The Stamp of The Street

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Omar is the first street child that I have seen a photo of before he became a street boy. Someone had once said to me that all street children look like each other. Looking at the children I didn’t have a clue what this person was saying, but looking at photos of Omar before and after the street, I see that there is a look on their faces they all share, rather than physical characteristics, a stamp the street leaves on you, of all the horrors you survive on it.

Dr Hany, who had kindly offered to take on Omar’s case as soon as I bought it to him, has a way of dealing with petrified children. And make no mistake, the children I bring him are petrified. They are particularly scared from adults in any position of authority because in their worlds, those responsible for their well being and safety have – always – been the cause of their horrific experiences in such early years. Omar was no different in the fear he displayed, but added to his emotional distress, was a terror that the doctors would amputate his hands and started off reluctant to show his wounds to him. After an admirable display of patience and reassurance by the doctor, showing him photos of previous cases, recounting the happiness at their success, Omar opened up.

For both doctors to tell me the injury was terrible (especially coming from Egyptian doctors who are optimistic even if your head would be rolling between your feet) this was bad news. Omar had suffered 3rd degree chemical burns with complete loss of skin, all his fingers were stuck together becoming one mass and his thumb had been partially amputated. Dr Hany tells me there’s a shortening too of all his tendons and arteries. X-Ray’s and lab tests are being carried out now and the operations (2 or 3 ) will be started within a few days. All this will be done in a private hospital with the best doctor and facilities and Omar will have it all done free (you see, my utopian dream of sharif skills and time and facilities does come true).

A recap on Omar: an 11 year old boy who ran away from home after the violence his father perpetrated towards his sister. In fear Omar left in October taking a train to another city. After his disappearance, his father (a taxi driver) pled with one of his passengers to put Omar’s photo up on Facebook groups for missing children in an attempt to find him. The photo of the smiling, handsome little boy went viral. In February, a kind woman in Alexandria found Omar at the gates of a train station passing out from pain with both hands wrapped in dirty pieces of cloth with what she describes as a nauseating smell coming from them. She tried taking him to two hospitals and was met with failure – the first told her no doctors were present and the second refused to treat him on grounds it was not a new wound and he had no papers. The lady took photos of Omar and uploaded to Facebook missing children in Egypt pages in hope his parents would find him. Despite the changes the streets write on your face (even in just four months) Omar was reunited with his family. He refused to return to his parents and his aunt and her husband came to his rescue and took him in.

Extended family can be such a blessing; as they are in Omar’s case. Despite having his mother and father come with him to the appointment, Omar, who was clearly petrified did not direct a single word towards them. Instead, he seemed the comfort of his aunt and her husband who have been caring for him since he’s come off the street. The father, sat in shame and regret, finally understanding the gravity of what it means to be a violent care giver (oh the irony of those words together), understanding that Omar ran away because of his parenting and is now suffering a disability because of the being on the streets.

Shame on the father whose regret comes too late, and shame on the legal system that doesn’t enforce laws to protect children in vulnerable situations, and shame on the harsh streets that are filled with a mainstream society too self absorbed to reach out to those in need.

But just as our world is filled with disappointments, it is filled with beacons of light that shine so bright they heal the darkness and what it brings. Below are two of those beacons in my and the street children’s worlds. They are two of the reasons I am SO proud of the blog I started for street children that acted as an introduction. I love them with all my heart.

Hany is a well known plastic and reconstructive surgeon. The first blog post I had written a out street children was one about the rape scars the children suffer (the gang who rape them will knife their face – usually a curved scar under the eyes to mark them as no longer being virgins, ‘spoilt goods’ and this scar would result in a thick piece of flesh hanging from their face serving as a reminder of the horror they faced but also as a deterrent to society at every attempt the girls tried to reintegrate back into it). Hany wrote to me numerously, trying to reach me on all platforms and not giving up till I answered. He was offering to perform surgery, free of charge to any and all of the children I worked with who needed this scar removed. The respect and love with I have seen him treat my girls, from  the older children who have been raped to the four year old I once took to him who had been abused by her parents and suffered burns to her chest and pubic areas. He was often the balance in humanity I needed to remember our world was not all bad. That angels lived among us.

Yara, a young, newly graduated doctor, busy studying for her board exams and who lived the other side of the city was there. I had asked her to go because I trusted her with my life and so I trusted her to be the go to person with Omar. She had previously humbled me with her proactive nature. She too had read my blogs of street girls and wrote repeatedly to tell me all she would try to do… Having lived in Egypt I know you need to have the will and patience to move heaven and earth to change an injustice and do something good. Since Yara emailed me the first time, so much good has been done. She got together with a group of other incredible doctors who guaranteed the street girls were treated with dignity and respect when they went into labour (previously they would be so scared because of the verbal and physical abuse they’d get for going in to give birth without being married or being so young – bearing in mind they were often raped). Yara was also my go to person when I was not in Egypt for a number of other cases doing what I would do, only ten times better.

I need a third hero in this story. I know he or she exists somewhere out there. I need a physiotherapist for Omar who will see that all the efforts made have a great outcome. Without this person, Omar will lose any hope of using his hands again. As always, I don’t work with fundraising, so this human will need to agree to share their skill for free.

I’m asking if you could all help me find the third pillar to this success story by sharing it as widely as you can till we find our physiotherapist in Cairo

Have a lovely day all xx

A Simple Exchange: Your Baby, for Your Money.

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My brave little flower, Lilly!

She’s 20 years old. She’s just had her fifth baby. Her first baby who roams the streets in another city with another family, she delivered when she was 12 years old. Her second and third babies are in a children’s home. Her fourth passed away. She then got married. Her husband is in jail. She gave birth to her fifth child who needed intensive care in the neonatal department.

The details of the girls tragic life isn’t what I’m writing this post to discuss. It almost doesn’t matter right now that she had to run away from an abusive home and find safety on the street when she was 11 years old. Whichever way she fell pregnant at 11 is tragic – she bares the scars of it. It isn’t a blog to discuss contraception or abortion options that aren’t available to these children who are victims of rape and incest. It is not to tell you about one of the girls I work with who tried to abort her own baby with a metal hanger inserted into her vagina that nearly killed her.

This isn’t a post to sensationalise. This isn’t even a blog about street girls entirely. It’s about the health care system in Egypt that never fails to terrify me.

It’s been some time since I’ve been working on the street children cause, the last few months I’ve dedicated to making my daughter better. But I’ve been working the last few days on getting money to a government hospital in Egypt. The 2000 pounds donation of syringes and nappies, that were asked for, were a negotiation down from the original 6000 pound bill the hospital demanded in exchange for discharging a baby to his street girl mother.

So as far as I understand, the hospital cannot discharge a baby without the bill being paid. If the bill is not paid, the baby gets given to an orphanage. And because it costs 1000 pounds a day for a baby incubator, many parents, not just street mothers, end up leaving their newborn babies at hospital and never coming back for them. So I got involved with the case of this girl because the beautiful Dr Yara bought it to my attention. Our deadline was looming. Next Saturday, 7th November, the baby was due to be discharged. If the money or the donations didn’t get there in time, the staff would hand the baby over to social services to be taken to an orphanage and his mother would not be allowed access. If we did manage to get the money to them, we could pick up the baby. We managed it. The money had been laying around for months waiting for a good cause (interestingly it was 2000 to the penny) from friends (thank you Reem and Samah) who had given me money for the cause, and because I’m not currently in Egypt, my cousin is driving the money to Yara who is overseeing the exchange (thank you Dr Mark for driving it). The beauty of group work of people who have never even met, is overwhelming.

When I gave birth to Lilly, she was born with no heart beat and didn’t breathe for 16 minutes. Before I ever held her in my arms, she was put into an incubator for 14 days. Of course I hate the beeping machines around her. My heart broke at the sight of tubes going into her nose and throat. I cringed with pain at the needles in her veins, in her hands, feet, head. I worried when I saw the 10ml morphine syringe gradually numbing her so that she wouldn’t feel the pain of forcing her body temperature to 33 degrees. I cried when I stood feeding her my milk through a tube and she whimpered in pain to what I had convinced myself, was a need to be held.

But… BUT, all the while I was achingly grateful for my privilege. I was acutely aware of it because just a year before, I had spent hours desperately trying to find an incubator for a 1 day old street baby who tragically died because when I could get her an ambulance and an incubator, there was no baby oxygen machines. She died while I managed to organise everything in 56 minutes. I found out she had died before her mother did. I knew about privilege and I knew, standing, watching over my own daughter, worried only about if she would make it, or not, that many others had not just this, but money and accessibility to worry about.

So things have to change. Let’s change them bit by bit together while the government sits around shuffling ministers and while political opinions flood social media in heated debates between people who’s hands are often not stuck in the fixing. I’ve always relied on your input so far for the girls and we’ve worked miracles together. I’m finding out how much two incubators would cost and if we manage to get them to this public hospital, I want an exchange from them that the street girls get to use them for their babies when needed. It’s a small step, but it’s a start and maybe will shame those responsible in acting.

Wouldn’t be incredible if we could add two incubators in this neonatal department in the name of street girls? Not only so that they can use them, but so that all babies who ever do, can know one day, as well as their parents, that the street children being good to this world and are not what “parasites” as the colloquial language describes them. 
Never shy away from doing little. Little is more than nothing. 
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Update:
Since writing this post I have found out some exact costing and also something incredible happened…
Prices: 

Incubator: 90,000 – 120,000 L.E (without a ventilator)

Ventilator: 100,000 L.E (aprox. £8500)
In a private hospital, the incubators cost 3000 L.E a day with a requirement to pay 30,000 in advance. 
The ventilators currently in the hospital are a mix of donations from Arafa organisation and Shiekha Mozza of Qatar.
That’s the bad news… As for the good news: 
After writing this blog, I got a donation for an incubator. Life is good.

Street Children: “Rubbish is Only Matter Out of Place”

One question that I was often asked about the lives of street children was why they would sleep on the street instead if going back to the “comfort and safety” of their own home: concepts that us, privileged few automatically associate with the word home.

When I heard the horror stories of the street, I often wondered similar things. But when I started visiting where these children’s families lived, often answer was found in the photos I took. Sometimes the stories of emotional, financial, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, violence and neglect inside the home were the reason. But often, less sensational reasons presented themselves. The physical structure of “home” was so small that they often had to sleep outside it anyway, under the staircases, in the building entrances, outside altogether.

So I started answering that question with one of my own: “what would make a child want to travel for miles back to an area that is often dirtier, scarier, lonelier, often more abusive and less comfortable than the street corner or under the bridge where they had spent their whole day, made friends and learned to survive in?”

There is dirt, danger and discomfort in both places… One was just miles away and not worth the effort of the journey back… But what makes us ask the question is rarely the state of the alternative place the child has to return to, but mainstream society’s absolute distaste and discomfort for seeing private life routines taking place in public spaces. The reminder of our failures as a society to protect the vulnerable by ensuring we provide them with safe alternatives. That’s what’s ugly about the street and children out of place – not the children and their practices, but society and it’s apathy towards the lack of alternative care.

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The title of this blog quotes Mary Douglas who argues that rubbish is nothing more than something out of place and so becomes dirty and dangerous. That would apply to children out of “place” the place we (again, the privileged few) would see suitable for children: home or school etc. and so what of child soldiers, child prostitutes, street children? And this of course leads to the problems with definitions.

So many working with street children are so concerned with the politically (and sometimes academically) correct definitions and we see terms like “street connected children”, “children of the street”, “children in the street”, “children in a street situation”. I find them all unhelpful. So when I went out working with street children I thought I would focus on finding another definition and I chose to look at what the slang for street children in different countries was… here’s a summary of what I found:

  • India – Without root or roof or carrying the stamp of the street
  • Brazil – A younger child of a slave or an individual with no word of honour
  • Egypt – A  small insect that destroys grains and crops
  • Columbia – The plague
  • Ethiopia – Vermin
  • Cameroon – Mosquitoes

The biggest problem with these definitions is that they dehumanise the victim. When you start referring to children as pests, then it becomes more acceptable and justifiable to mistreat them. It is acceptable for the police to run after a mosquito and abuse the vermin and try to get rid of the plague.

The one slang word that moved me to tears and perhaps summarises the plight of street children the most came from Vietnam, where the children are referred to as “bui doi” which translates to “The Dust of Life”.

Personal Post: On Loss, Miscarriage and Pregnancy

Both Shariff and I are geographically challenged. We both don’t know how to use maps. Though we can see where the destination is and where the arrow is pointing, we don’t know where we are on the map in the first place to follow those directions!! So last year when I went into hospital with severe left abdominal pain, hours after testing positive on a home pregnancy test, and getting the devastating diagnosis of “Pregnancy of Unknown Location”, we knew that, “Yes! This baby was definitely ours” Even our little one couldn’t find it’s way to the womb J But, joking aside, this was probably the scariest thing to hear, I didn’t understand what the doctors were really saying except that they were worried I was having an “ectopic pregnancy” (where the fetus decides to grow outside the womb). It is a horrific experience, not only because you will definitely lose the baby, but also because at any point it may rupture the mother’s tubes and the internal bleeding could kill her. The advice was to come straight to emergency if the pain got worse, if I couldn’t breath, if my shoulder tips started to hurt, or if I fainted.

That day was incredible. I don’t remember as many details of any other event as I do this particular day. I remember deciding to buy a pregnancy test while I was out. After I peed on the stick, staring at the hourglass that’s checking for my hormones, I knew I was pregnant even before I saw those words. I had done this test many times before. Since I’d been married I was often asked in a multitude of different ways, why I hadn’t had a baby yet. The ways people asked this ranged from “you know, there’s nothing quite like being a mother”, to “you’re so passionate about children, are you thinking of having your own?” to “no children on the way?” to “do you want to have surgery to lose some weight if that’s stopping you getting pregnant?” to “do you want to lose weight to have a baby to make Shariff happy, if you love him?” to “Why haven’t you had a baby yet? What’s WRONG with you?” It’s amusing to me writing this and to think of the faces and reactions of some of those who will read this blog – to those of you who are shocked and horrified: thank you. To those women who’ve been asked the same, my heart goes out to you, because I know nothing can hurt as much – no matter in which way it’s being asked.

The last of these comments is what stuck with me of course, we have a way don’t we, us human beings, a certain refined capacity to hold onto, to carve space in our souls for painful slurs and hurtful comments. And because I am no more than human and no less than that, I have a great talent for absorbing the anguish. When the hourglass stopped and the words “Pregnant” showed up, my primitive response was “nothing IS wrong with me”. This made me angry. It made me realise that despite having convinced myself that I had dismissed this comment, I obviously hadn’t. That despite all the achievements that I had worked towards, that required dedication, patience, passion, hard work, sleepless nights, results, despite having impact on change that bought about better moments for those I worked towards helping – yes despite all of that – I was never going to be a success in a lot of people’s eyes if I did not have my own children.

Oh the woes of being a woman I thought, as the smaller hourglass was turning that would soon tell me how many weeks pregnant I was. I mourned something in those moments about how my entire being was being judged and evaluated by its ability to reproduce. I could get all the degrees in the world, get promoted to all the positions in a company I worked at, I could volunteer everywhere that needed people passion, I could be the best wife, daughter and sister, friend and neighbour, colleague and teacher; I could be the best at all my roles, but if I am not a biological mother, no matter how competent or incompetent in that role or any other role, it seemed I was not a whole woman without it. Some would consider my body a mere waste of space; if through it, a new life did not pass; that everything else I was doing should only be seen as a temporary distraction until my “real purpose” of living was fulfilled.

On Tuesday, the first drop of blood fell. It was a tiny, tiny pink spot of blood. I knew straight away this was the beginning. You feel it in your heart, you know. I was at my parent’s house that day, I remember seeing the cracking in the tiles for the first time as I sat on the loo, a small tiny detail that was too unimportant in day-to-day life. I also started to get some chest pain and decided that I couldn’t sleep upstairs in my old room because I may need emergency care during the night, so this body, proving that there was something “wrong with it” needed to be accessible. I laughed at that thought and how organized I tried to be even in this situation. It gave me a sense of control but I was angry that I couldn’t control my own body – damn my own body for having a mind of its own. I wanted this little baby and no matter how many diaries I kept, no matter how much I tried to keep the symmetry, no matter which height order my books were kept at, which colour order my clothes in the wardrobe were hung, the order and the control I need to keep this little baby where I wanted it to be was something I did not have. I was being betrayed, by myself.

Going to the toilet was the scariest thing. I didn’t want to wipe and find more blood, I didn’t want to give access to what I was beginning to understand was inevitable. But on Wednesday when the bleeding started to increase, clots started to pass, pain started to grip my organs, I knew. Shariff rushed me to the hospital as silent tears started rolling down uncontrollably. All I could think about was that comment “What’s WRONG with you?” I was so angry that as I sat in an emergency room losing my baby all I could think of was what this person was going to think of my impending loss. Of course I should not worry about it, I know, reader, I know. But I did and it hurt and it worried and it angered me all at the same time. The nurse that saw me asked if I was passing clots, asked if it was my first time, took my temperature and recorded my pulse was extremely fast and decided to channel me through to the majors. This is, if nothing else, an incredibly humiliating experience. You have to open your legs wide, two people, doctor and nurse put a lamp between your legs and insert all sorts of things to ensure your cervix is still closed to determine whether a miscarriage really has started. This day they sent me home saying, my cervix was still closed, they weren’t sure it would lead to a full miscarriage and all I could do was wait. It was a “threatened miscarriage”.

The next few days were difficult. I was obsessed with a support group where women would write on the forum about their experience of miscarriage. It was good and bad. It was good because it was comforting to know that I wasn’t over reacting, that I was justified in feeling all those things that I was, other people felt those exact feelings too. It was bad because some stories were worse, of pregnancies lost much further into the pregnancy, photos up of women holding the tiniest babies that had passed at 20 weeks, tiny fingers that weren’t even the size of their nails, tragedies that passed so clinically, in and out of hospital with something so achingly significant missing. I had to keep doing a pregnancy test for a few weeks to see if the hormones were decreasing. This was especially painful. It was the same stick, still saying “pregnant” rubbing salt into the wound. Perhaps because the NHS didn’t wait to spend time and money confirming that you had “passed away all products of conception” – such a terrible, terrible term.

The finality of it all was too quick. I wanted it to be finished of course, so I could “move on” what ever that meant after this. But, at the same time, I wanted some sort of ritual, some ceremonial procedure that would ease me to waking up and realising I’m not pregnant anymore, that this time round I’m not going to be a mother. I understood the idea of initiation and rituals so much better when I felt a need for them. I never really appreciated the traditions around funerals for instance, but I knew now I’d appreciate it, I’d appreciate the recognition of loss, of parting, of the acknowledgement of others that I was in pain and the reassurance that people gave during these rituals that this passing didn’t take anything away from the very real fact that for those weeks/months I was a mother and that no one could ever take that away from me. And that empty arms at the end of it did not mean I’d be any less a mother than if I did experience those sleepless nights had this particular baby come home.

I made some incredible discoveries during the weeks between finding out I was pregnant to finding out the miscarriage was at last over, things about my body, my marriage, my friendships, my family, my expectations and my own feelings around being a mother. I also, after the initial emotions and physical pains started betraying me by getting better, realized what an awful system of official support there is for women. No one at any point of my education spoke of miscarriage; what to expect, your options, about the stuff you lost and wipe away as you stare horrified not knowing if your flushing your child down the toilet – and I’m sorry I’m writing this, but no one talks about it and I’m all for the taboo because I could find nothing about this when I needed to. I also hated the “reassurance” the doctors provided telling me “1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage”. This amused me the most. What was it meant to make me feel? Was I expected to be happy I was that lucky one?! How does throwing a statistic like that make me feel better? And the term “product of conception” a term coined to probably emotionally detach everyone involved from the potentiality of what this “matter” was. How this made me angry. I was so angry that the crippling pain of the actual miscarriage, could not compare.

It has been by far the most painful experience of my life, both physically and emotionally. Without Shariff’s support, if it had not physically killed me, then something inside me would have died, but he was my breath of life, his grounded self that he offered so generously, his patience with the incredible mood swings I had, curling into bed and holding me every time when the physical pain was so bad it felt that some phantom hand was inside my very body ripping at my very soul. I fell in love with Shariff during these weeks a hundred times over, I knew now what it meant to be loved at your worst, to be comforted when you didn’t deserve to be, but because you needed to be. But it pained me how much love he showed, how much love I had for him, it hurt because the more amazing he was, the more I desperately wanted to have a child with him and the more I wanted all these ties that would brings us even closer – as I would have myself brainwashed into believing. I thought hard about all this during those weeks and though I still wanted a baby from him at the end of it all, I realised from the love he extended to me during it, that those ties I was craving had nothing to do with having a child together, but had everything to do with those midnight cuddles that he gave because he heard me calling out for him without my having said a word.

A couple of days after finding out I was pregnant, I went to have my favourite Nando’s meal. I’d never been there alone and feeling the need to be sociable, I started speaking with two teenage boys who’d sat on the table next to me. They were about 13 years old. I said “excuse me gentlemen, I need your advice. I just found out that I’m pregnant”, “congratulations” one of them interrupted, “thank you! So, I’ve decided I want to be a super good mum and thought getting some advice from some young men like yourselves might be a good idea, what do you advise me to do or not do?” I was incredibly touched at how open they were, how genuinely engaged they were in the conversation and grateful, too, that they were being asked their opinions. I received a wide range of advice, from letting my child play as much play station as they wanted, not going through their phones, not joining in after school activities after they reached ten years old, letting them chose the subjects they want to study and to give them hugs when they’re at home even though they say they don’t want any when they’re around their friends”. Even though I could not take their advice that time around, I promise I will not forget it now that I’m pregnant again.

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.

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.