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

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

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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”.

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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One day I was accompanying a street girl to a doctor to see what we could do about her "rape scar" (a hanging piece of flesh under her right eye - a result of a knife wound she suffer after her first gang rape to mark her as no longer being a virgin). On this three hour bus ride, one of the stories she bravely shared with me was of her birthing experience. She was praising the cosmetic surgeon who had seen her before for this rape scar and who she said had "treated me like a human being, not an animal". When I asked what she was comparing him to she said the doctors that were there during her birth. She recounted the experience that included over 20 medical students checking her dilation without her consent, her horror as the fingers roughly forced their way through her vagina of both male and female students who never spoke to her or explained what they were doing. She told me about one midwife who kicked her because she was screaming too loudly when she was pushing. What seemed to hurt her the most though were the questions and accusations of why she was having a baby so young if she was unmarried and why was the father not with her. There are many horrifyingly painful stories that the street girls live and have shared with me; but this birthing one haunted me the most. The vulnerability and the fear that a child must feel giving birth, facing an unknown that even full grown, fully supported women find difficult was beyond my comprehension.... I went home and wrote in a simple blog about this conversation and about the state of the world in which we live. A beautiful medical student wrote to me, not an emotional email of how upset my post had made her, but a well thought of plan about what she was going to do about it to fix it. We went through her plan of who she was going to contact for access and permissions to admit the street girls to the hospital she was training at. We arranged meetings with shelter staff and she met the girls that would go in to give birth under her care. The photo in this post is of the first street baby to be born in dignity. The street girl arrived at hospital supported, respected, soothed and cared for and delivered her healthy abd beautiful baby in a caring environment, for the first time ever. Thank you Yara for being the change we want in the world, thank you for being part of a new generation of medical students who give me hope that there is still good worth writing for, worth fighting for. Nothing quite beats the sense of achievement this brings. Here's to academia and knowledge that matter. Xx

One day I was accompanying a street girl to a doctor to see what we could do about her “rape scar” (a hanging piece of flesh under her right eye – a result of a knife wound she suffer after her first gang rape to mark her as no longer being a virgin).
On this three hour bus ride, one of the stories she bravely shared with me was of her birthing experience. She was praising the cosmetic surgeon who had seen her before for this rape scar and who she said had “treated me like a human being, not an animal”. When I asked what she was comparing him to she said the doctors that were there during her birth.
She recounted the experience that included over 20 medical students checking her dilation without her consent, her horror as the fingers roughly forced their way through her vagina of both male and female students who never spoke to her or explained what they were doing. She told me about one midwife who kicked her because she was screaming too loudly when she was pushing. What seemed to hurt her the most though were the questions and accusations of why she was having a baby so young if she was unmarried and why was the father not with her.
There are many horrifyingly painful stories that the street girls live and have shared with me; but this birthing one haunted me the most. The vulnerability and the fear that a child must feel giving birth, facing an unknown that even full grown, fully supported women find difficult was beyond my comprehension….
I went home and wrote in a simple blog about this conversation and about the state of the world in which we live. A beautiful medical student wrote to me, not an emotional email of how upset my post had made her, but a well thought of plan about what she was going to do about it to fix it.
We went through her plan of who she was going to contact for access and permissions to admit the street girls to the hospital she was training at. We arranged meetings with shelter staff and she met the girls that would go in to give birth under her care.
The photo in this post is of the first street baby to be born in dignity. The street girl arrived at hospital supported, respected, soothed and cared for and delivered her healthy abd beautiful baby in a caring environment, for the first time ever. Thank you Yara for being the change we want in the world, thank you for being part of a new generation of medical students who give me hope that there is still good worth writing for, worth fighting for.
Nothing quite beats the sense of achievement this brings. Here’s to academia and knowledge that matter. Xx

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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: 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)

When Hope Dies, Nothing Blooms in that Land

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A generation of youth laying their friends to rest
A generation of mothers with an empty nest

A story about Egypt, and its struggle for hope
A story of millions defying the tightening rope

The struggle for Freedom, Dignity and Bread
About the punishment they got instead

Take Alaa for example who got sentenced 15 years
For being moved to revolt against torture and tears

Thousands of others also, to prison were sent
A handful of supporters protesting wherever they went

Others gave up and they carry the shame
Because the search for freedom…… was done in their name

They’ll squint and say “I’ve seen you’re face before
But they’re so many of you taken, I’ve lost the score”

Those ‘taken’ are strong now with a mission inside
They’re a window to the misconduct authorities try to hide

Slowly but surely stories behind bars are coming out
And you need to keep listening to what this is all about

Loss of physical freedom to become an independent voice
To those on the other side kept in, against their choice

The stories of torture and wrongful detention
Of people ‘too insignificant’ to grab your attention

Till its one of your own who gets dragged by the mob
Until it’s of your loved ones that you get robbed

I understand your desperate need to glorify the army
But their songs and flowers just don’t charm me

From virginity testing to death by beats
From promising not to, but running for presidency seats

From crushing Christian sisters to gassing Muslim brothers
Forcing you to take allegiance to justify violence against the other

Yes I’m talking of the barbaric handling of Rab3a and Maspero
When did the villain ever become your hero?

I’m talking of a generation that solemnly fought
That were betrayed by their protectors but kept afloat

If you’re not part of the revolution don’t be part of the betrayal
Don’t give in to the oppressors and join those who hail

Of course it’s not easy to keep fighting but that’s the cost
which we must pay for years of silence that we’ve lost

Those still fighting for tomorrow have reason to believe
And yes change will come, no, no that’s not naive

It’s a struggle for justice, one that will continue
Thousands of heroic sacrifices that can’t but win you

Of course it’s a long rough journey, yes, I understand
But when hope dies, nothing blooms on that land.

Be Socrates – The First Street Worker

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Yesterday I met a 23 year old girl who has just finished her second year at university, she’s incredible. She used to be a street child here in the UK. She had parents who could no longer look after her and she fell through the social services and child protection net and ended up on the streets. It’s always hard isn’t it when something like this happens in your own back yard? You cannot so comfortably shake your head in disapproval towards those ‘primitive developing countries’ that don’t appreciate the beauty and innocence of childhood. But I’m talking about a child who slept rough in the UK that you and I have never met. I hate statistics, but just for context, did you know that a child runs away from home every 5 minutes in the UK? That’s 100,000 children under 16 a year, and 70% of those children are never even reported missing by those who are supposed to care for and protect them.

She spoke for a while about her experiences and the negotiations she had to make to ensure her safety during the nights. As a child in London, sleeping on benches, in parks, riding up and down night buses, asking to lay on a piece of carpet at friends who could sneak her in after their parents had gone to sleep. She spoke about the ‘interest’ that she succumbed to during her years on the street, interest that she was lured into because of her need to be loved and cared for.

She spoke too of the tiny gestures of genuine kindness from adults and people on the streets who she considered the best types of ‘street worker’ even though they did not realise that this is what they were being, often’,she said those acts of kindness saved her life. She said that sometimes even a smile would change how the day was for someone on the street.

There was so much that was remarkable and humbling and empowering about her story. One of the many things I took away though, was how great this country is, how forgiving. Despite the many battles we need to still passionately pursue for gender equality, we must also stop to celebrate the huge achievements we’ve made so far. The fact that this young woman was given a second chance, is admired for her resilience, encouraged on her path or rebuilding, and not made to cower in the shame of a past she did not chose, as my girls must suffer in Egypt, is definitely a cause of pride for this country.

The other thing is, each and everyone of you is a street worker, whether you chose to be or not, the very fact that you use the street and are in it make you one. You can be the act of kindness that help the homeless experience a better day, or indeed, save their life. All you need to do is remember how incredible powerful you are. Do not refrain from helping because you think your help is insignificant, you’re not. Hold on to, and use that power.

And remember Socrates, yes the philosopher. Socrates devoted his life to the poor and underprivileged spending a considerable amount of time in street markets: the prototype of the street worker at the time. Be Socrates.