Personal Post: Frustration of Working with “Be Grateful” Charity Mentality

“A Kind Word is Better than a Charitable Deed Followed by Harm” The Holy Qur’an

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The Holy Bible

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” Mother Teresa
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Many of you would have been following my excitement about getting Taghreed a birth certificate. Let me tell you what happened:

A couple got in touch after this blog was posted telling me they were happy to pay for the costs that would see Taghreed through the legal system. This was exciting for the chance this offered us to set a precedence of getting ID for children on the street without the presence of abusive parents. An appointment with the lawyer was set. Taghreed turned up with a social worker and one representative from the couple. Taghreed turned up with no documents, no idea of when/where she was born, what her parents marital status was, what her mother’s real name is and they faced the first hurdle; she could not sign a power of attorney because she had no ID! This caused great frustration to the lady paying for the lawyers time.

I realised a week later that I was “unfollowed” on twitter by the man who got in touch and when I wrote to him saying I hope all was well, this is an extract of what he wrote back:

“You associate yourself to a sad bunch of people…  [the meeting] went extremely bad because of you dealing with the matter in such an unprofessional way. When I originally contacted you, I felt a sense of importance in the case you presented. When my wife explained what happened in the meeting, I realised it was just smoke and mirrors and we both felt being lied to. There is no excuse for not bringing the file that was on the girl to the meeting. The fact that you have lawyers there and no one bothered to meet but the worker coming totally unprepared… well I’m speechless.”

I first want to talk about this very specifically, and then try and deconstruct some “myths” about working with street children.

I do not “associate” myself with anyone. I am a random person who did my research fieldwork in an NGO in Egypt with street children. This NGO, like others, does amazing, incredible, extremely valuable work with children who have endured incredible amounts of disadvantage. They are DEFINITELY NOT a “sad bunch of people”. They are, in fact, an incredibly dedicated, under valued, under paid, under trained bunch of people who believe in a cause that is unfashionable, disappointing and down right dangerous, often putting their lives at risk protecting the children they work with. I found this highly offensive.
The NGO do not have LAWYERS. They have one lawyer who works for the NGO’s legal affairs, not the children. Had you spent some time asking, this is  what you would have found out. I do understand it may be hard when you are a CEO of an international company, living in the most affluent parts of Cairo, to understand that local NGO’s, especially after Jan 25 are working against incredible odds to just feed their dependents and many months “owe” their staff their salary. When help was offered for this girl through the legal process, it was my fault, perhaps, to have not highlighted it was not about the money alone!
From the very first email I had with the lady who went to this meeting, I asked to follow up with the shelter manager, to which I was told off in an email and told that she was offering us a favour and would not chase! I definitely should have stopped at this point.

In a way, I am glad this has happened. It has highlighted the need to critically consider the idea of “charity”, of doing good, of getting involved, and of my responsibility to make sure I do not subject the children that have trusted me to encounter experiences that further victimise them. But before I move on, there is something that baffles me… The person writing said they felt lied to. I am so amazed by this. The complexity of the case, the contradictions, the insecurities and uncertainties of the lives of these children are so out of the ordinary that those who come into contact with them are so uncomfortable that they want to dismiss them as lies? Why would anyone lie to you? I am not sure I understand this bit – what is there to gain from you? What street child would want to go through the legal process just for fun?!

Let me now deconstruct some myths around my work with street children:

Myth Number One: Charity

Street children are not waiting for bread crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. It is important to note this very well before ever working with street children: if you are NOT going to be kind in your dealings with the kids, then it is far better you direct your charity elsewhere. I should have trusted my feeling from the start when the lady told me she was doing us a favour and would not chase. Working with street kids is a struggle, you are fighting for them, against them, with them, despite of them. That’s the reality you should come to them armed with, or like this couple, you will find an excuse to run away from them at the first disappointment.

Two amazing examples of this are my favourite Dr Hany Hamam, the generous and kind cosmetic surgeon who offered Taghreed free cosmetic surgery  a real example of the exact opposite of what these people were. He contacted me to offer his services, chased me with a few emails and every time Taghreed is due for a checkup or a followup operation, he tries to contact the shelter, emails me while I’m out of the country to chase. Someone who really wants to help. Then there’s Dr Ahmed who offered to help the kids who were bitten by the stray dogs. We organised an appointment with someone he asked a favour of, a top doctor in the field and the parents of the kids injured just didn’t turn up. Even though it was not my fault, I emailed him apologetically, his graceful response was “Anytime!! It’s important that the option for them is there”. This gracefulness, I realised, was something not to be taken for granted, and I am honoured that my path has made me encounter these people who feel responsible for the part they should play in a society.

Myth Number Two: Working with street children is gratifying/fulfilling

One of the hardest realities about working with street children is the bitter, painful statistic, that all who work with them try hard not to think of, there is only a 20% success rate in rehabilitating street children. I write about her a lot, Maya… a great example of how society, all parts of it, has deeply let her down; as a child and as a teenager. The NGO has been working with her since she was 7 years old. Maya too was a great disappointment to the social workers who invested so much time, hope, energy, belief in her to wake up one day and find her stir up a scene at the shelter, the same evening gone, now working in prostitution, abandoning her child. I spoke to many of the people working with Maya over the years. Most of them shrugged their shoulders and told me that what was important was that during her time in and out of the shelter, she knew she had them, that she knows, still, that they will be here. That it’s about what they can offer the kids, not what the kids offer them in terms of gratitude. It’s true that all over the world, rehabilitation of street children almost never works. Does that mean we should give up on them? Does that mean we should not give them the little we can afford them of the skills, love, material stuff that we can?

What did they expect Taghreed would turn up with? Taghreed trusts no one, she has never known her mother’s real first name!!! Yes, of course it’s disappointing. But to expect her to turn up suited up for your up market lawyer, with a team of her own lawyers and files and paperwork is naive.

Myth Number Three: Being a Professional

I am NOT a professional. I was quite taken aback by the claim that the couple who had offered their help had decided to withdraw it because of how “unprofessional” I had acted. I had to mull on this for a while. I wondered at which point I was ever deemed a professional in getting a case to the legal system. I am, after all, just an interested academic… an “expert” on street children that happened to write about my experiences working with them that has made this blog popular. I had left the “professional” world in 2010 when I left my role as Project Manager in a risk consultancy company.

While doing my research, I had to pass an ethics committee board to ensure that my work with vulnerable people would be done ethically and cause them and myself no harm. It took seven months to do this. When I finally got the ethics clearance and went to work with the children, I realised that my own ethics clearance would come if I were able to help these children in some way. I could not “pass” my PhD, get a job and then leave them and their stories behind. I am not a professional! I am not employed by anyone, I have not been paid to do my research, I have gotten myself into debt working with street children and I refuse to get paid for anything I write about the kids I have worked with – so definitely that description of me is inaccurate.

The other thing I want to mention is that I am totally thankful and overwhelmed by the response of people and every day I get many, many emails from offering help. I have to admit that I am not as good at dealing with this as I hoped I would be. Many of the people who have written have been able to help, one way or another, they just needed some contacts and got on with the helping themselves. I am not a professional volunteers manager, organiser or anything else of the sort. I have just used my accessibility to channel help towards the kids as it came in – at this point it’s all I can offer in an administrative sense. I am involved in academia and grass root work with the children themselves rather than a administrative professional associated with anyone/thing.

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All being said and done and off my chest, I have to say that I have walked around today with the biggest lump in my throat. The irony is, I received this email of blame at the same time as my last class in a module on childhood where students wrote me a card, mostly calling me “inspirational”. When I spoke to a few of them about what that meant, they said it was about helping them discover what they could do for the children they work with. This is key. That is all I am trying to do here. That what I have set out to do is to raise awareness, to highlight the fact that we are lacking a sense of social, collective responsibility. I am not here to hold anyone’s hand while they do a good deed, to applaud them or to beg from them. At no point was this my intention and it will never be.

I owe Taghreed an apology for letting her experience another event of being let down and abandoned. And I guess for now I have no other way to help her but to bribe her father to come in and help us get her the ID.

5 Comments

  1. What a shame you have to put up with all of this Nelly, on top of all the other stresses you must bear. Just remember though, it’s an indictment of THEM, rather than you. It says much more about their lack of values than your values, and speaks to a sense of entitlement that should have nothing to do with helping others.

    • Thank you for your kindness… I am sure they meant well at heart, but I was very offended at the language used, the lack of questioning what happened and the quick judgement… I was a little taken back because I know the horrors the people working with these kids face on a daily basis and felt responsible for them being called that :(( It’s a hard day for me today… but thank you for the love xx

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