Street Children: Resilient Decisions and The Shackles of Vulnerability

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This blog is for Farah, whose incredible courage and strength remain unmatched in my mind.

One of the things I’m most taken aback by with my work with street children is how articulate they are. They often surprise and humble me with how well they can express themselves in narrative. Whilst speaking with Maya, whom I had now known for a few months, I felt I could pry a little further “I know your step mother was cruel and your father always took her side, but it sometimes sounds like the life you led on the street was so much crueler. A lot of people ask me why kids like you choose the street if it’s not as dangerous at home?” to which she replied “because it’s easier to forgive the street, you don’t expect it to love you.”

Maya’s life, both off and on the street, is one filled with reasons to make you lose faith in the world and humanity; her resilience and laughter, enough to make you regain it.

It’s one of the things I learnt from Maya, the power of choice between two harms, between two worst scenarios. Street children like Maya can, and do, generate different responses from people who meet her and hear her story because in a series of choices, she’s often made the wrong ones. The less tolerant will fail to see that the neglect and abuse she suffered as she spent years in an imaginary circle since 3years old, may have not equipped her with what it takes to make better ones. For other children, the street is not a choice between two unfortunate cruelties, but the only choice for survival.

Poverty is often unfairly made guilty as the prime reason children are pushed to the streets. Family breakdown and violence are the real culprits. Abuse is to blame. Why else would Farah be on the street?

Farah is an incredibly beautiful 14-year-old girl. When she turned 12, her maternal uncle, Medhat, decided it was time for Farah to join his prostitution ring. He offered her no proposal; she was merely to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Farah’s mother had been bringing in money for her brother for years and Medhat had high hopes for the young Farah to add more to this income. Brave in all her decisions, Farah refused. Client after client would complain hearing Farah being dragged to where they were and eventually Medhat had to resort to violence.

Farah was chained for 8 months, hanging from the ceiling, supported by a chair, with wrists tied behind her back. In this solitary world that became her new home, and in this position, Farah was raped daily by her uncle. She was fed hanging, went to the toilet hanging, slept in her shackles; and in her resilience, the little girl refused to give in.

It is here were need to consider vulnerabilities when talking of resilience. The body of a child, it’s weakness, it’s limitation, that despite everything agency and voice can do to shift positionalities, the physical vulnerability of children is the very thing the adult world has a duty to protect. It’s this lack of protection, which let down the courage of Farah making decisions she could not live through. And it was when that body became even weaker, when the shackles had become tighter, the metal gnawing it’s way past her skin through to her bones, did she make her next decision.

Farah told her uncle that she gave up, that he had won. She told him she would be the “good girl” he’d wanted and she’d do as she pleases. Unchaining her, turning the locks of the chains that had bound her thin ankles and wrists, her escape was planned. Farah ran to the window and threw herself from the fourth floor.

How she survived is unknown to all of us at the shelter. The number of broken bones was manifest of the desperation and the price this little girl paid for those physical vulnerabilities and resilient choices. She was carried to the nearest hospital not only for the broken bones, but also for the skin infections on her thighs and buttocks from having wet and soiled herself all those months, from the burns where she was tied. But; what of the rape? What of the trauma? What of the future? Whose responsibility was it to heal these?

When she was well enough to leave, she left to the street. It was then the police referred her to the shelter. The moment she walked in is a moment all who were there will never forget. Shaimaa tells me she still can see this girl’s wrists in her dreams.

Why have I told you this story, reader? You are mistaken to think it is merely to break your heart. I have not even written it as a reminder of the individual stories of each of the girls on the street, like I often do. I have written this so that we can start asking different questions. I am sharing this to demonstrate that trying to convince many children that the street is bad for them is ineffectual. For children like Farah, and unfortunately, there are many, the street is hope, it is freedom, it is friendship, it is unpredictable. Till we understand the meaning of the street for children, till the first thing we do with them is NOT to reintegrate them with their families as a priority to secure more funding, till we can offer alternatives, then we may be doing more harm than good.

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Academic Skills Post: NEVER be “Realistic”

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I was at a workshop for post graduates; where keen masters and PhD students made the effort to come to hear some “gems of wisdom”, perhaps a secret or two about how to publish and get your work out to an interested audience. I sat and listened attentively to all the well meaning talks by people who were “experts” in the field giving very sound and reasonable advice. The result? A heavy spirited audience that I felt was completely discouraged. The only glaring exception to this was an incredibly inspirational talk from an academic who handed out examples of many unconventional publications she had spent the last 20 years engaged with.

This made me go back to all the workshops and seminars on what it would take to do a PhD. I remembered that along with the absolutely useful information I took away with me, there was this huge misconception communicated through repeated phrases such as “doing your PhD is an incredibly lonely pursuit”, “your family and loved ones are very likely to become frustrated and angry at your disappearance out of their lives”, “often, a PhD is an incredibly depressing journey”. I wasn’t sure where this was all coming from and as I took what I was hearing as gospel – it was, after all, coming from the mouths of experts – I prepared for doom, a decease, a journey into darkness… but then, I discovered the most incredible thing!! That doing this PhD, was not walking into a tomb, contrary to expert advice, in fact, quite the contrary. The three years of my PhD so far have been the busiest, most challenging, most stimulating, most sociable years of my life – and this is coming from the loudest girl in the class from nursery to high school!.

I once spoke with someone very dear to me and I told her that I wish someone had told me about mailing lists when I was an undergraduate. I would have gone to conferences, presented papers, networked etc. and I went on to recommend a conference she should attend. She started, “I can’t, because…. ” and she went on to convincingly present a logical list of all the reasons why is was absolutely inconceivable for her to attend, let alone present, at this conference. This made me so angry! I was so frustrated for her and for myself and for the thousands others who are so restricted and limited by what professional, reasonable, experienced people tell them about the limitations of everything! Unwittingly, and I know this is done with no sinister intention, these people have helped generations stifle their curiosity, their hope, their drive for achieving beyond their dreams, or even dreaming itself, for fear of being ridiculous in their over ambition.

It was then that I discovered something new about myself. I was unrealistic. It was perhaps my greatest asset. If I had been realistic, I would have stopped at first year university when I failed. I failed because I did not have the skills and tools to take me through university. I struggled through my entire undergraduate degree – yes, I started over, and through various personal problems and limitations, I passed with a not so great honours degree. Again, if I had been realistic, I would have said, “Well done Nelly, you’ve done well to get this far, now pack your trunk and off to the circus, it’s a miracle you’ve got this far, now go and do something suitable and in line with your achievements and skills”. Did I do that? Not on your Nelly! I went right back to uni, to the one professor who believed in me and signed up to a Master in Laws degree (which meant I would have to sit more exams than I had to if it were a MA or MSc). and guess what, I got a distinction in my Master’s dissertation!

Now I’m doing this PhD, the same thing happened. During the first year, where YES, I admit I had to put my head down and just get on with the literature review, meaning lots of libraries, I made friends there every time, invited and got invited by fellow students, in the same and different fields and even got asked out twice by fellow geeks 🙂 – and this was the loneliest part!! Three years on, I am teaching, for the third year, in three different universities, I’ve been asked by a university in Germany to guest lecture. In terms of publishing, I have a paper in a journal and a book chapter in an academic book to be published later this year, putting in a book proposal to publish my literature review and a quite a few other things in the pipeline, including being a guest editor on three special edition journals. Conferences, where I encourage you all to go to as many as you can, have also been important and I’ve been invited to be a key note speaker at a few events, including one for the United Nations, in a panel at the AAG (the Association of American Geographers Conference), presented papers, organising sessions all the way up to the end of the year. I declared this year in my PhD, after coming back from my fieldwork, the Year of Academic UnRealistic Activities. I also write in a blog that has reached the hearts of many (50,000 readers) and I couldn’t be enjoying myself more in this academic sphere.

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As I listened to experts speak today I wondered whether it was the bitterness of their experiences, rejections, failures over the years that made them feel they were doing a service to others by cautioning them so much. They wanted the students to do well – that’s why they were there. But it was a replica of a situation where parents would try to discourage their children from taking risks. It’s well known that other parents, who do give their children that space to take risks and make choices, support them through the consequences, often grow to achieve great things. This made me think of my incredible supervisor Karen Wells, who guides me from afar, always there to give advice, but allows me the space to explore, make mistakes, take up every opportunity and sternly reminds me of my “practical” deadlines before they swoosh past me. That’s what I’ve needed.

So my advice to you, if you are an academic and you are still reading this, is as follows – the most important thing about doing this PhD is that you enjoy it! It’s an incredible time to research something you are passionate about, in the length of time you have to research it. A PhD is NOT the final stage or destination, it is simply training for a career as a researcher and so this makes it a space where you develop an academic identity and just like other aspects of identity, you can only form one as you make choices, celebrate achievements, feel the agony of things that haven’t gone so well, blur all the different you’s together, etc. If you aren’t enjoying it, then stop. Stop and find something better to spend the valuable heart beats that you’re giving away. It’s not a cliche, our time here is limited, no one has yet been able to trick life and stay alive for ever, and so while you’re in the game, be a happy winner, or be a cheerful loser, but don’t be a bystander waiting to hear what you can and can’t achieve from others.

Just before I leave you, I want to highlight the value of positive thinking. When someone puts forward an opportunity, or a suggestion, don’t start by saying “I can’t” and justifying why. Instead, say “Sure! How can I get it done?” This is what I’ve been doing, and you know what? It’s worked! I noticed the one speaker today that inspired me said she used her students for skills that she did not have the time to develop. Her language was different. She could have easily said “skills I don’t have”. But she respected her ability to do whatever she wanted if she dedicated enough time to it and we should be just the same!

Good luck! If I can do it, you sure as hell can!!

If you need any ideas on giving yourself a push to be unrealistic and want to know some of the things I did to publish, get in touch: nelly.ali@gmail.com