting to my brain and those damned tears that I try to control escape. I quickly play with Noor so I don’t stop being helpful.

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These are different hugs I give her. So many sorries in small embraces like this. I try to hold her in a way that I will so much love to transfer from me to her, to make up for whatever happened. To last her for whatever is yet to come. Hannah breaks me in a way I haven’t felt before. Shaymaa tells me she’ll tell me how she arrived at the shelter later – on our way to take baby Amy to the reconstructive surgeon for her own burns and scars and those stubborn physical reminders of similar abuse that Hannah has endured. And I am left with “How?! And Why?!”. Two small words which seem so difficult for either the activist or the academic in me to answer.

Hannah had arrived at the shelter with a police officer. She was quickly taken to hospital because there did not seem to be a single bone in her body that was not broken, or piece of skin not burnt. She was plastered and wrapped from neck to toe, with only one little opening for her to go to the toilet. The police knew nothing except that a street dog had pulled her out of a rubbish dump and a bawaab (a building porter) had taken her to the police. That’s it. That’s her story – a few words written by a stranger, a few lines that hold so much torture and abuse and paid and betrayal. How can she have been betrayed so much by every power and force and being meant to protect her? The reason she couldn’t speak back to me was because whoever had tortured her, had burnt her tongue.

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Sometimes I fold. I crumble out of my own selfishness at how stories like this make me react. But it’s not really a story you know, reader. It’s flesh I’ve held, a hint of a smile from stitched lips that were directed at me, it’s a little nail-less finger that made it’s way into my mouth to share it’s food with me, it’s beautiful, big, brown eyes that look at me with a void look that I am free to make my imagination reign with stories of what it could be telling me. So this is not a story, it’s Hannah’s life.

I am sorry this post is more emotional than how I have tried to write before, sorry that my heart and tears and soul bleed on every word I have typed here, but it’s all so raw, so fresh, so real. It’s alive inside the walls of these shelters, on the pavements that are so much kinder than family cruelty. How terrible that there is no need to exaggerate, no need to horrify; but to tell things as they are, in a reality that shames me of being human, that keeps me up, that paralysis my hope. Yet, a reality that shows sparks of humanity coming together again when people give up their time and skills to soothe. The shelter driver driving us four hours, unpaid on his time off, Shaymaa coming to keep us company even though she has left her job and is unpaid, Amira, who accompanied Amy from Alex, so she could have someone she’s familiar with on her trip to the doctor, the doctor himself, who opened the doors of his clinic to us on his day off so we could have it all to ourselves. Humanity.

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Dr Hany has seen Amy and she is on a four-month treatment plan of creams we got as instructed (thank you Samah), that will soften her skin so that when the reconstructive surgery is performed the skin will be able to stretch. I’ve found an ENT doctor who will see to the puss and infection in her eardrum caused by the hole the monsters drilled in it. Hannah too I have started with her, the incredible Sally Toma (psychiatrist) has volunteered to see her on Saturday to work on her trauma, and will let me know what other care she needs and of course I will campaign for it to be available to her. Sima (the girl who had 3rd degree burns on 80% of her body and hospitals refused to admit her till I managed to get her case to the attention of the ministry) received the care she needed in hospital and the Minister of Social Solidarity called me and told me she will get a monthly allowance and a kiosk to be able to support herself and her little baby.

I may have been able to help and coordinate the healing of physical scars, only the surface of what the flames set to these children have marred, but what of their childhood? Their trust is humans? What of their very soul as they were tortured helpless and hopeless by the only people at those moments who were able to help them? It’s time Egypt, really, really, really, really it is, for alternative care in Egypt to step up and provide safe havens for children like Hannah and Amy and Sima – and the so many others we still haven’t reached. But I’ll tell you what, I kind of wont stop till I make their pains and their screams and tears, as the fires consume them, heard by you.

Fire picture from: http://thomaszinsavage.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/FIRE-2-GENERIC.jpg

Update on Taghreed – From Rape by her Father, to Street Gang Rape, to Torture in Institutions, To a Happy End

Good morning world… some good news…

The street girl who I went to visit last week in prison, is out! And it’s her first day at a new job today :)

I also arranged for her first three months and a deposit on a one bedroom flat to be paid till she starts getting her monthly salary to continue paying it herself. She will be taking her 18 month old to stay with her.

Nothing makes me as happy as working with the street girls into independent living :)

It’s often rare to get all the way to this, and it’s not easy… it’s taken years to get Taghreed this far with ups and downs and constant uphill struggles, getting rid of the abuse (emotional, physical and sexual) of her father, the abuse of the system that had her endure epic levels of physical punishment and torture in “correctional” institutions, never living in a home to know what it is we were trying to reintegrate her into, being slashed in the face with a knife to carry a rape scar when she offered herself to 6 rapists to spare a new girl on the street that was a virgin, to the hospital abuse she suffered when she went in to give birth to her son without a husband….

So in my eyes it’s understandable that she wasn’t really hot on joining this society in the first place and it’s understandable that she didn’t work hard with us at times, and I get it that she always thought we’d abandon her and let her down so she would leave us first, and it’s okay that she relapsed and went back to the street a thousand times.

But it’s about having people in your life that never give up on you and are always there… that’s what me and Shaymaa have tried to be to her. The tears she usually keeps so guarded – so guarded that only one escaped silently while she was getting the stitches out of her cheeks and wouldn’t hold my hand, but they flowed on the prison visits and despite her saying she was sorry she put us in a position to visit her in that horrible place, the force with which she hugged us and the gratitude she spoke with for having someone there, makes me prepared to make that trip a hundred times over.

But there are so many others that we call on for support…. so thank you Dr Hany Hamam for helping her get rid of the facial rape scar, thank you Nadia for sorting out the flat and a thank you to Shaymaa’s cousin who offered her a job when it’s terribly difficult to integrate the girls back into a society that’s always so scared, harsh, skeptical of them. What a great team effort that was done here…

And though my days and nights have been scarred by those prison visits over the last two weeks… it’s such a small price to pay that she knows that someone is ready to go to the pits of hell for her.

She starts a new life today.

Today I’m happy.

Looking into Fairyland – Street Kids in Ankara

This was just a photo status I shared on Facebook, but decided to add it to my blog so it can be a cheerful post on Street kids documented alongside the other posts that often are far more painful…

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النهارده في تركيا…  الصورة الأولى 3 أولاد بيتفرجوا على الملاهي من بره… الصورة التانية بعد ما جبتلهم ايس كريم و تذاكر الملاهي :) بحب اطفال الشوارع

So I took the photo on the left… three little street boys in Ankara looking from a telescope on the rides in “Luna Park” at the other children with their parents. From the outside you can hear a merging of children’s screams and laughter and the loud music of the rides.

Then the photo on the right is of the three of them on the way to the entrance after I bought them some icecream and tickets to the fair ground. I had waited till they were gone, but they turned around at that moment to smile and wave :)

Three little boys in Turkey are having a great day in dedication to you because I was inspired by Shady ‘ s #documenting_for_yara and on your wall of happiness in prison I wanted the smiled of the three boys to bring you joy…

A special thanks to the ice cream vendor who played magic tricks with the cones which had the boys giggling shyly… thank you, ice cream man for treating them like children xx

As for me… The moments spent with these three cheerful humans have been the best thing about my trip to Turkey :)

Never shy away from doing little… because little is more than nothing

This one is for you Yara… #FreeYara

Street Children: Courts of Law and not Courts of Justice.

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When I first saw her, she frightened me.

It wasn’t the line of flesh hanging from her cheek (that I later learnt was a rape scar), neither was it the deep coarse voice that took me by surprise as soon as she started to speak. She didn’t frighten me because she shoved me back a little when I reached in to kiss her on the cheeks like I had greeted the other girls, saying, “I don’t like anyone kissing me” – it was my second day at the shelter and I was still naïve. This pregnant teenager unnerved me, because she was everything opposite to what I had known children to be.

And maybe it’s because she was the one that frightened me the most, that two years later, after a series of events and moments full of stories, that she is today, one of the street girls who is dearest to my heart.

She’s the girl I travelled three hours with to the cosmetic surgeon, the first of many girls who had their rape scars removed by him. She was the girl who walked into his surgery proudly presenting a candle she had made from scratch and wrapped for him – her only way of saying thank you “not for taking away the wound”, she said, “but for treating me like a human being”. She was the girl who made us laugh when we were on a bus transferring donated clothes to the baby’s shelter by hanging out of the door showing me how she used to call out for passengers when she was a call girl on the microbuses – the days everyone thought she was a boy. She was the girl who stopped eating for three days because one of the shelter babies had been taken away by her mother to beg with. She was the girl, who over time would hug and kiss me every time I walked in or out of the shelter. She was the girl who asked me “Does Shariff hit you? You know if he does, I have your back”. She was the girl who, knowing no other way to express her affection, as we were watching TV together, lay on the floor with her head on my feet. She was the girl who cried after her scar was removed because “my friends who are still on the street wont have this opportunity”. She was the girl whose son at the shelter was never seen not smiling. She was the girl who taught me about loyalty and friendship and healing.

Today she is the girl who starts serving time in jail. Her offence: begging

I try hard not to be a hypocrite. You know, I think: Okay, begging and homelessness are criminal offences, so yes, she must pay for her crime and be punished. But are things so superficial that my questioning should be satisfied at this level, or else I be labeled a hypocrite?! Because if it really were about fairness and justice, if it were about social contracts and law and order, then many other people in her life, personal and official, should be behind bars instead of, or with her, for their part and their influence on the life events that make begging an option, let alone the “better” one.

These people would include her father and mother who gave birth to her on the street, whom she fears so much she wets herself at 16 years old, when she sees them. With them would be the man who fathered her son by having sex with a minor and then leaving her to her own devices, taking to responsibility for their child, who appeared two years later and convinced her to leave the shelter but abandoned her again once she was on the streets. I’d also like the doctor’s who delivered her child in those prisons too, for humiliating her during labour, for not asking if it was okay for 27 student doctors to check her dilation, for telling her not to scream and had she not thought about this before sleeping around. In there too would be all those who work at the governments “correctional institutions” where, serving time for being “vulnerable to delinquency” she experienced even more sadistic levels of abuse and violence than those she found on the street – from being tied to the beds and beaten with the wooden planks, to being kicked in the face by supervisors who told her they were doing her a favor by keeping her off the streets, to hours of police beatings that they would randomly carry out when they would come in, lock the doors and “serve justice” as they saw fit, when reports of virgin girls in the buildings being raped were made to them. Yes, I would like to see all those individuals and institutions charged and behind bars.

But the courts and prisons are about law (at best) and never about justice are they. And so the weak will continue to be the easy target for those whose job it is to demonstrate the system works. Those who really have offended, will continue to offend because it’s too much hassle to deal with them and because they are the ones in power translating justice into practices that the poor and the outcasts can’t comprehend or object to. So no reader, no I’m not hypocritical to be angry that she is serving this time in prison. I am not hypocritical to say she does not deserve to be behind bars – at least not alone.

She was waiting to see me when I went back to Egypt. Shaymaa was sorting out a job for her at the bakery; we were in conversations about how best to support her during that transition from shelter to independent living. But who are we in the system to make those sorts of life changing decisions? I’ll be visiting her in prison this time round… a prison in Egypt where, these days, seems full of the most beautiful people I’ve known.

(^Picture from http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/prisoners-voting-rights-democracy-criminal-justice-workshop-1.180575)

David Maidment: Founder of Railway Children, Inspirational

This world is full of  amazing human beings. Yesterday I met David who is one of them for sure.

A gentle man in his 70’s, awarded an OBE for his services for British Rail, David meets me in the court yard of the British Library, enthusiastically handing me a signed copy of one of his books ‘The Other Railway Children’. The next 2 hours fly by. Animated and full of stories of his travels and what he recites as coincidences and luck, which are actually strokes of genius and dedication, David tells me many stories that leave me inspired and I wanted to just give you a glimpse of that world.

He says “so when I was looking for a partner in India they told me me, wait till you hear what Matthew’s been up to!”. David starts by telling me about how Matthew, as an 11 year old had crumbled under the academic pressure and expectation his father (a docror at the time), had placed on him. The little boy ran away from home, was in and out if trouble with the police for years, sleeping in railway stations and ended up as teenager going to India as a page boy with a band and stayed there. During his time in India he had made friends with many of the street children there, sharing with them a history that they had in common. One night two little boys came knocking at the door, one withered by malaria. Matthew took them in and saw the little boy better. A month later, he had 6 street boys living with him, a couple month more and he had welcomed over 20 street boys in his home.

A little over whelmed he spoke to the children and told them he would not afford to keep them all in his home and proposed they all move together to another city in India where he could afford a bigger place for less money. The 23 of them moved the next week. Speaking at a local community event, unaware the mayor was present, Matthew spoke of all the skills these young boys had and how helpful they had become to their local community. After the event, the mayor said he’d offer him land for a bigger place. This is when David was linked to him and a beautiful place for Street boys was built.

Matthew married the social worker that worked in his new home and with the profits of the products sold by the street boys, they all decided to build a similar home for Street girls. Matthew passed away three years ago, his wife runs the girls home and the boy who survived the malaria now runs the boys.

Perhaps among David’s biggest achievements in Railway Children is his work on creating CAB (Children’s Advice Booth).. very early on, maybe 25 years ago, David realised that most of the work being done with street children was after they had settled in their new environment. What he then advocated is the crucial moment that’s being missed, that of the arrival of children, the first few hours on the railways. Recently 2 of the biggest rail stations in India have created CABs where the police, the staff and even passengers are all made aware on how to report and deal with a lone child at the station. Follow the success this proved, 10 new stations will follow this success.

The banker in India who had grown close to the kids who cleaned his car while at work was offered a promotion in Hong Kong. He said he did not want to go because no one would look after the children he’d grown connected to. The bank gave him an ultimatum and he left. His previous customers found out and funded the rest of his work with the children.

David,  who jumps from stories of his midnight round with neighbours helping drunk teenagers get home safely, to what he feels has been the most helpful mentoring of teenagers in local schools who just need, he says someone to show them options and alternatives, his stories about his travels and his passions come to an end with his own conclusion … “I’ll tell you what they need, children need a good listening to!!”