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.

Street Girls and the Female Stuff: On Toilets, Periods and Sanitary Towels

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I always try to hold my pee until I go home. Not just in Cairo, but in London, in Germany, in the USA, wherever I am. I have this feeling that my pee needs to pass somewhere clean, somewhere, where I know the people who own the pee that passed before mine. Yes, sometimes that meant bouncing between legs, jumping up and down holding it in. It also meant at times a few drops would escape betraying my control. That didn’t matter, because at home, there was a clean shower next to the toilet and laundry basket and clean clothes. It’s because of this, pretentious need, that I had not had to use any of the shelter toilets till that day.

I had developed a urinary tract infection while I was in Cairo and holding in my pee was more difficult than usual and so, in the spirit of sharing the experience, being the “real” participant observer I was trying to be at the shelter, I excused myself to use the toilet. I knew where it was because I had stood outside it once trying to calm a girl who was self harming inside, trying, along with others to reassure her she was loved. It didn’t smell, but it was dirty, everything was broken, the tiles, the mirror, the toilet seat and there were drops of blood on the sink and the walls. As soon as I closed the door, I gagged. The cockroaches that scurried in such a hurry from between the hinges, or where ever it was they were coming from made me gag. I hold cockroaches, I gently place them outdoors when I see a someone holding a slipper to attack one, so don’t get me wrong, reader; I wasn’t gagging because I was scared of spiders. I gagged because the blood, the cockroaches and the broken everything where the shelter that the children ran to – what then, I wonder, of the circumstance that they were running from?

It was in Germany, while on an exchange programme that I was invited to a shelter for girls and young women. This safe haven was set up for them to escape the violence of the neighbourhood in which they lived. The vibrant colours were so welcoming, I was deciding on taking a few ideas for my future study one day. The smell of baked cookies warmed the air, the pot of tea, the ceremony of opening a library upstairs that a 12 year old had been guided and encouraged to open for the other girls; all so inspiring. I felt so happy and optimistic and prayed so hard one day I would walk into somewhere like this for our girls in Egypt. But when I went into their bathroom to wipe some of the milk that I had spilt on my top, I closed the door behind me and I cried. By the wall, there was a hanging toiletries bag with three types of sanitary towels and tampons. There were posters on the back of the door about female hygiene and numbers the young women could call anonymously if they had any questions or just wanted to talk about the changes that were happening to their bodies as they were growing up. And as my friends had so many dreams for Egypt, to fight for freedoms and rights, I was in a bathroom praying for period pads for the girls I had grown to love.

I remembered the first time I had retracted from my decision not to give money to the shelter. I dug into my bag on an impulse and gave Sarah 100LE and told her to go and get as many pampers for the babies as the money could get her. I am amazed at how judgemental and naïve I was when I first arrived to the shelter. I had such a fixed idea of how things should be run that I got so angry at everyone so quickly not realising the repercussions if things were to be done the way I thought they should be. This was one of those times. I had given the money in anger at hearing that nappies for the babies were rationed to 2 nappies a day. I found this out when I asked the child mothers what they needed from the pharmacy and they all, without exception asked for nappy rash cream. I started a pompous talk about hygiene and how they should wash and change the babies often and it was then they told me that they would, if they could. But later I found out that the reason the nappies are rationed is because the mothers, also children themselves, use them for their periods.

The day I needed to use the toilet at the shelter, I had just finished talking to one of the girls that I later found out was pregnant. I hadn’t realised it then, but I guess she was trying to get advice from me on how to abort a baby without having to go to a doctor, or dying. During this conversation she told me how one of her friends trying to abort a baby that she’d conceived after a gang rape fell very ill after drinking 25 bottles of castor oil as suggested by the street leader. She also recounted how one of her friends on the street had died because she had been advised to remove the foetus with a metal hanger via her vagina. According to her, the hanger went past her tummy and grabbed her soul instead and she bled to death. All the girls and boys that were around her ran away because they were scared the police would think they killed her. Was it the cockroaches that made me gag? I sat on the toilet seat, my body losing more fluid than just the pee, I cried for the things that we don’t notice and the needs that we can fulfil but don’t even know we can because we are so acutely unaware of what needs doing.

I am not writing to change the world or to inspire big changes, but to talk about the small changes that create an amazing ripple affect. How many people, who are good enough to think of the trials of street children, or their resilience, think beyond finding ways to raise money for shelter, food and clothes? It’s time we realise we can build our own small community in a world bent on ridiculing those who believe in utopia. It’s time that someone who works at, or owns a pest control company should go visit these shelters and spray them for the kids, someone who owns a pharmacy or works for P&G should get on to request they provide a monthly supply of period pads for the girls shelters.

We can create alternative realities, redefine utopia into something we can live; a cathartic moment, a moment that eases suffering. So for the mother who offered her breast milk, for the doctors who offer their clinics and staff, for the teachers who go over to read and nurture, for the dancers who go and give aerobics classes, for the lawyers who ran from police station to another making sure our street kids don’t disappear, for the other teacher who makes bracelets of hope with the children in Canada to send to the kids on the street in Egypt, to the hair dresser that goes every week to each the girls the craft and for all the others still figuring out how they can embody change, not out of their purses, but out of their entire being, it is you that give me strength to carry on and it’s you all who have created the utopia I live in. Thank you.

Street Children: She was rosy cheeked and bright eyed. But she was raped at 9.

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“A faraway place… where there are no people, only the sea and trees. Where people live very far away, because people are bad and they hurt each other and those who are good aren’t able and don’t know how to do anything about the bad people and they can’t help me”. This was Amal’s description when we asked the children at the shelter to draw a picture of what the best place they could think of (her picture is above). Continue reading

Because THEY are OUR Children – Egypt

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To get involved: https://www.facebook.com/clothesforEgyptsChildren

Right so this is the dream:

We set out collecting for Hope Village street babies and then realised what potential humans working together outside bureaucracy can have  Continue reading

Straatkinderen: de ketenen van kwetsbaarheid

Street Children and the Shackles of Vulnerability: translated kindly by Maja Mischke (original post in English here  http://wp.me/p1sf3y-ge )

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Deze blog is voor Farah. Haar ongelofelijke moed en kracht blijven voor mij onovertroffen.

Eén van de dingen die me steeds weer frapperen bij mijn werk met straatkinderen is hoe uitgesproken ze zijn. Ik ben iedere keer weer verrast, zelfs met stomheid geslagen door hoe goed ze zich uit kunnen drukken met woorden, met een enkele zin.

Terwijl ik met Maya sprak (ik kende haar al een paar maanden), voelde ik dat ik een stapje dichterbij durfde te zetten: “Ik weet dat je stiefmoeder wreed was en je vader altijd haar kant koos. Maar soms klinkt het alsof het leven dat je op straat leidde nog veel wreder was. Veel mensen vragen me:  waarom kiezen kinderen zoals jij voor de straat als het thuis minder gevaarlijk is?”

Waarop ze antwoordde: “Omdat het gemakkelijker is om de straat te vergeven: je verwacht niet dat de straat van je houdt, zoals je dat van je familie verwacht.”

Maya’s leven –zowel op straat als daarbuiten- is vervuld met redenen om alle geloof in de wereld en de menselijkheid te verliezen; haar veerkracht en lach is voldoende om het te herwinnen. Het is één van de dingen die ik van Maya heb geleerd: de keuze tussen twee nadelen, tussen twee slechtste scenario’s. Straatkinderen als Maya roepen verschillende reacties op bij de mensen die haar ontmoeten en haar verhaal horen, omdat ze in een opeenvolging van keuzes vaak de verkeerde heeft gemaakt. De minder toleranten zal het ontgaan dat de verwaarlozing en het misbruik waaronder ze heeft geleden sinds ze drie jaar oud was haar mogelijk niet hebben voorzien van de vaardigheid om het beter te doen. Voor andere kinderen is de straat niet een keuze tussen twee onfortuinlijke wreedheden, maar de enige manier om te overleven.

Het is een misverstand dat armoede de voornaamste oorzaak is voor het feit dat kinderen op straat leven. Het opbreken van gezinnen en geweld zijn de echte valkuilen. Misbruik. Waarom zou Farah anders op straat zijn?

Farah is een ongelofelijk mooi 14-jarig meisje. Toen ze 12 werd vond Medhat, haar oom van moeders kant, het hoog tijd dat ze deel ging uitmaken van zijn prostitutienetwerk. Hij deed haar geen voorstel: ze werd gewoon geacht in de voetstappen van haar moeder te treden. Farah’s moeder had jarenlang geld in haar broers laatje gebracht en Medhat verwachtte dat Farah flink aan zijn inkomen zou kunnen bijdragen. Zo moedig als ze was, weigerde Farah. Klant na klant klaagde erover hoe Farah naar de ontmoetingen gesleept moest worden en uiteindelijk nam Medhat zijn toevlucht tot geweld.

Farah werd gedurende 8 maanden aan een ketting geklonken die aan het plafond was vastgemaakt. In deze eenzame wereld die haar nieuwe thuis werd, in deze positie, werd Farah dagelijks door haar oom verkracht. Ze kreeg hangend te eten, ze deed hangend haar behoefte, ze sliep in haar ketenen. En in haar opstandige veerkracht weigerde het kleine meisje toe te geven.

Nu moeten we het in verband met veerkracht even over kwetsbaarheden hebben. Het lichaam van een kind, de zwakheid ervan, de beperkingen die het heeft, maar ook het vermogen een stem te laten horen en keuzes te maken om de eigen realiteit vorm te geven, alsook de fysieke kwetsbaarheid van een kind: al dat is juist hetgene dat door de volwassen wereld dient te worden beschermd, als was het een dure plicht.

Het ontbreken van die bescherming heeft ertoe geleid dat de moed van Farah afnam om beslissingen te nemen die ze niet vol kon houden. En het was toen haar lichaam nog verder verzwakte, toen de ketenen nog strakker waren gemaakt, het metaal door haar huid heen knaagde tot op haar botten, dat ze haar volgende beslissing nam.

Farah vertelde haar oom dat ze het opgaf, dat hij had gewonnen. Ze vertelde hem dat ze het ‘brave meisje’ zou zijn dat hij zich gewenst had en dat ze zou doen wat hij wilde. Terwijl hij haar losmaakte, terwijl hij de sloten opende van de kettingen die haar polsen en dunne enkels gebonden hielden, plande ze haar ontsnapping. Farah rende naar het raam en gooide zichzelf naar beneden vanaf de derde verdieping.

Hoe ze het heeft overleefd is voor ons allen bij de shelter onbekend. Het aantal gebroken botten was het bewijs voor de wanhoop en de prijs die dit kleine meisje betaalde voor die fysieke kwetsbaarheden en veerkrachtige keuzes. Ze werd niet alleen om haar gebroken botten naar het dichtstbijzijnde ziekenhuis gedragen, maar ook voor de doorgesleten plekken in de huid bij haar bovenbenen en billen, veroorzaakt doordat ze zichzelf maandenlang had bevuild. En voor de brandplekken daar waar ze was vastgebonden. Maar hoe zat het met de verkrachtingen? Hoe zat het met het trauma? En met de toekomst? Wiens verantwoordelijkheid was het om dat alles te helen?

Toen ze voldoende hersteld was, vertrok ze. Naar de straat. En toen verwees de politie haar naar onze shelter. Het moment dat ze binnen kwam lopen is onvergetelijk voor iedereen die daarbij aanwezig was. Shaimaa heeft me verteld dat ze soms nog over Farah’s polsen droomt.

Waarom ik u dit verhaal vertel, lezer? Het is niet alleen om zomaar even uw hart te breken. Ik heb het niet eens geschreven om u eraan te herinneren dat achter elk meisje dat op straat leeft een individueel en persoonlijk levensverhaal schuilgaat. Ik heb dit geschreven zodat we andere vragen kunnen gaan stellen. Ik deel dit om te laten zien dat het ineffectief is veel kinderen ervan te proberen te overtuigen dat het leven op straat slecht voor ze is. Voor kinderen zoals Farah, en helaas zijn er velen zoals zij, staat de straat voor hoop, vrijheid en vriendschap en onvoorspelbaarheid. Totdat wij begrijpen wat de straat echt betekent voor deze kinderen, totdat we NIET meer als eerste proberen ze te verenigen met hun families zodat we onze subsidies veilig stellen, totdat we ze alternatieven kunnen bieden…zouden we wel eens meer kwaad dan goed kunnen doen.

Street Children, Disability and Prostitution for Survival.

It was my third visit to the shelter. There was a happy atmosphere today which I later learnt always accompanied the arrival of a new baby. Shadia had come home with her new born after a C-Section the day before. I asked if I could go in to see her. I had never met Shadia before. I walked into the bedroom that housed 3 bunk beds and 6 single wardrobes, each padlocked. Shadia lay shaking in the middle of the well made bed. I panicked. I had never met someone with Parkinson’s disease before. My ignorance, both of the illness and of street children hadn’t prepared me that a child with parkinson’s could end up here. Shadia also had her left eye gauged out. But Shadia was beautiful.

I was new to my research with street children and still very unprepared for the heart ache that this work brought with it. I am, however, great at covering up my reactions so I smiled, asking Shadia if I could touch her new born baby Hannah. She smiles as her whole body convulses and nods that I can. How soft Hannah was! How content and calm this little pink human, wrapped in a clean yellow hand me down blanket, she lay next to her mother blissfully unaware of all that she was missing already. I told Shadia how beautiful her daughter was and wished her a life of happiness bringing her up. I look back at what I said that day and cringe.

I went out to speak with the incredible psychologist Shaimaa, who having realised I was shaken, tried to reassure me. She told me this was Shadia’s fourth baby. In her attempt to explain this was something Shadia was used to, I knew that this image of her laying there, me as an intruder, the lack of family around her, would be one that would haunt me for lifetimes to come. What I did not know, was that there was more to this particular street girl’s story that would plague my dreams, cause aching regrets and raise so many questions about the true value, or lack of, the work that I had gone there to do.

Leaving the shelter, stronger than I anticipated, I remembered who Shadia was. I had very briefly been given a summary of her circumstances; a street girl who left her abusive parents and prostitutes herself on the street for safety. Shadia has come to the shelter to receive care during each of her pregnancies and leaves four months after she gives birth, taking her baby with her. I am not a fan of statistics, but the shelter staff tell me only 20% of the girls that come to them are rehabilitated back into mainstream society. The rest, like Shadia leave back to the street and research is acutely lacking so that there is no comprehensive understanding as to why.

Shadia, in her incredible resilience to her parent’s abuse of their disabled child, ran away and has been living on the street for many years. This too is something I have found to be taboo. Again, the culture of ownership of children sheds an extraordinarily dangerous and disappointing shadow on the trauma disabled children in Egypt suffer. It is also frequently misattributed to poverty or illiteracy. This is not true. I know an outstanding engineer who suffers from a disability who comes from an extremely wealthy family of doctors. During his  childhood he was “hidden” away from guests, not allowed out on family visits to friends and though not physically abused like Shadia, the emotional and psychological abuse that resulted from his parents reaction to his disability is still crippling in many areas of his life.

In extremely difficult circumstances, I say that Shadia is much luckier than many other poor, disabled children who are so vulnerable they are unable to imagine an alternative life. Shadia made a series of decisions that led her to lay on this bed with a fourth child she knew she would not keep. But who is to judge her for this? In Egypt, there is no alternative child care system worth the letters typed and turning to the street that is more bearable to her, as it is to many children with all it’s risks and dangers, Shadia prostitutes herself for food and shelter. I wonder who it is that would sleep with a disabled child in exchange for a sandwich and safety? Are they the same men I am hoping will campaign with us for change, for protection of our most vulnerable children?

The shelter’s attempts to rehabilitate Shadia have been many, from giving her a micro loan to open a kiosk which she was not able to run, to trying to marry her to a man she bought back, to trying to convince her to leave her child in the Dreams shelter for under fives which other street girls leave their babies and come to visit them. All of these attempts had failed.

Despite my not having got to know most of her story from her, Shadia picked up that I could be a useful source to her, so she would ask me for deodorant, shower gel, mp3 headphones. I would oblige; the least I could do. But it was during my visit in Eid that Shadia surprised me with an unexpected request. She asked me to take Hannah. I lifted her into my arms thinking Shadia wanted to go put away her Eid money. But no, Shadia wanted me to take Hannah, for good.

I spent an hour talking at Shadia, telling her how well she takes care of her daughter. It was true, little Hannah and Shadia always smelt delightful, she was so well taken care of, always calm, always close to her. I told her how much Hannah obviously loves her, how she would grow to be her support. I was still so naive, months after living amongst them. The next time I visited, Shadia and Hannah were gone.

It was a few months later, on my three hour ride to the reconstructive surgeon with Taghreed that I find out Shadia had sold Hannah for £50, and that the couple who took her took Hannah and never paid Shadia.

Somewhere in all this, Hannah’s blood is on my hands for not taking her when Shadia asked me to. But society and government too are accountable for making it legally impossible for me to take her. And we are all responsible that our country does not offer monitored alternative care. Hannah will continue to haunt me and I pray that she weighs heavily on all Egyptians who have the power to have provided an alternative for Shadia and safety for her babies and did not.

It’s the same street babies that pull at the strings of our heart today, that grow into the thugs that pull the trigger to our heads tomorrow. And we would deserve it.

INTERVIEW: Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges

Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges.

Bertelsmann Future Challenges

Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers

Egyptian Journalist - Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Egyptian Journalist – Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Nelly Ali sometimes carries a magic wand in her bag. She uses Twitter to fundraise for clothes for those kids (Cairo street children and mothers).

She’s a strong woman tirelessly fighting for the rights of street children and young homeless mothers to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

An International Childhood Studies PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London in the department of Geography, Environment and Development, Ali is currently working on an ethnography of street girls and child street mothers in Cairo, Egypt.

Her research interests are the prevalence of violence in the day-to-day life of street children and their experience of resilience, vulnerability, gender identity and sexuality.

Nelly Ali has recently been volunteering at Hope Village, a shelter for young street mothers in Cairo, where she developed deep relationships with the girls. She has been writing and tweeting about their stories and fears, keeping a promise that she would put a human face on the “problem” of street children and mothers living on the city’s streets, swiftly marginalized by society. Nelly Ali is a dreamer, and she now shares her dreams with the girls at Hope Village.

In an interview with Future Challenges, Ali speaks of the challenges she faces, and the hope that keeps her going in this battle for the rights of street children and young mothers.

FC: You are a strong advocate for street girls and young street mothers in Cairo. When was the moment you decided you would fight for this cause?

NA: I started by doing my PhD research. My fieldwork was with street kids in general and so I found an NGO that would let me work under their supervision – it’s hard to just take to the streets as the kids are managed by a whole community of street adults that don’t take kindly to researchers. It was during the fieldwork that I got to know the street girls and realized that very little academic or social work was being done with this marginalized group of young women and as I built my friendships with them, I realized that I was being read and listened to about other issues I was commentating on, on Egypt at the time and so I took this opportunity use social media and blogging as a channel to which they could be heard.

FC: As an anthropologist, how can you explain the ailing situation of street children in Egypt today?

NA: The children have developed their own language, terminology, defense mechanisms, dress codes, survival strategies and society seems happy with the “otherness” this creates. It was interesting too to learn how the government upon being offered 17,000,000 LE for the street kids “problem” they did not consult a single NGO that works with street kids and instead decided they would build a city where they would move all street children to. This highlighted how marginalized this group of kids are, how they are perceived as a threat to society and also highlights that their situation worsens by mainstreams perception and lack of understanding.

FC: Can you describe the plight of street children in Egypt, particularly girls and women?

NA: This is a really hard question to answer in just a few words, but I’m going to try. I think it would be useful to talk about the plight of street girls and young women in terms of the different stages of their life cycle, so to speak.

These girls come from families who have been violent to them in one way or another and have found no support at the time, before migrating to the street in an attempt of reconciliation and of course, where inappropriate, then a lack of appropriate alternative care.

Then they move to the streets; which are even harsher than their home circumstances at times where they are subjected to a whole new range of violence and abuse and deprivation. One extremely articulate street girl answered me, when I asked her why she wouldn’t go home if the street was worse: “you can forgive the street because it’s not supposed to care for you, but how can you forgive your mum and dad who are supposed to be nothing but love and care”. This really threw a new light on the issue of rehabilitation and why it is, often, unsuccessful.

Then the violence and struggle at correctional centers and institutions where the monitoring of staff is catastrophic and lacking to say the least.

And then to the challenges they face when they fall pregnant, lack of antenatal care, humiliation at the hospitals they go to give birth in, lack of support with the paper work and the huge emotional and practical responsibility of having a child when they are children themselves.

FC: You are a volunteer and project manager at Hope Village, a day-shelter for young mothers in Cairo. What are the biggest challenges you face at the shelters?

NA: The biggest challenge is fighting the feeling that I just want to take them all home with me! But there are more challenges of course, treating them all fairly, listening without surprise – remember these kids have more experience in their small number of years than we have in a lifetime. One of the greatest challenges is standing around helpless as a parent of one of the children comes in to take his/her son/daughter and we know they will bring them back in a very bad state, but we have our hands tied by the laws which allow abusive parents to take their children away to beg with them for instance.

FC: Encountering the agony of homeless children day after day, you must often be overcome by a desire to stop. What keeps you going?

NA: I need to keep going because I realize on the days I don’t tweet and blog about them, no one is. When I went to speak to the girls about my research, I told them I had no questions for them, all I would report on was what was important for them that the world knew, the stories they wanted others to hear and know. If I stop that, all they will have are the sensational stories and numbers and statistics that totally dehumanize them. Many other things keep me going, the way they hug and kiss me when I come in through the door, the same girls that flinch at the slightest gesture from a stranger.

FC: In one of your articles, you revealed the story of Taghreed, a girl who ran away from her abusive father and now lives alone with her baby on the street. You wrote she only dreams of issuing a national ID. How have your dreams as a person changed, in light of the unorthodox stories you encounter everyday?

NA: Yes, definitely. I’m glad you asked this question because it’s been playing on my mind for a while. I was wondering recently where my “future plans/dreams” were and couldn’t find any… I realized that after working with the girls I have started to dream “collectively” so to speak, every dream is for a group of people, for families, for nations, etc. I find this really interesting and I am still figuring out what it’s about.

It isn’t just my dreams that have changed, though. Working with the street girls has changed me as a person. I try and write in all my bios now “I go to university to teach and I go to the street kids to learn”. They have taught me the most important lessons in friendship, love, maternal matters, struggle, resilience, resistance and they have also taught me the power of dreaming, that without holding on to dreams, you wouldn’t have the way to carry on.

I feel like I am so privileged to live these girl’s lives with them for many reasons. One of the things I’ve learnt is that once you start living for a cause, your personal problems aren’t an issue anymore, you learn to let go and be far more reasonable, forgiving and willing to compromise – you are armed with the “bigger picture” through their stories.

FC: If there is one human right you are fighting for, what would it be?

NA: The right to sleep with both eyes closed: the right to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

FC: Let’s dream for a minute. If you had a magic wand, what would you change/fix in order for those street children and mothers to lead normal lives? 

NA: I love magic wands… do you know that I actually carry one in my bag often! If I had one that would work for the girls, though, I would wave it at two things, the first would be their parents to push them to the street and the other at society who cannot embrace their misfortune.

Nelly Ali – International Women’s Day #TakeTheFloor 2013 #UNWomen event

UN Women in collaboration with IFMSA (International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations) and AUC Heya Club are celebrating International Women’s Day for 2013 on Wednesday March 6th, 2013. The event is entitled “Take the Floor” to host inspirational talks and videos that encourages behavioral change and creates awareness about this year’s theme; “A Promise is a Promise — Time to take Action on Ending Violence against Women and Girls”.

Street Children and the Big Dream of Citizenship

Left-Out-Image

There was no mistaking the horror this six year old girl was experiencing. Nothing more telling of the fear than the warm yellow fluid running down her short, scarred legs as her knees started to visibly shake. There was little mistaking the heaving chest as her heartbeats escalate while the quiver of her small, cracked lips began. Following her gaze to the door of the drop in centre for street children she was at, an angry man with blank eyes stood gazing right at her. Her father had found out where she was spending the day.

There is little the staff at day care centres can do to stop fathers or mothers coming to take their children, little they can do even if they had signed them in to permanent shelters. The law handicaps those who are trying to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents. Staff had to watch Taghreed be pulled by the wrist as she wet herself leaving the shelter which she had escaped one afternoon’s scorching sun to. All they could do was pray that they would see her again, minus the scars and bruises she had returned to them with previously.

Taghreed is not a lone street child. She has lived all her small number of years on the street with her father and mothers and siblings. They are travellers living on the streets of the cities they migrate back and forth between depending on which had a “mowlid” that the father could use his kids to sell little plastic toys or to beg if that didn’t work. Our society is one of alms, of course, but to care about where those alms went or what would be more affective than giving a few pounds, rarely is the case.

Taghreed didn’t like selling stuff for which her father took all her money; she didn’t like her father either – understandably. And when she found her way back after a couple of weeks to the day care centre, the psychologist asked her why she was so afraid of her father when she was such a strong little girl herself. Without shame, Taghreed recounted the ways in which her father ties her up in metal chains, locking the shackles at her ankles and wrists and beating her till he can no longer lift a finger. Many street kids lie to gain sympathy in hope for a pound or two. But Taghreed knew Shaimaa was not going to give her money; her body also bared witness to the genuineness of her account.

Eventually, the exploited girl ran away. She shaved her hair, bound her breasts and lived as a boy trying to protect herself on the streets. She tells me she could forgive those who did her wrong on the street far more than the parents she knew were meant to protect her. Taghreed is one of the most special and beautiful girls I have known. She is trustworthy and loyal and never forgets a good deed done for her. As she sits holding her cheerful 5 month old baby, she tells me her dream is to get ID for her and her child. That’s it – that is what she dreams of. But it’s a dream none of us who love and care about her have found easy to realise for her. Taghreed’s parents are not married; her father beats her every time she goes to try to convince him to go with her to get an ID issued and bureaucracy means she cannot get it done without him.

So unlike women fighting for equal rights, for employment rights, for child care rights, for divorce rights, Taghreed is a young woman fighting for the right to exist in the state, the right to be recognised as a citizen, the right, in her own words “to be human”. These are not things that we, as a society, can cure with giving a few pounds to passing street kids we feel sorry for, or a few pounds of meat during Eid to satisfy religious obligation.

We must, as the “honourable” citizens we like to think of ourselves as, be outraged that some are still fighting to be missed when they are dead, to hold pieces of paper that ensure the basic treatment at hospital if they fall ill, a basic education even if wont take them anywhere. We must be so outraged that this rage brings about change. We must refuse the social contracts we are in if they do not embrace those too poor, too weak, too scared to fight their way into our worlds – worlds in which we have become so blind that we are surprised to hear that some do not hold ID. I know someone who had their ID issued the same day it was requested while they were in a foreign country because they had the money and connections. Taghreed has spent ten years of her life being beaten and abused, travelling back and forth with money she has hated making and to no avail.

If you are reading this and know any way to help Taghreed get her ID without her father having to be there, without her parents having to be married, email me: nelly.ali@gmail.com – Taghreed and I need to hear from you. If you can’t, then tell everyone you know – tell them that before we concern ourselves with which hand to eat with so the devil doesn’t join us, we must extend that hand to those whose wrists are tied in chains, before we concern ourselves with never entering the toilet with our left foot, we must first concern ourselves with lifting the feet that step on the weak because their voices don’t make their way to our ears.

Taghreed once gave herself to a violent gang rape to save a new virgin on the street – the least that sort of loyalty deserves is ID.

Omar was shot through the heart? Street kids have hearts like us?!

So many of the kids on the streets know exactly what you want to hear from them. They eye you up, suss you out and in minutes they conjure up the story you are there to hear. They have to be this clever. Their survival depends on it.

I remember speaking with one journalist who told me she was in awe at a child who told her she had joined the protests in January 2011 because she cared about the country and wanted to bring political and social change. I knew the girl she was speaking about well. She didn’t give a crap about political change, simply because she didn’t understand what the word meant.

I got to know the girls over many months — not formal 30-minute visits or interviews, but I’d really got to know them, by clapping while they danced, sympathizing when they spoke in group therapy, by laughing at stories of the street, by cleaning wounds after self-harm. It was because I lived those stories I felt I could ask Taghreed, one of the girls on the street, why the kids were really there in the squares.

So we took our interview roles: Taghreed happily holding the mp3 recorder in one hand turning it over and amazed that in a bit she would be able to hear her own thoughts (she had asked me to buy her an mp3 recorder so she could speak to herself in it because she wanted to keep a diary but couldn’t read or write), and I took my interview position, holding her cheerful four-month baby who knew nothing but to smile all the time.

Many people to whom I tell the stories of the street girls comment that I must be strong to live and hear these stories. Every time I hear this I recall the ache in my heart at the smiles of the little babies — nothing pains me as much as the smiles. These little curves on the lips, the greatest manifestation of how equal we are, how painfully similar our starts are, how incredibly precious some smiles are to others because life is set out to break them, to give them nothing more to smile about.

And I hear Taghreed tell me about the revolution and the move the children who slept in Ramses Square made to Tahrir Square. She speaks of it as a migration, as if those little green, or what should be green, patches of land represent a city in their own right; a city with its children citizens, those kids without IDs, without shelter, without biological families and without protection.

Taghreed tells me that one child had come running to them in the great city of Ramses Square telling them that millions of people where in Tahrir. Two of her “married” friends (these are children who are 14, marriage and family makeup to street children are different to how we know them) decided it was best to join so they didn’t miss the greatest opportunity to steal mobile phones. She tells me this and laughs for ages saying she wonders what the reaction of journalists would be to the real reason why some children were there.

But she goes on to say “not all the children were there to steal though! It was just so fun! For so long people were telling us that the street was bad, that we had to get off the street, but suddenly everyone was on it, everyone in the country was in Tahrir, so we moved there from Ramses. People there spoke to us, fed us, joked with us, some even tried to teach us to read and write. We even slept next to all these people with their good smells. And we helped them too. When food ran out we told them where the cheapest places to get food were. We taught them the best ways to run away from the police. That is because our favorite game is Atari.”

When she saw a look of confusion on my face she explained: Police cars, we call them Atari, and we play all day running and hiding from them. But we all realized that the police in Tahrir were different, they didn’t waste time running after you, they just shot you instead.”

Her stories and analysis of what led the children to the place where all the action was weren’t sinister. All the reasons, even stealing mobile phones, were understandable and I could relate to having started to know the kids. However, two years later, the children’s answers to why they were taking part started the chills down my spine. The kids were speaking to my colleague Adel who had dedicated the last 18 years of his life working with the children. He looks down and tells me there’s been a change of tone, that he doesn’t know who’s been speaking to some of these children, but someone different has. The kids running around with Molotov bottles are asking him, “What worth does my life have? I want to die a martyr so that God could forgive me for all the bad things that I have done in this world. I want my death to mean something because my life didn’t mean anything. I want to die and have all those people in Tahrir talk about me, walk in my funeral. I want to die and have someone remember me, draw my face on the wall like all the others, so no, ‘baba’, I’m not afraid to die.”

The relation of the street children with the revolution has changed in the course of two years. However, it would still be a kind of romanticism to argue that children were at the front lines because they understood the meaning of revolt as a means to an end. The children, because they are children, are not to blame for the state of mind they are in when they take to the front lines.

What about 13-year-old Omar’s death? Omar, the little boy shot through the heart by the army that was meant to protect his borders against the enemy. Was he there to steal phones? No. Was he there because he wanted his little face etched in graffiti on the squares surrounding walls? No. Omar was shot because he was there. Omar was shot trying to earn an honest living off the streets that have become home to so many classes, religions, ages and ideologies. Omar was shot because he was in the way. But more than any other reason, Omar was shot because no one would be held accountable. Omar’s little heart took the bullet because some are too cowardly to hold those responsible accountable. This article is for all the Omars arrested and shot, just for being there because there was nowhere else safer for them to be.

“Red Square”. Painting by the incredibly talented Mohamed Negm – mo*star art http://www.mostarart.com

“Red Square”. Painting by the incredibly talented Mohamed Negm – mo*star art http://www.mostarart.com

This post was originally translated from my original blog into arabic by Ekram Khalil for Shorouk News

قرأت فى الصحف وعلى مواقع الإنترنت، عن الاعتداءات الجماعية على المتظاهرات فى الشوارع، ولو لم أكن قرأت العناوين، لظننت أن الكتاب اهتموا فجأة بالحياة اليومية لأطفال الشوارع. وكان من المنطقى أن افترض أنهم أصبحوا مراقبين حريصين على المتابعة، نزلوا إلى الشوارع لتسليط الضوء على مدى انتشار وطبيعية ثقافة الشارع التى يحياها كل طفل صغير فى كل ليلة. ولكننى قرأت العنوان؛ الذى تشير مفرداته إلى أنه يتعلق بالفتيات، والشابات والسيدات الأكبر سنا من «ولاد الناس»، والطبقتين العاملة والمتوسطة (لأن أطفال الشوارع هم الطبقة المستبعدة). وقد تم تدبيج هذه المقالات لأن «المواطنين» تعرضوا للضرب، وتعرض شرف «المواطنين» للانتهاك، وانتهكت حقوق الإنسان الخاصة بالمواطنين. أما أطفال الشوارع؟ فهم ليسوا بمواطنين، بل إنهم حتى لا يحملون بطاقات هوية. وعندما يتعرضون للاغتصاب، والقتل بالرصاص، والموت، على أبواب الملجأ، فليست هناك جريمة، لأن الأمر لا يتعلق بمواطنين. وهكذا، لا يتعلق هذا الطوفان من المقالات بشأن التحرش، والاعتداءات الجنسية، وعصابات الاغتصاب فى الشوارع، بأولاد الشوارع.

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ولكن، لأن هذا هو الواقع اليومى لأولئك الأطفال، فقد عرفت بنفسى الشوارع على النحو الذى اكتشفه الآخرون مؤخرا. ومن ثم، أعتقد أننى أستطيع أن ألقى ضوءا مختلفا، أو نظرة من زاوية مختلفة، على ظاهرة تثير فزع الكثيرين للغاية، ويشعر كثيرون بغرابتها. وأرى أن هذا أحد الأوجه القبيحة للشارع. وكما أن لكل إنسان ولكل صديق، وجها قبيحا، لا تراه، أو تعرفه، أو تزدريه، إلا إذا أمضيت معه وقتا طويلا كافيا. فلا يمكن إخفاء حقيقته، وفجاجته إلى الأبد، كما أن نشوة الصورة المتخيلة، عن التضامن الذى يحققه الشارع خلال فترات الثورات، يبدأ فى التآكل، ويصبح الشارع وجميع سكانه غير المواطنين حقيقة، لا يمكنك أن تهرب منها، وهى الحقيقة التى شاركت بنفسك فيها والتى أثارت مخاوفك أيضا.

وبمناسبة الحديث عن الفزع، فقد بدا الكثير من الاهتمام والرعب، إثر الاعتداء بشفرة على أحد ضحايا هذه الاعتداءات. وقد تعجبت للمفارقة فى توقيت هذا الاعتداء. ففى الشهر الماضى، كنت قد اصطحبت احدى فتيات الشوارع اللاتى أتعامل معهن إلى جراح تجميل كريم، عرض على فتياتى، إجراء جراحة مجانا لمعالجة الندوب التى عانين منها، فى أثناء مثل هذه الاعتداءات فى الشوارع. ويعتبر الرعب جانبا من جانب ثقافة الاغتصاب فى الشوارع؛ حيث تسجل علامة على وجه كل طفل أو فتاة تعرض للاغتصاب. وتكون هذه العلامة عادة على شكل منحنى تحت عين الضحية، تعنى أنها لم تعد عذراء. وسوف يتم تسجيل الاعتداءات اللاحقة وهى كثيرة عبر ندوب أصغر، فى أى مكان آخر على الجسد. ولا ينسى أى منا فى الملجأ فتاة كانت محظوظة؛ حيث فلتت من الجرح فى الوجه، لكنها احتاجت لخياطة 16 غرزة أسفل ظهرها، حيث تم طعنها بالسكين عندما كانت تهرب من مغتصبيها.

وأنا لست خبيرة بنظرية المؤامرة، لكننى مستشارة فى مجال أولاد الشوارع، ومخاطر الشوارع. ومن ثم، عندما قرأت التفسيرات حول أن الحزب الوطنى الديمقراطى والإخوان المسلمين هم من دفعوا الغوغاء إلى هذه الاعتداءات الجنسية، كنت مترددة. فقد تذكرت أنه ما من أحد دفع أجرا للرجال الأربعة فى الثلاثينيات والأربعينيات من أعمارهم لاغتصاب مايا ذات السبع سنوات، والتى كانت تعيش فى الشارع منذ أيام قليلة فحسب. حيث يعتقد المعتدون أنه كلما كانت الطفلة صغيرة فى السن؛ قلت مخاطر الإصابة بالإيدز.

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ويجلب العيش فى الشوارع معه الكثير من المخاطر، وكلما عشت فى الشارع، كلما زادت احتمالات تعرضك للخطر. فهل يجعلنا ذلك نوافق على ما يحدث؟ بالطبع لا، ولكنه يلقى الضوء على محنة الأطفال الذين لا يلقون نفس الاهتمام، والرعب عندما تقع عليهم هذه الاتهامات، يوميا. كما يركز على أن الشوارع أصبحت تثير الرعب، لأننا سمحنا لها بألا تكون آمنة. ويوضح كيف يتم دائما تجاهل القانون وإنفاذه فهل يستحق هذا الرعب أن يعامل بقدر أقل من الغضب لمجرد أنه صار واقعا يوميا؟ لا، ولكن الغضب، والدعم الذى ينبغى أن يأتى بعده الإصلاح، يتعين أن يمتد إلى أولئك الذين لا يحظون بالاهتمام الرسمى فى هذه الاعتداءات لأن الاعتداءات فى الشوارع منذ بداية العام لم تكن 25 اعتداء فحسب. وقد شهدت للمرة الأولى الرعب من الاعتداء الجنسى فى التحرير، وكنت أشعر بالغضب مع كل قصة أسمعها. وقد حان الآن الوقت كى نستيقظ على حقيقة الشوارع، فبينما أصبحنا سباقين إلى الحفاظ على الشوارع آمنة من أجلنا «نحن»، نحتاج أن نوسع كل هذا ليمتد إلى الأطفال الذين ليسوا ضمن حساباتنا، من يحتاجون أن ينقل الكبار ألمه وتجربتهم، لأنهم يحظون باهتمام بالغ.

وسيقول لكم أولاد الشوارع، إن الاغتصاب الجماعى ليس سوى مجرد البداية بالنسبة لهم، ويأتى بعد ذلك مباشرة الدعارة وتهريب المخدرات والمواد الإباحية. وما تشهده الطبقة الثورية الآن، ليس سوى بداية ما يشهده آلاف الأطفال فى شوارعنا، بنين وبنات، هل تتخيلون ذلك؟

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ومازالت بوصلة اللوم مختلة، فكما يوجه الناس اصبع الاتهام إلى أطفال الشوارع، لأنهم فى الشوارع وليسوا فى البيت، متجاهلين كل الأسباب التى دفعتهم إليه، يوجهون الآن نفس الإصبع إلى الإناث اللاتى يتعرض للاعتداء فى التحرير وغيره من الأماكن، بدعوى أن خطأهن أنهن لم يقرن فى بيوتهن آمنات. القضية هى المساءلة؛ فبمجرد أن نتعلم معنى هذه الكلمة، ريما يكون الشوارع أثر أمانا بالنسبة لنا جميعا.

Mob Sex Attacks and the Everyday Reality of Street Children.

Painting by the incredibly talented Mohamed Negm - mo*star art www.mostarart.com

“Red Square”. Painting by the incredibly talented Mohamed Negm – mo*star art http://www.mostarart.com

I read the papers and online testimonials of mob attacks on women in the streets protesting and if I had not read the titles, I would have thought that the authors had suddenly taken a keen interest in the every day life of street children. I would have justifiably concluded they have become avid observers who have taken to the street to highlight the prevalence and normality of sexual violence in street culture that very little children live every night. But no, I have read the title; the words indicate this is about other girls; younger and older women, “welaad naas”, of the working and middle class (because remember street kids are the “excluded” class, second class citizens if that!). These articles are written because “citizens” have been struck, “citizens” honour has been violated; “citizens” human rights have been wronged. But street children? They aren’t citizens – they don’t even hold ID. When they come raped, shot, dead, and left in front of shelter doors, there’s not been a crime, because a citizen hasn’t been involved. So no, this flood of articles about harassment, sexual attacks and gang rape on the street, are not about the street kids.

But because this is the every day reality for those children, I have come to know the streets as what they have been recently discovered by others. So I thought that maybe by writing this, I could shed a different light, a look from a different angle on a phenomenon that many are so horrified by, so unfamiliar with.

I am arguing here that this is one of the ugly faces of the street. And, just as each human, each friend, has an ugly face, you only get to see it, know it, get scorned by it, once you have spent long enough with it. It’s reality and it’s crudeness cannot hide forever and the euphoria of the imagined utopia of solidarity that the street brings during revolutionary times, begins to crack and the street and all it’s non-citizen inhabitants become a reality that you cannot escape and one whose reality you have shared, one which has scarred you, too.

Talking of scarring, a lot of attention and horror has been expressed following the attack where a blade was used on one victim to these assaults. I wondered about the irony of the timing of this. Just last month I took one of my street girls to a generous plastic surgeon who had offered my girls free reconstructive surgery for the scars they suffered during such attacks on the street. The scarring is part of the street rape culture – any boy or girl who has been raped on the street, will be “marked”. This mark, usually a curve under the eye of the victim, will mean they are no longer virgins. Subsequent sexual attacks, and there will be many, will lead to smaller marks anywhere else on the body. One girl, none of us at the shelter forget, was lucky. She escaped the scarring on the face, but needed 16 stitches on her lower back where she was knifed as she escaped her rapists.

I am not an expert in conspiracy theories, but I am a consultant on street kids and the risks of the street. And so, when I read the musings that the NDP, the MB, the who ever else is organizing these mob sex attacks, my better judgment makes me tentative. I remember that no one paid the four men in their thirties and forties to gang rape seven-year-old Maya who had been living on the street just four days. The younger the child, the attackers think, the smaller the risk of contracting HIV.

Being on the street brings with it much risk, the longer you stay on it, the more likely you will be exposed to that risk. Does it make it ok? Of course not! But what it does, is highlight the plight of the children who do not conjure up the same attention and horror when these attacks happen to them, daily. What it does do is emphasize the terror that the streets have become because we have allowed them not to be safe. How the law and it’s enforcement is,  and always has been neglectful of the sphere, that in our country, is home to many. Does it deserve to be treated with less fury because it’s an every day reality? No, but the anger, the support, the reform that needs to come after it, has to be extended to those who are not on the official count of these attacks – because there has not just been 25 attacks on the street since the start of the year.

As street kids will tell you; gang rape is just the start for them – prostitution, trafficking and pornography come shortly afterwards. What the revolutionary class are experiencing now is only the initiation of what thousands of children on our streets, boys and girls experience. Imagine that?

The dysfunctional compass of blame is at work. Just as people point a finger of reprimand at the street kids for being on the street and not at home, ignoring all the reasons that have pushed them on it, now the same fingers point at the females getting attacked in Tahrir and elsewhere suggesting it’s their fault for not staying safe at home. Accountability. Once we learn the meaning of this word, perhaps the streets might be a little safer for all.

This is a girl trying her hardest to appear like a boy to stay safer on the street…this article was originally posted in Al Shorouk Newspaper here

girls

أهدي هذا التدوينة إلى الدكتور هاني حمام، شاكرة له أن اراني الجانب الأفضل من الحياة، وتقديرًا لمعاملته لإحدى “فتياتي” من بنات الشوارع، بأمانة ورقة

خلال الساعات الثلاث التى تستغرقها المسافة حتى وصولنا، تخبرنى تغريد عن المرات التى كانت تنظر فيها إلى المرآة، وتتذكر كيفية حدوث هذه الندبة. وبدلا من أن تنفق وقتا طويلا فى الحديث عن هذه الكيفية، تحكى لى بحماس كيف تعامل معها الطبيب بلطف. وكان الدكتور هانى كتب على تويتر يبلغنى انه يريد مساعدة الفتيات اللاتى يعانين من ندبات الاغتصاب، وعرض إجراء هذه العمليات مجانا. ولم أكن فى مصر فى ذلك الوقت؛ وعدت لأجد تغريدا أجرت الجراحة وهى ذاهبة اليوم لفك الغرز. وحكت لى عن نظافة العيادة، وأن الدكتور كان يعاملها كما لو كانت «السيدة تغريد» وعندما سألها عن اسمها، أجابت «اسمى الحقيقى أم اسم الشهرة»؟ وعندما سألها عن اسمها الحقيقى مازحته قائلة «أبو لهب» وضحكت.

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وقد لا يبدو الأمر لافتا لك عزيزى القارئ أن يعامل الطبيب تغريدا باللطف والاحترام. فإذا كان كذلك، دعنى أوضح: أثناء الرحلة، كانت تروى تجربة ولادة طفلها على سبيل المقارنة؛ وتحكى أنها بمجرد دخولها إلى العيادة وهى تتألم، سألوها عن زوجها، وعن الندبة التى على وجهها، ومن الذى سيضمنها. ونظرا لأنه لم يكن معها رجل، استخدمها الأطباء من أجل تعليم صغار الأطباء من دون موافقتها؛ وبمجرد أن فحصها الطبيب، امتدت 20 يدا داخلها. وكانت تروى لى هذه القصة وهى تهز رأسها مع ابتسامة خفيفة، وتقول إنها واثقة من أنه إذا كان الدكتور هانى شاهد كيف تعاملوا معها، لكانوا جميعا فى مشكلة! وحكت لى تغريد أثناء رحلتنا قصصا أخرى، وقالت لى إنها لا ترغب فى تناول الطعام حتى تعود لينا. وتحدثت عن المرة التى أخذت أم لينا ابنتها لمدة أسبوعين، ثم أعادتها إلى الملجأ عارية تعانى من الجديرى المائى، وفى رأسها قمل أكثر من كل القمل الذى شاهدته طوال حياتها. ولاشك أنه من المؤثر أن تستمع إلى تغريد وهى تتحدث بتلك الطريقة. ودهشت لأننى كنت مخطئة عندما شاهدتها للمرة الأولى؛ فقد حكمت عليها بأنها قاسية. ومن المؤلم أن ترى حنوها وهى تحتضن طفلها، وتتحدث بهذا القلق والإحساس بالعجز، عن طفل لأم أخرى. وكانت تقفز من موضوع لآخر: من قصص تعرضها للضرب على أيدى أهلها، إلى تقييدها وضربها فى مؤسسات الأحداث، إلى الحرية فى الشوارع، والأصدقاء الذين نامت معهم بجوار السكك الحديدية، إلى الإخصائيين الاجتماعيين الذين أخذوها إلى مطعم كنتاكى. أما القصتان اللتان تعود إليهما دائما، فعن أصدقائها الذين لا تستطيع العثور عليهم، وعن قلقها من اليوم الذى لاتستطيع فيه الإنفاق على تعليم ابنها!

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كانت تغريد تتوقف عن الحديث أثناء مرور السيارة عبر مدينة السادس من أكتوبر، لتشير إلى المبانى وتتساءل، كيف يتسنى أن يكون هناك العديد من المبانى الخالية، بينما ينام العديد من الناس فى الشوارع. وتقول إنها لم تكن تفكر فى أول رحلة لها إلى هنا، إلا فى العيش فى إحدى تلك الغرف مع ابنها. وكانت تفكر فى أنها تود لو تزرع التفاح، مثل التفاحات الست التى سرقتها ذات يوم من أجل أصدقائها، الذين لم يكونوا قد تناولوا الطعام لثلاثة أيام، وعندما حصلوا على بعض المال، عادوا ليدفعوا الثمن إلى بائع الفاكهة (الذى رفض تناول النقود، وأعطاهم ست تفاحات أخرى لقاء أمانتهم). وقبلت طفلها قائلة له إنه سوف يتعلم، ويكسب مائتى أو ثلاثمائة جنيه شهريا، ولن يجوع أبدا.

ونصل إلى مستشفى الجراحة، لتقودنا تغريد. ونصعد الطوابق الثلاث، وهى تحمل طفلها بيد وفى اليد الأخرى هدية للطبيب شمعة مما تنتجه الفتيات فى ورشتهن تم لفها بشكل خاص من أجل هذه المناسبة. وقوبلنا بحفاوة فى المستشفى كما لو كنا أصدقاء قدامى، وقدمت تغريد هديتها بفخر. وأحسست بدهشة فى حضور الرجل الذى التقيناه فى الداخل مع تواضعه الذى لا يمكن وصفه.

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ودخلت إلى حجرة العمليات، معتقدة أننى يمكن أن أقدم لها دعما. ولكن مرة أخرى، أدهشتنى بمرونتها وقوتها. فلم تجفل مرة واحدة، عندما كان يتم إزالة الغرز، على الرغم من الدم الذى كان ينز من الجرح، والدموع التى تجمعت فى ركنى عينيها. حاولت أن أمسك بيدها، لكنها سحبتها لأنها كانت تعد الغرز. كان التغيير مذهلا فى وجهها؛ فقطعة اللحم التى كانت تتدلى سابقا، تذكرها دائما بصدمتها، وضعفها، وقوتها، وتاريخها، لم تعد موجودة. وعلى الرغم من الصدمة النفسية التى تمثل ندوبا أعمق، لا ترى بالعين والمسئولية فى صورة ابنها، لم يعد التذكير اليومى بالنظر فى المرآه قائما. تركنا العيادة بعبء أخف، وتذكير أقل بحياة ملآى بالتحدى، والعنف والمعارك.

وبينما ندلف إلى السيارة، التفتت تغريد، وطلبت منى أن أحضر الكاميرا معى إلى الملجأ غدا، لأنها الآن لم تعد تخجل من التقاط صور لها مع ابنها.

Girl Trying to Sleep – فتاة تحاول النوم

Girl Trying to Sleep

One of our street girls, in her own words:

“This is a picture of a girl sleeping in the street. The girl is cold and no one feels for her and no one helps her. No one even thinks to give her something to cover her at all. The only reason people look at her is to try and find out if she is a girl or boy. No one in these buildings took notice of her. And when they saw her, they got very scared of her and didn’t notice the man that was around her, putting his hands on her. They didn’t notice that she couldn’t sleep because the man wouldn’t leave her alone.”

واحدة من فتيات الشوارع، بكلماتها الخاصة:

“ده صورة بنت نايمه فى الشارع ساقعانه محدش حاسس بيها ولا بيساعدها ولا حتى بيفكروا يدويها حاجه تستغطى بيها خالص محدش فالح يبص عليها غير عشلت يشوف هى ولد ولا بنت محدش فى العمارات ده بيفكر فيها ولا حتى خد باله منها وبص عليها ولما لاقوها خافوا منها اوى ومخدوش بالهم ان فى راجل عاملى يحوم حولها ويحط ايديه عليها وان هى كل ما تيجى تنام مش عارفه عشان الراجل مش سايبها فى حالها”.

(Thank you to the psychologist Shayma2 for sharing the story.)

كونك فتاة يدفعك للشارع أحيانًا

This little girl ran away to the street after refusing to give sexual favours.

This little girl ran away to the street after refusing to give sexual favours.

This post was translated by Al Shorouk and was published by them on 19 Jan 2013 and can also be read here

يشير العديد من التخمينات والإحصاءات والكثير من الأبحاث الأكاديمية والتطوعية إلى أسباب مختلفة تدفع الأطفال للعيش فى الشوارع. وتراوحت الأسباب بين ما إذا كان فقر أسر الأطفال المدقع هو الذى يدفع بهم إلى الشارع، أم مثلما اكتشف بعض الباحثين أن العنف والأسرة المحطمة يفضى بهم إلى الانتقال إلى حياة أكثر عنفا وتحطما فى الشوارع.

ولعل ما لم يشر إليه كثيرون أو لم يلحظه، أن مجرد كونك فتاة يكفى لدفعك إلى الشارع. «اكسر للبنت ضلع يطلع لها 24»، هذا قول شائع بين أبناء الطبقة العاملة فى مصر. وهى أيضا عبارة، نسمعها نحن العاملين فى مجال خدمة أطفال الشوارع عندما نحاول التوسط بين هؤلاء الفتيات الهاربات وأهاليهن. وغالبا ما تكون الفتاة التى تنام فى العراء، ولدت لأسرة كانت فيها والدتها ضحية عنف من رب الأسرة، وقد دخلت هذه الدائرة لمجرد لفت النظر إليهم.

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ويمثل كونك فتاة، تحديا فى كل مكان. ولكن، الأمر يزيد سوءا عندما تكون الفتاة مصرية، من الطبقة العاملة الفقيرة، نشأت فى عائلة تتسم بالعنف، وتعيش مع أحد الوالدين. وليس هذا تعميما شاملا، وإنما هو تصوير ديموجرافى لمعظم الأطفال الذين أتعامل معهم. حيث تنام الفتيات تحت الكبارى، وفى منعطفات الشوارع، أو بجوار السكك الحديدية، وهذه الأعين الواسعة، اللاتى تراها وتسبب لك غالبا اضطرابا، أو تخيفك، هى عيون لأطفال مذعورين، جياع، وحيدين. وربما يسهل علينا أن ننسى ذلك. لكنهن مسحوقات فى سن الطفولة.

وغالبا ما تهرب فتيات الشوارع من الأسر التى عرضتهن للسفاح أو الاعتداء الجنسى من الإخوة والآباء وأزواج الأمهات. ومن بين الفتيات العشر النزيلات حاليا فى الملجأ، تعرضت فتاة عمرها 14 عاما، للاعتداء الجنسى من قبل زوج أمها منذ أن كانت فى التاسعة من عمرها، وعندما اكتشفت والدتها ذلك، أخذتها إلى المستشفى لإجراء فحص العذرية بعدما نفى زوجها الاعتداء. فقام بدفع رشوة للعاملين فى المستشفى، لإصدار تقرير وهمى. وفى القاهرة، خضعت لاختبار عذرية آخر، فصدر تقرير بأنها لم تعد عذراء، وبموجب هذا التقرير تم إدخالها إلى ملجأ «الأمهات الصغيرات».

أما الطفلة لمياء ذات العام الواحد، فهى ابنة سميرة ذات الثلاث عشرة سنة، التى تعرضت للاغتصاب من قبل كل من والدتها ووالدها. وقد تركت سميرة طفلتها فى الملجأ خشية المسئولية، ولا يعرف أحد إلى أين ذهبت. وربما كان من أكثر الحالات المؤلمة التى تتعامل معها قرية الأمل منظمة غير حكومية حاليا، حالة هايدى، الفتاة فائقة الجمال ذات الأربعة عشر عاما؛ فقد قام عمها بتكبيلها فى نفس الوضع لمدة ثلاثة شهور، وكان يغتصبها يوميا. ولم يطلق سراحها إلا عندما وعدت بالانضمام إلى شبكته للدعارة، التى أجبر أمها وشقيقته على العمل بها. وما أن فك قيودها، حتى جرت وألقت بنفسها من النافذة. ونقل المارة الفتاة التى تكسرت عظامها إلى نقطة الشرطة، فحولتها إلى الملجأ.

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ولا يتوقف العنف الجنسى فى البيت ضد الفتيات. ويعتبر الاغتصاب والتعامل بعنف مع الفتيات جزءا من ثقافة الشارع. ويحمل معظم فتيات الملجأ ندبة مقوسة على أحد جانبى الوجه، أو تحت العين؛ وفقا لتقليد معين للاغتصاب فى شوارع القاهرة، لم يستطع أى من العاملين مع الأطفال فهمه تماما. فبمجرد أن تغتصب فتاة للمرة الأولى، يتم عمل جرح عميق منحن فى وجهها، بواسطة مطواة أو قطعة من زجاج عادة، لتسجيل إنها لم تعد عذراء، ويتم تسجيل وقائع الاغتصاب التالية بواسطة جروح أصغر مساحة على وجهها. ويحدث نفس الشىء عندما يتم اغتصاب صبى. ويسجل مدير الملجأ، وهو يدير الإسعافات الأولية فى مركز استقبال الرعاية اليومية المزدحم بالسيدة زينب، أن هذا النوع من العنف هو الأكثر شيوعا بين ما يتعاملون معه، حتى إنه يتم تسجيله أكثر من مرة يوميا. وقد أجريت لفتاة كانت تسعى للالتحاق بالملجأ خياطة 16 غرزة لجروح فى ظهرها، نتجت عن محاولتها الهرب من مهاجميها لإنقاذ وجهها.

•••

وفى جميع قصص الفتيات التى تعاملنا معها، كان مجرد كونها فتاة يجعلها إما عرضة للمعاملة بعنف فى المنزل، والتسرب من التعليم للمساعدة فى أعمال المنزل، أو أن تصبح مسئولة عن العناية بإخواتها، أو الاغتصاب فى الشوارع بسبب انعدام وسائل حماية نفسها، أو تحمل عبء ما يترتب على الاغتصاب، حيث تصبح مسئولة عن طفل، بينما هى نفسها مازالت طفلة، وتحمل عار كونها أما غير متزوجة.

وربما لا يكون هناك ما هو أكثر تعبيرا عن العنف الذى عانت منه فتيات الشوارع، أكثر من مشاهدتهن يقفزن من فراشهن إلى ركن الغرفة ليجثمن على أطفالهن عند فتح الباب من قبل أحد الإخصائيين الاجتماعيين. ويصعب التعامل مع هذا ومع ارتعاد الأطفال من أى حركة مفاجئة أو سريعة، حتى بالنسبة للإخصائيين الاجتماعيين الذين يعرفون قصص الفتيات ويشاهدون ذلك يتكرر فى كل مرة. وتهدف قرية الأمل إلى مساعدة هؤلاء الأطفال على النوم بعينين مغمضتين.

Street Children: Rape and Erasing the Scars of Memory.

Today my post is dedicated to Dr Hany Hamam; an amazing human being whose life path took him to the study of medicine and then to cosmetic surgery. I want to dedicate him this post as a thank you for showing me the better side of life and for his generosity, his integrity and the gentleness with which he treated one of “my” street girls as he changed her life.

I arrived at the shelter today at 6pm. This is the latest I have ever been. It was darker than usual. It hadn’t occurred to me before that the charity, with its sparse financial resources, would make do with the TV light in the evening to save the electricity counter ticking. I felt ashamed that this explanation only crossed my mind after I had automatically reached out to switch the lights on. I went up, the first floor was empty and dark, the second floor hosted everyone around the TV. I immediately noticed that Leena wasn’t there today, Mama Madeeha tells me her mother has come to take her. She moves her lips to one side, as only Egyptians know how, to express her sadness at the situation. She’s upset because this isn’t a family visit for Leena, her mother is taking her three days to spend on the street with her. Taghreed adds, three days if she actually does bring her back. Shams toddles hurriedly my way with her arms in the air saying “mama” demanding I carry her. She does not know that I have come up specially to see her and hug her and take my own dose of the love that these children have become a huge source of to me.

Me and Taghreed and her 4 month old son leave and go back down the stairs, in the dark this time. Taghreed tells me she’s learnt the way down by heart and not to be scared. A little ashamed of myself, I take out the torch in my bag to light the way down despite her reassurance (and yes, I have a torch in my bag, as well as a million other random things!) We wait for Mr Emad, the duty manager and 3am Ashraf who’s working unpaid extra hours this evening to drive us to 6th October City; a journey that takes us just under three hours in the Cairo traffic. I am in my element in this little micro bus. I am humbled by the amazing people sat in the front, giving their time and effort for a cause that is so dear to my heart.

During the three hours that it takes us to get to Dr Hany Hamam’s clinic, Taghreed tells me of the times she looks in the mirror and remembers how she got this scar. She does not spend long telling me how, but instead, excitedly tells me how well this doctor has been treating her in the times she has previously been to him. Dr Hany had written to me on twitter telling me he wanted to help the girls who had the rape scars, that he was a cosmetic surgeon and offered to perform these procedures free of charge. I was not in Egypt at the time and to be honest, ashamedly I could not keep up with all the offers of help that were flying in at me after the few posts I had written about the girls. But, I did pass his number on and I returned to find out that Taghreed has been to have the surgery and she was going today to take out the stitches. She tells me how clean the clinic is and that he treated her like “The Lady Taghreed” and joked with her and had asked her for her name. She had answered “My real name or my fame name”? She had joked with him and said “Abo Lahab” in answer to her real name. She told me this had made him laugh and she’d liked him ever since.

It may seem unremarkable to you, reader, that the doctor treated Taghreed with kindness and respect. If it does, then please let me explain. During the journey, she tells me of her child birth experience in comparison. She had been to the university hospital “Dimirdaash” in down town Cairo. She tells me that as soon as she walked in, in pain, she was asked where her husband was, what the scar on her face was, who was going to vouch for her. She said because she didn’t have a man with her, the doctors were able to use her to teach the younger doctors without her consent, so that after one doctor checks her dilation, 20 other hands were in her. They had also told her not all patients get anaesthetic when they were cutting/stitching and that they would only spray a little on. She tells me this story shaking her head with a slight smile and tells me that if Dr Hany had seen how they had treated her, she was sure they would all be in some trouble.

There were other stories Taghreed tells me on our journey, she tells me she doesn’t want to eat till Leena comes back – these two have a very special bond. She recalls the time Leena’s mother had taken her for two weeks and bought her back to the shelter naked with chicken pox and with more lice in her hair than all the lice she had ever seen in her life. It’s more moving than I can find words to write to hear Taghreed speak like this. I am amazed at how wrong I was when I first saw her. I had judged her as harsh and quite cold and dangerous. Her tenderness as she hugs her 4 month old, speaking about someone else’s child with such concern and helplessness is painful. She jumps from one conversation to the other, from stories of her fathers beatings, to being tied up in the institutions and beaten, to the freedom and fun on the street, to the friends she used to sleep with on the rail tracks, to the social workers that took her once to KFC. The two stories she always comes back to are of her friends whom she can’t find anymore and to her worry about one day not being able to afford her son’s education. But just as quickly as the concern appears, it leaves her eyes as she remembers stories of kindness or risk that she choses to tell me.

Taghreed’s stories are interrupted as we drive through 6 October. She points out at all the empty flats (as I had done before her) and asks me how comes there are so many empty buildings and so many people sleeping on the street. On her first journey here, she says all she could think about was how to come her on her own and just live in one of those rooms with her son, have a door shut behind them for safety. She had thought that she could grow some apples like the 6 she had stolen one day for her and her friends when they hadn’t eaten for three days and then when they had money, they had gone back and paid the fruit seller who in return for their honesty refused the money had given them 6 more. She tells me people who steal because they are hungry shouldn’t be punished and that all of Egypt were hungry. She laughs and kisses her baby telling him he would have an education and make 200-300 pounds a month and never go hungry.

We arrive at the surgery. Taghreed guided us. She said with pride, “I can tell you where this building is between a million buildings”. We go up the three floors and she holds in one hand her son and in the other a present for the doctor – a candle that the girls produce in their workshop. It has been specially wrapped for this occasion. We are greeted like old friends in the surgery and Taghreed proudly offers her gift.

I am in owe of the man we meet inside. He tells me that a person either always loved his country and never knew it, or that the 25th Jan revolution shone a light on this love. Either way, I understood what this man was saying. I felt his need to not function on a personal level but make society function with him. He is a man who has performed over 130 surgeries for Libyans who have come to Cairo and 15 Syrians. He told me he follows my tweets about street children avidly and to consider him one of my team. His humbleness was indescribable.

I went in to the operating room with them thinking I would support Taghreed while she took out the stitches. But again, she amazed me with her resilience and strength. She did not once flinch as the stitches were being removed, despite the blood that was oozing out of the wound, and despite the tears gathering in the corner of her eye involuntarily. I tried to hold her hand, but she pulled it away because she was counting stitches. It was an amazing change to her face, the flesh that hung out of place previously, a constant reminder of her trauma, her weakness, her history, the scar that haunted her with it’s memories was no longer there. Despite the psychological trauma, who’s scars were deeper and not visible to the eye, the responsibility in the form of the child that Taghreed was left with, the daily reminder in the mirror, was no longer there. We left his clinic with one less burden to deal with, one less reminder of a life full of challenge, full of violence, full of fight.

As we were getting into the car, Taghreed turned around and asked me to bring my camera to the shelter tomorrow because now she was no longer ashamed to take pictures with her son.

أحفاد الشوارع… يزحفون في ظلال الصدقة

لم أكن رأيت ريم من قبل. وكنت قد سمعت عنها عندما حدثتنى شيماء عن أسماء غريبة لبعض الأطفال، وكيف يطلق عليهم الملجأ أسماء أخرى. وكان اسم الطفلة ريم ذات السنوات الخمس، «أم حامد» فى شهادة ميلادها. وراقبتنى ريم بعيون تشع ذكاء. وقد تدربت، لأنها عاشت فى الشارع طوال سنواتها الخمس، على ملاحظة الغرباء وتحديد ــ خلال دقائق قليلة ــ ما إذا كانوا يمثلون خطرا أو لا يضمرون أذى. وهى موهبة يتمتع بها معظم أطفال الشوارع الذين قد تقابلهم.

وقد شاهدتنى وأنا ألعب مع الأخريات، وتابعت بعضهن يأتى ليعانقنى وأعانقه. ورأيتها بطرف عينى، وهى تستمع باهتمام إلى تعليقاتى، وهن يحكين لى ما حدث فى الملجأ خلال الصباح، وعن آخر رسوماتهن، وكيف تعرضت سالى للعقاب لأنها أهانت إحدى «أخواتها»، وعندما تأكدت أننى لا أمثل تهديدا، سارت نحوى مترددة. حملتها وأثنيت على ملابسها وسألتها عن اسمها. فقالت »أنا ريم». قلت «آه.. ريم، سمعت كثيرا عنك، أخبرتنى ماما شيماء وماما ناهد كيف افتقدتاك، وظلتا تتحدثان عن جمالك وأدبك». وكان رد فعلها مؤثرا. فألقت بذراعيها الصغيرتين حول عنقى وقفزت لتجلس على ركبتى. ولاحظت لأول وهلة أن لديها قمل فى شعرها، وكنت خجلة من نفسى لأننى ابتعدت قليلا حتى لاتزحف الحشرات إلى شعرى. وفى مثل هذه اللحظات أود أن أذكرك، أيها القارئ، بالإعجاز والتفانى الذى يتسم به هؤلاء الذين كرسوا حياتهم لأطفال الشوارع، واختاروا العمل معهم بشكل يومى، وينتقل إليهم فى كثير من الأحيان القمل، والطفح الجلدى، والالتهابات والعدوى من الأطفال، ولا يخجلون من معانقتهم، ورعايتهم، وتقبلهم. و لهؤلاء الناس ارفع القبعة بكل إحترام لأنهم يعرضون حياتهم للخطر بشكل يومي و هم يدافعون عن أطفال الشوارع الذين هم في الأصل مصدر دخل من الشحادة و الدعارة لبلطجية و زعماء دوائر شحادة او دعارة في الشوارع.

ويدور هذا الموضوع عن أبناء أولئك الأطفال فى الشوارع جيل جديد أكثر تهميشا من الأطفال الذين أنجبوهم. ولأنهم لا يندرجون تحت التصنيفات التقليدية لـ«الأيتام»، فهم إما يباعون، أو يقتلون، أو يستخدمون للتسول، أو إذا كانوا محظوظين للغاية يتركون فى الملجأ، الذى يتعلم، من خلال التجربة والخطأ، التكيف مع حاجات أطفال الشوارع بسبب عدم وجود مثال يمكن اتباعه.

في أغلب الأحيان يضطر الإِنسان أن يكتم صوت صريخ ضميره عندما يسمع هذه القصص بأنه يشير بأصبع الإِتهام على أطفال الشوارع و يتهمهم بالإِهمال كأنهم كانوا أصحاب القرار أن يحملوا و هم في هذا الوضع من المعيشة و يقولوا “كيف لهم أن يفعلوا هذا؟ الا يروا مدَى سوء وضعهم الحالي الذي سيولد فيه الطفل؟”  لكن ردّي على من يخطر بباله ذلك السؤال و على من لا يصل إلى أن يفكر في هذه الأشياء من الأساس أن اسألهم “و كيف لهم أن يروا؟ هؤلاء أطفال يعيشون في الملاجئ بعدما إغتصبهم والديهم أو بعدما تحرش بهم و إغتصبهم أزواج أمهاتهم أو إخواتهم أو من يعملون عنده.  أطفال تعاني من مشاكل نفسية و ذهنية، أطفال إغتصبهم من كان الأصح منه أن يرعاهم. هذه الأمثلة التي في الأرجح سببت لك الإِستياء موجودة لكن الإِغتصاب من قبل الأهالي أو في المؤسسات أو من الشرطة لا يعبر في حديثنا اليومي كأنه سر أكبر من كل الأسرار، لكن صدقني، عزيزي القارئ، أن الفتاة التي تحمل في الحالات المذكورة مسبقاً وضعها و حظها أفضل من غيرها فالإِغتصاب الذي يحدث في الشوارع ضرره و خطورته و ألمه اكبر بكثير.

وهناك ثقافة معينة للاغتصاب فى شوارع القاهرة، لم أكتشفها إلا عندما بدأت بحثى عن العنف الذى تعرضت له هؤلاء الفتيات. فبمجرد أن تغتصب فتاة الشارع للمرة الأولى، وإذا اتضح أنها عذراء، يجرح وجهها من تحت العين أو فوق مؤخرتها. وقد تم عمل 16 غرزة لإحدى الفتيات التى كانت تبحث عن مأوى فى الملجأ، بعد تعرضها لمثل هذا الاغتصاب. وهى إشارة إلى أن الرجال الذين اغتصبوها للمرة الأولى «علموا عليها» و«حطموها»! وينجم عن عمليات الاغتصاب التالية ندبة رأسية على جانب الوجه.  معاناة بنات الشوارع لا تنتهي عند تعرضهم للإغتصاب فالعلامات التي تنحت عليهم و الحمل ليسا إلا شيئين من أشياء أخرَى كثيرة بشعة سيواجهونها. إذا إستطاعت البنت ان تصل إلى ملجأ فمن الممكن أن تلقَى رعاية ما قبل الولادة في العيادة التابعة للملجأ لأنها لو لجأت للمستشفيات العادية فإِنها تتعرض للإِهانة و المعاملة القاسية من الموظفين الذين يسبوها و يعتدوا عليها اكثر.

ومن أكبر الإنجازات التى تفخر بها «قرية الأمل»، الدعوة الناجحة لتغيير قانون الطفل فى عام 2008 فيما يتعلق بالأطفال الذين يولدون لأمهات من آباء غير معروفين. فقبل عام 2008، كان الطفل المولود لفتاة الشارع، يبعد عنها، ويسجل تحت تسمية «مجهول الأبوين»، ويفصل عن الأم التى توصم بعد ذلك بالداعرة وتحبس فى مؤسسة إصلاحية بناء على هذا الاتهام، ولا يلتئم شمل الأم وطفلها مرة أخرى. وبعد حملة واسعة وبذل الكثير من الجهد، تم تغيير هذا القانون، وقرية الأمل الآن قادرة على مساعدة أمهات الشوارع الصغيرات على تسجيل أطفالهن باسم « مجهول الأب»، وتقديم المأوى للأم الطفلة وطفلها حتى تستطيع العيش بصورة مستقلة.

وبعد زيارتى الأولى إلى الملجأ قبل بضعة أشهر، سألت نفسى كيف يمكن لهؤلاء الفتيات الصغيرات ذوات البطون الكبيرة التعامل مع حالة الأمومة، هؤلاء الفتيات اللاتى هربن فى كثير من الأحيان إلى الشارع بعد اعتداء عنيف بدنى وجنسى، ارتكبه الأب أو زوج الأم. وهناك تاريخ لكل من هؤلاء الفتيات حيث تمثل كل منهن قصة رعب فى حد ذاتها، فكيف بعدما إغتصبها من قبل والديها ستتعامل “سميرة” التي تبلغ من العمر ١٢ عام  مع تلك هذه المسؤلية التي هربت بعد يومين من عملية قيصرية، وكيف سيكون التعامل بين “مايا” و بنتها “سمر” بعد ما تعرضت “مايا” لخلع ملابسها و ضربها و تركها على سطح المنزل مغطأة بالعسل من قبل والدها! كيف ستستطيع شوشو” التي تبلغ من العمر ١٤ عاماً أن تستيقظ كل يوم لتطعم طفلها الذي يبلغ من العمرشهرين عندما يجوع بعدما حرقوا عينيها في موقف من مواقف العنف الكثيرة التي واجهتهم من أهلها لكونها معاقة؟”

وبعد شهرين، جلست فى جلسة علاج جماعى، وشاهدت هدير (14 عاما) تلقم ثديها لوليدها الجديد فى حنان لم أره من قبل ولم أقرأ أو أسمع عن مثيله أبدا. ورحلت ذلك اليوم وأنا أشعر بالألم من ظلم هذا العالم الذى نعيش فيه وأدعو سامع الدعاء ألا يتخلى عن هؤلاء الصغيرات، وأن يمنح أطفالهن الفرصة التى لم تتح للأمهات. غير أن الواقع يختلف كثيرا عن ذلك الدعاء. فلا يقيم فى الملجأ و«يتخرج» منه سوى 20 فى المائة من أطفال الشوارع. وتعود الأخريات إلى الشارع خشية هذه المسئولية الكبيرة، التى اضطررن إلى تحملها.

وحتى الفتيات اللاتى تعلقن بأطفالهن، غالبا ما لا يستطعن البقاء. ومن أكثر الأمثلة التى تمزق القلب الطفلة منال ذات الثلاثة عشر عاما وتعانى من فصام عقلى، التى أنجبت الطفلة هند. وتعتبر منال أفضل طفلة أم على الرغم من أنها تترك ابنتها فى الملجأ. فقد تعرضت للاغتصاب من صبى فى منطقة ريفية بمصر، وأمضت شهور حملها فى الملجأ. وقد ظنت أنها إذا أخذت طفلتها معها، سوف تحرك العينان الصغيرتان اللامعتان مشاعر أبويها ليتوليا رعاية طفلتها الصغيرة. وبعد يومين، تم استدعاء الإخصائية النفسية إثر استغاثة من منال لإنقاذ هند من حبسها فى مزرعة الدجاج، فى محاولة من الوالدين لإخفاء ما اعتبروه العار الذى لحق بالعائلة. واستقلت شيماء الرائعة حافلة لمدة تسع ساعات، ثم حملت على صدرها الطفلة الصغيرة طوال تسع ساعات للعودة. وتحضر منال كل شهر لتمضى يومين مع هند. وهى تعمل بقية الأيام الأخرى لشراء الطعام والملابس لها. وانا أتحدى من يرى صراعها النفسى كى تغادر فى نهاية اليومين، أن يستطيع النوم فى تلك الليلة.

ويبدو أن حياة هؤلاء الأطفال لا تفتقر فقط إلى التمويل بعد الثورة ولكن إلى الاهتمام والوعى المجتمعيين. وهناك أمل فى نجاة أحفاد الشارع من الاغتصاب والجوع، والعنف إذا كنا، كمجتمع مسئول عن ظروفهم، نشعر بالغضب من عدم وجود قوانين تطبق لحماية هؤلاء الأطفال. وأنا أريد منك أيها القارئ، أن تغضب لعدم وجود قانون يسمح بأخذ الطفلة جودى ذات السنوات الأربع من أم الشارع التى أخرجتها من الملجأ لتتسول بها، بعد أن أحدثت فى رأسها قطعا من شأنه أن يكسبها نجاحا أكبر فى نيل تعاطف المارة. وعندما تمر أيها القارئ بجودى وآلاف من أمثالها فى الشارع، ولا تشعر بالغضب معنا، فعليك أن تدرك أننا جميعا السبب. فلتساند حملتنا لحماية هؤلاء الأطفال بحيث لا نواصل تحويلهم، مع جميع الأقليات الأخرى فى بلادنا، إلى السكان الأصليين فى مصر.

ولكن الآن، عودة إلى ريم ذات السنوات الأربع، فبعد أن تسلقت إلى حضنى واستسلمت لعناقها، واختلط شعرها الموبوء بالقمل بشعرى المغسول، وعندما تذكرت بارتياح أن لدى شامبو للقمل من لندن يحقق نتيجة خلال عشر دقائق، قلت للطلفة الصغيرة أننى كنت أنتظر لقائها، وقد سمعت أنها كانت بالخارج فى زيارة عائلية. فنظرت إلى بجدية بعينيها المستديرتين اللامعتين، وقالت: «أكره الزيارات العائلية، لقد اوقعت هبة الكوب، فربطنا والدى نحن الاثنتين معا، وضربني بالحزام هنا (و أشارت على ظهرها و العلامات الكثيرة التي تملأه) وتوقف عن ضربى عندما بللت نفسى. عندما أكبر سأصبح شرطية. وسوف أقتل أبى”.

thank you to Ahmed AboElhassan (from Tahrir Supplies) and Gameel Mattar (from Al Shorook News) for helping with the translation

Street Children: The Hymen and the Stamp of Shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt and the Dysfunctional Compass of Blame

I was not going to write about last week’s attack on the street. Yes, reader, last week I was attacked on the streets of Cairo and subsequently blamed for my choice of timing being on them. However, after having been rammed into a parked car today, and also blamed, I decided to write. This post is not an attempt to evoke pity. What this post does attempt to do is take a quick look at how the compass of blame in Egypt generally points in the wrong direction.

Today, I threw a fit in the one place I could these days. I launched my Twitter app and had my rant. I wished this rage could have been translated into anger and directed at the idiot who had upset me earlier, but how could I when he was in his car and I had already seen he was willing to harm me for “fun”.  After squashing me against the parked car; stripping me of my power, my balance and my control, the driver then parked up temporarily, with his head out of the window sporting a wide smirk, commenting on the size of my breasts and waited to see if I would join in with the sadistic fun and get into the car with him. This only lasted for seconds. A homeless man with obvious learning difficulties saw the incident and I was touched at his rage. He took off his ripped and well-worn slippers and threw both at the car trying to stutter the words “Leave! Leave!” Egypt is, as always, everything and its opposite at every moment.

Last week I was invited to Iftar at a cousin’s house. I went to the local sweet shop to buy an ice cream cake, a favourite during the heat wave that has recently hit Cairo, and waited for a cab, like you do. The roads were quite, as they are just before Iftar time, with the few cars on this main road, driving at break neck speed so they could make it to which ever home they were going to break their fast in.

I could see two guys on a motorbike go round the U-turns a few times. Each time they went round, they parked for a few moments a few feet away from me. They were bare foot, dirty skinned, with unkempt hair and they both had scars across their face – signatures of life’s experiences that they had have suffered, some worn with pride and others with defeat; I had learnt this scarring system through my work with street children: a curved scar under the eyes of a girl, for instance, marks the first time she has been raped, other vertical scars represent each of the subsequent sexual attacks. Out of principle, I am not scared of those who wear the “look” of the street. On the contrary, I am blessed that I can, at once, see beyond the dirt to the handsome jawlines and passed the drugged out drooping eyelids to the fiercely intelligent eyes. The hard callused feet are not unattractive, but instead they tell the tales of the many times they have had to run for survival, from abuse, the times they have had to run for their lives.

Their presence did not affect me. I took my mobile out, made a call and was generally comfortable. It was only when they practically drove their motorbike a hair away from me that I jumped at the proximity of the bike and fell backwards between two parked cars. They weren’t able to grab my bag like they had obviously been planning by the way they grabbed my arm and as they were coming for me one more time, a cab driver stopped and I jumped in.

The cab driver, seeing I was distressed, said that he wanted to offer me some advice. He told me not to take offence, that I was like his daughter, but this was my fault. He said I should have never gone out at least an hour before Iftar time. Despite appearing concerned and kind, as soon as the sunset call for prayers started, he parked up in the middle of nowhere and said he wanted to go to his kids to break his fast and that where I was going was out of his way. No doubt he was thinking abandoning me was my hosts fault for not living en route! I got out, just folded in and sat on the pavement and started to cry. Then, true to being Egypt, the opposites started to appear. Scenes of young men and boys on the street giving out drinks and dates to any car that was still driving during Iftar time, and of course, the kind female beggar who left her food for the few minutes I sat by her on the pavement crying, offering me comfort and advice.  The beggar, opening one of the tissue packets that she sells at the traffic lights, taking it upon herself to wipe my face and further smudge my makeup, told me, “sweetheart, how could you do that?! How could you be go out at this time?! You are the one who is wrong, you are crying because you didn’t think!”

Everyone, who was not part of my twitter community, said some variation of “It’s your fault, you should know never to go out during this time, that’s when the roads are quiet and the muggers operate”. Well, I assure you it never even occurred to me, it was in no manual or travel guide. And is this not what happens when someone is sexually harassed? Some clever disillusioned commentator will make some observation on the way the girl is dressed, the time she was out, the way she was standing, and if it’s a close female perhaps suggest she try minimizing bras.

Then there are others who try to comfort you by saying, “you should thank god that it came to this and you were not hurt, god protected you because you’re kind and did not deserve anything bad to happen to you”. I actually thought this was worse! Are they trying to say those who are seriously harmed deserved it?! How our culture comforts us by saying crap that wasn’t true that we ended up reproducing the thoughts and reproducing the ideas that encouraged inaccurate blame! But how many of the 85,000,000 will be convinced with your speech of social reproduction through language? How many mothers and fathers have you seen hit the floor telling the toddler who had just fallen that the floor was naughty for making the little kid trip over and so we would hit it?

I began to believe that I had taken a horribly wrong decision to have left London, three weeks after getting married to an incredible man, to come to Egypt because I believed in the change that was happening here, because I ached to be a functioning part of a society that was trying to change from the bottom up, from the inside out. I left the place I was born and grew up because I felt I had something, even if it was only my good intentions and willingness to work hard, to offer. I thought that my love for my family here, the people here, the children here, would make this country my home, but the bitter reality is, every time I leave my front door I get a panic attack just thinking what the streets today have to offer, what they have to take away and how I will be blamed. Today I realised my definition of home was where I felt safe.

As for Egypt, it’s important to lay the blame where it is appropriate. Only then can we work towards making things right and fixing them. But, if we continue pointing fingers at the mugged for carrying valuables, the attacked for not being vigilant, the raped for not dressing appropriately, the murdered because their time had come, then we might as well forget society as we know it and start looking for Adam and Eve to blame.

FGM: Mutilating the Female Spirit

This is a picture of a 10-year old at the local barbershop used by the CNN in 1995.
Please note: details have been changed to protect the identity of those I write about.

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She asked me if I liked her, a lot – not only if I liked her, but also if I liked her “a lot”. It’s hard breaking her good heart. But the truth is, I could not see past the fact that this woman she was asking me about, had made the decision to mutilate the genitals of her five female daughters. This woman had made the choice of subjecting all her daughters to a procedure she herself had gone through, one that I was afraid to imagine. She had decided to deprive them, forever, of full sexual pleasure because, she argues, “females are prone to being horny”.

I took the metro to visit this family in a part of Cairo I knew I would be frequenting during my stay here; a key site for my PhD research with street children. I would, of course, be dressed differently when I came for my fieldwork. There would be no designer flip-flops, no low cut maxi dress and no flowers in my hair. I would try to blend in the background, as “decent” women, here, are expected to do. Impressed with how clean, calm and courteous the metro was, one man, well into his 70’s and on a walking stick, got up to offer me his seat and would not have me turn down his offer. My friend had marked the house as the building next to the barbershop.

There was much going on that I know in any other circumstance, would have made me sit here, passionately writing. I would be typing away either about the gender roles and the non-patriarchal household (despite the presence of a husband and father); about the five young ladies that came scurrying out of the shared, tiny, cramped bedrooms with their big dreams; I would have written about the generosity of the poor compared to the rich we’d been visiting. I would have been sitting here being judgmental about a whole range of different things. But, none of the above, could motivate me to write today more than FGM. I walked into this house knowing that all the women in it had suffered something I was lucky enough to escape. It wasn’t only that I sat there knowing I would enjoy sex in a different, fuller way to these girls that outraged me, but more than this, that the mother, herself, had inflicted this.

I sat between them remembering a procedure I had undergone as a child in a clean, relaxed London hospital to check on my kidneys and the “reflux” they thought I was suffering from. The procedure involved a doctor inserting a sterilised tube up my urethra to see inside my bladder. It was done with my legs open in the air. I can still remember the details of the room; how big it was and considerably empty with just the seat i was on, a tray with wheels and a screen. I remember the offensive, but reassuring smell of disinfectant, the doctor’s gloves freshly picked gloves from the box in front of me, and his professional, but kind reassurance. I even remember the length of the hair on his eyebrows and the thickness of the frames around his glasses. It was more embarrassing than painful, but it was a procedure that 24 years later, I have not forgotten. It was also a procedure that meant it took many years before accepting that anyone could touch me “there”. I wondered what smells these girls could remember; could they recall the smell of the rusty blade, the impatience of the local barber, the dirt under his nails, and the humiliation at having lots of people watching? Could they remember the feeling of trickling blood down their thighs, fainting under the pain? I could not imagine how these girls felt at the thought of being touched “there” again.

I have often dismissed engaging with the fight against FGM, arguing to myself that there were plenty others who had taken this fight on. FGM wasn’t personal, I didn’t know enough about it, and I had my sleeves rolled up facing other human right violations. Today, however, I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I could not concentrate on any of the things that usually amaze me in these situations. I came home and couldn’t write about something I didn’t know, so I started doing some research. I wanted to start just by sharing a chronological commentary on FGM; which in many countries where the procedure happens, became known as one of the “Three Feminine Sorrows” – the first was the actually circumcision, the second was the wedding night when the woman had to be cut open again, and the third was during childbirth, where again, she had to be cut open.

The term “Pharaonic Circumcision”, which most girls who suffer FGM in Egypt are subjected to, originates from its practice in Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs. Leonard Kuber and Judith Muascher, document that circumcised females have been found among Egyptian mummies, and that Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC) referred to the practice when he visited Egypt and there is reference on a Greek papyrus from 163 BC to the procedure being conducted on girls in Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, and Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 BC), the Greek geographer, reported it when he visited Egypt in 25 BC).

It wasn’t just Egypt, or Africa that practiced this, though for the purpose of this blog I did not research more about the history of the practice elsewhere. It was interesting to find, however, that gynecologists in England and the United States carried out FGM during the 19th century to “cure” insanity, masturbation and nymphomania. It is important to note thee pivotal date, June 1993, when the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights agreed that FGM was a violation of human rights.

It took some time for Egypt to catch up, even if only superficially. The health ministry banned FGM in 2007. The five girls would have not benefited from this ban, even though it is naive to think the ban actually made a difference on the practice, in fact, it probably made the procedure worse because it had to be done in hiding. The ban came to save face the Egyptian government after a photograph (above) of a 10-year old girl became public. She was undergoing FGM in a barber’s shop in Cairo in 1995. The image was broadcasted on CNN and caused a public out roar. The photograph was taken in a barbers shop. As soon as I read that I could not stop thinking about the barber’s shop beneath the house were in. The head of the household kept speaking about them being long life neighbours that loved her. I started to feel sick hoping to god it wasn’t here the girls had become “pure, ready for marriage”. 2007 also saw the case of 12-year old Badoor Shakir who had died of an over dose of anesthesia during an FGM procedure in the southern town of Maghagh for which her mother had paid a physician in an illegal clinic the equivalent of $9. After this news broke out, the highest religious authority in Egypt, Al-Azhar, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in Islamic law, enabling the government to ban it – ban it, not outlaw it and hence it’s enforceability is problematic.

There is much to speak of, of course, other than historical dates that bought about change. There is the procedure, the experience, the cultural resistance of women, more than men, to give it up. There is the link between the ideas of mutilating the female reproductive system with a pure maternal being. There is link between FGM and the cultural expectations of some for women and the unnatural immobility during intercourse and their efforts to hide orgasms should they be lucky enough to experience them.

The physical and psychic trauma that these girls I visited have gone through and that which still awaits them makes me ashamed of all the times I have turned away from this debate. Education and awareness is key. For them, I start judging. For the children whose bodies are still being mutilated, I start writing.

Kafr Elzayaat – Where Women Don’t Hang The Clothes To Dry

They say the delta of Egypt is where She gets her life. It may be true; but it’s not where She necessarily gets her freedom. I came to Kafr Elzayaat on my second trip as part of the election campaign, that I have joined, in a bid to see a different side to Egypt while out here doing my research with street children; one I would otherwise not have access to. I took off on this road trip trying to see the delta with fresh eyes, uninfluenced by my awe of Upper Egypt and all the things it changed in me. But, it was hard to step back and embrace it objectively. I admit I had to remind myself often to make space within me for the beauty and pain that this place might reveal.

The road was new. This road didn’t pass through the agricultural Egypt, instead, it cut through the desert. Unlike the air that was thick with human stories in Upper Egypt, the air here carried a guilt of sudden death. Is was one of the most dangerous roads in Egypt, claiming a large number of lives every year. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who died on this road. Mostafa also was not the same. The animated man full of stories of struggle and hope was tired. He was being pulled thinly across Egypt in different directions. He hadn’t slept for days, started taking heavy painkillers every few hours and was starting to taste the sting of criticism as he gathered both supporters and critics. We temporarily swapped roles on this journey. But as soon as we arrived and our hosts welcomed us, I was amazed at where he gathered all the strength from. He was back! Optimistic, faithful in delivering his message and sincere in his support for the people he met.

The man running for elections in this constituency was a character that filled me with such a strong compulsion to create a caricature of him or one of those flick books to capture how comically serious he was and how quickly he spoke and moved. You could almost see the ideas fly by in is mind and you had to be super quick to catch up with both his thoughts and words. I loved him and didn’t believe a word he said all at the same time! His optimism was endearing but his lack of awareness or conversation about anything other than how many votes he was sure of securing made me wonder if he was the best candidate for this part of Egypt. I felt we should have carried a responsibility away with us to take back and talk about, write about and fight for. This man was not going to give us the humanistic tour or answer questions about neither struggle or needs.

The generosity we we’re offered in this home matched that of Upper Egypt and the food was delicious! We had already eaten and tried to explain we couldn’t possibly eat now but it was almost like those were words that did not make up any part of the vocabulary of an Egyptian home and all that was said was “That is not my concern”! So we sat and ate.

After the food I started to learn what I had come here to learn. About women. Where were the women? While Mostafa was taken to a separate part of the Villa to change his clothes, I was introduced to Nadia (her real name has been changed for her privacy). A very beautiful 27 year old who opened the door to greet me. She stood behind the door gracefully in a long white and sky blue Abbaya, earrings that were so big and heavy I was in awe at how she didn’t have to bend over to carry them. She was white with the blackest hair sleekly brushed back from her face and she wore grey contact lenses that I was sure hid even more beautiful eyes. Nadia greeted me with the smile of an old friend and started chatting straight away, even before I sat on the very modern beige and cream couch, about my marital status and why I wasn’t married till now?! I loved her instantly.

A few minutes later I was “called for” (it felt like I was called for by my master which irritated me from the “messenger”) by Mostafa. I went over to where he was dressed (very smartly may I add) and he, with a very embarrassed look on his face said: “I’m really sorry Nelly, I didn’t know, but no women are coming to the conference. You’re not going to be able to join us”. He seemed more irritated than I felt and so I decided not to express my outrage immediately. But at the same time this was relevant. This spoke more about this candidate who had earlier left out the most important stories of the place. His second mistake quickly evident; his marginalising the women who were going out to vote in a couple of weeks. It was crazy.

What struck me as surprising was the comparison to my recent visit to Sohag. Sohag, a part of Upper Egypt, known for its conservatism, and it’s need for gender equality awareness seemed to be years ahead in terms of their involvement of women in the political scene. So much so that in my post about Sohag, I very naively did not mention that the 1000 strong crowd was half women and that a woman from the constituency was running for elections! Today this seemed significant and very worthy of celebrating and mentioning.

While Mostafa went to the conference, I stayed with Nadia. Nadia taught me much in the couple of hours I spent with her and she unwittingly, through her small talk, gave me a bigger, clearer picture of what it meant to marry a man from here. Nadia has been married for just 3 weeks. “This was probably the worst time to get married to Mohammed because of the campaign”. She goes on to explain, “but, of course Mohammed can’t leave his brother to go through this alone”.
Her appreciation for solidarity that chewed into her honeymoon touched me. I asked her if she went out here and had made any new friends. She looked at me with a look that said “you’re a foreigner and I’m going to have to explain this to you slowly”. She told me laughing, “friends?! What friends? I’m not even allowed to stand out in the balcony to hang the clothes to dry!!” Then, she went on to tell me, lovingly, that sometimes her husband came home early at 8pm and she’d spend time with him. That seemed the highlight of her day. I asked if this made her miss Alexandria (where she’d grown up) and her friends there, and she explained, again very cheerfully, that she only had one friend since knowing Mohammed because “a man is always right in terms of his insight about the world and he had explained that most of her friends where “no good”. ”

I wasn’t sure if it was what she was saying or the cheerfulness she was saying it with, that was making me so uncomfortable. I decided to change the subject from personal relationships to her plans for the future. With every conversational manuver I was making I was discovering how arrogant I was. She did not have plans for the future. She told me that her family owned a series of makeup and accessory shops and that her mother had made each of the 7 children responsible for one of them. She giggled as she confessed that the one week she was in charge of hers she had been responsible for a loss of over 2400 Egyptian pounds and this was for goods that were usually under 5 pounds… She went on to explain to me that different people were made for different things and she was a failure at the outside world and was made for staying at home and shopping when she went to Alexandria.

What happened next was something I don’t know how to explain. I couldn’t just listen passively and I told her she can’t be so harsh on herself or call her self a failure simply because she didn’t perform well in retail, that the world was so big and there were a million and one other things that I was sure she could excel in. If you would be quick to accuse me that I was being pretentious, then explain how I broke all the social barriers of this extraordinarily cheerful woman and suddenly moved from a formal eating of gateau in the living room to sitting cross legged on her bed eating biscuits and her showing me her makeup and scarves and telling me intimate stories of friendship and love.

The bedroom we had moved into housed the large LCD screen where her favourite Turkish TV series (which she had watched three times before) was showing in an hour. This was also the only other room she had private access to. It did not match the modern minimalist look of where she received her guests. When she directed me to sit on the bed, I looked at its height thinking “will she pull out some garden ladders, or a stool perhaps to climb?” But I quickly realised no such assistance will be offered and so I jumped on the rich ruby silk and decided to enjoy her hospitality and the friendship she was offering me. As she was opening the drawers to show me her scarves, she explained that a few years ago she had tried a scarf on and realised she looked more beautiful in it so she never took it off since then. Her honesty was refreshing! She was veiled because it accentuated her beauty rather than her modesty and she wasn’t in the slightest ashamed.

I asked her if she was happy. She told me that she was. That though Mohammed would swear at her and take out all his frustrations at her, she “worshiped the soil he treads on” and that he was the best sort of man because though “he would hurt her when he was angry, as soon as she apologised, he would act like everything was ok again”. How I wanted to throttle Mohammed and society and everything that made this woman who had so much potential feel so weak and grateful for treatment that others take their partners to court for. I didn’t say what I thought, not only because there was not enough time, not because I didn’t want to intrude, but because….. oh so many reasons I regret now. But Who was I to impose what I thought a healthy relationship was. I say this, but at the same time I felt like screaming at the absurdity of it all, at the plight of women and at how damn hard it was living like this. This trip made me temporarily fall out of love with life.

We were interrupted by the maid who came in to the room to tell me “you’re being called for at the conference”. I didn’t want to leave. As I was leaving, Nadia insisted I freshen up my make up and use her perfume so I could be ready “should I bump into my fate on the way”. She stood next to me in the mirror inspecting a spot that appeared on her otherwise flawless skin and complained. I said it might be her period coming to which she took much offence and said “spit those words from your mouth, hopefully it won’t come and a baby will instead, what else has he married me for?”

I got in the car waiting for me with two strangers who drove me the 30minutes to the tent I did not want to go into. I wasn’t invited in. I was told I could hear them via the speakers from the car and the driver was instructed not to leave me alone to make sure I was “safe”. I felt suffocated and I hoped no one would vote for this candidate. The show (it all felt like a show now) came to an end and again Mostafa left the conference with tens of people around him, again trying to be as close to this man as they could. I hadn’t heard what he had said to them (the quality of the speakers wasn’t great) but the look on the faces of these men was different to the other people on the street. These people had been motivated and you could see it. why the women couldn’t be part of this was meaningless.

Mostafa got into the car and apologised to me for my having made the journey and not getting the chance to learn much of the socio political scene that I had come for via the conference. This of course was an unnecessary apology. I do not think I could have learnt more at an artificial set up where politicians play on dreams as much as I did in the coziness of the small room and the genuine sharing of Nadia that evening.

We were driven back to Cairo and I could not help but feel how lucky I was for the privilege of having choice. Not only the choice to participate or to disengage, but to not have someone like me leave my home after my being as hospitable as Nadia had been, feeling pity out of their arrogance at thinking they understood society or what was best for me as I had done. It’s never as simple as your convictions make it out to be; the truth is, it’s complicated.

[Photo by Neal http://www.flickr.com/people/31878512@N06/%5D

End Sexual Harassment

On “End Sexual Harassment” blogging day, I am sure there will be lots of posts that will address the following: perverts; religion; experiences of harassment; women’s rights, lack of marital opportunity and pornography and so all these are outside the scope of my own post. I would, instead, like to look at sexual harassment from a few other angles; for in my eyes, it is a given that perhaps the rise of pornography coupled with the lack of sexual/marital opportunity and outlet encourages acts of perversion and harassment which are against religious teachings and result in violations of women’s rights – it seems these explanations have become somewhat redundant.

I think it would be naive not to discuss sexual harassment within an etiological perspective. Harassment of any kind is rarely the problem. In more instances than not, it is the symptom – perhaps the most inconvenient and overt – of far graver problems that society needs to address and deal with before we can be rid of it and sexual harassment is no exception to this analysis.

I want to go deeper than this. I want to talk about upbringing, I want to discuss culture, jokes, expectations and innocence. How often in Egypt do we hear aunties, uncles, parents joking with little boys about making passes on pretty girls and labelling him a little don Juan from an early age, every one laughs, the boy feels extremely proud and knows that this behaviour is what will get those he seeks approval from to give him just that. On the contrary, how often compared to this scenario do you find the same aunts/uncles and parents praising a little good looking boy for, say, the opposite? Children are far more intelligent than the majority of Egyptian adults give them credit for. The adults think it’s all in good spirits, a lightening of the general mood and actually often want their son to be the boy who knows how to woo the girls, who is the envy of his other guy friends and all this perhaps in the desperate hope that if he indeed does grow up into this boy, then they have successfully discouraged him as far as they possibly can from their ultimate nightmare of homosexuality. This is all my own interpretation of course, I hear these comments as jokes every so often, but there is a ringing truth beneath it that we need to be far more aware of if we are to get to the bottom of what it is that turns an increasing number our men into perverts.

One of the positions I fail to understand is “girls bring it upon themselves by the way they dress”. Look, don’t get me wrong; I understand the core of this argument, people who take this line are possibly arguing that provocative attire, chewing gum (or whatever other random thing they chose to focus on) attracts attention at best and harassment at worst. Despite the fact that some (and I mean JUST some) girls do dress, walk, act, laugh in ways that beg attention, these are cases that also need looking at in an etiological and a non judgmental way. But these girls are not the point of discussion here; 1. because there are lots of girls who dress up wanting to feel sexy because it makes them feel nice and 2. because what ever a girl does or does not wear does not strip the man of responsibility for his reactions and 3. guys who sexually harass women also do so to those wearing the nikab, those who are not provocative etc. and so for today’s post, at least MY post, I am talking about the guys who harass women who do NOT want to be harassed.

What’s important about my point above is that attitudes like this add to the disastrously increasing enacted inferiority of women. By thinking it’s HER fault we are raising the offender above his responsibility and so, in fact, also making HIM inferior that he is not capable of choosing a reaction to what he sees or what he feels about what he sees. You cannot make a women inferior without unwittingly placing the men in society side by side the level you have bought her down to. One of my recent examples of this is Egyptian advertising. Some butter gee advert (or washing up liquid, I chose to forget) claims that EVERY woman in Egypt’s dream has now come true because this brand is so amazing. How degrading is that? Not just for women who stand in the sun 7 hours in solidarity with another woman being questioned by the military prosecutor for ground breaking articles on corruption, or the women who devote their lives juggling between a 9-5 job, bringing up 2 or 3 kids, running a home, being a friend and wife, or the women who gather crops and suffer under the scorching Middle Eastern sun; but it’s also offensive to all the men who the ad is assuming marry women whose ultimate dream has been realised because the bubbles in this washing up liquid are far greater than the previous one. This is unacceptable.

Another thing I’d like to talk about, albeit very briefly, is the undeniable fact that multiple sexual/marital partners and a general fear of discussing this just in case we step on religious ground, is another one of those grass root factors that contribute to women’s inferiority in this society and also men’s eligibility to act in ways that do not honor monogamy not only in marriage, but in extra marital sexual and romantic relationships. A man is allowed to marry again, right? So he is justified, naturally, in “seeking” and “testing” the next partner that he “could not help but fall in love with”. I’m not sure what the way forward is in this particular instance but I just wanted to put it out there for discussion.

There is something else that is rarely discussed when we talk about sexual harassment and that is sex education; or indeed the lack of it. I went to school in London where we had compulsory PSHE (Personal, Social and Health  Education) Lessons and unlike people think, this is not all about how to have sex, protection and disease. It was also about feelings, emotions, aggression, results of unloving relationships, effects of perversion and harassment, accepting that both sexes know of desire and deserve sexual pleasure; without this meaning either was not honorable. The lack of sexual education here encourages the secrecy around sexual pleasure and the effects of harassment, both part of the circle we go round in, if indirectly – but I want to keep this for another post, you know, a special post about sex and Egyptian wedding nights, how all girls are expected to know nothing about desire, their own body or the body parts of the opposite sex (and, God forbid, what to do with it)… but, like I said, that’s for another time. For now, I just wish people took children seriously, the jokes they make with them seriously, their fears of what they could grow up to be seriously (and not so seriously) and then I’m sure in 20, 30 years time we’ll be writing different sorts of posts on the 20th June.

Poem – Egyptian Army’s Virginity Check

January and February made me safe in the hands of the Egyptian Army
Protected now from the thugs and no one can harm me
Protecting my rights to protest and encouraging me to be free
I’m simply held for questioning and then they’ll let me be

But now I’m dragged from the crowd … now I’m out of sight
Still it’s OK… this is my beloved army and I’m going to be alright
I convince myself the electrocution is only to keep me warm
I’m not loosing faith… they’ll never betray the oath they’ve sworn

But I see the white coat coming and they say “The doctor’s here”
I know the end of my delusion and this lie is almost near
You hold me down to see; if for a prostitute you would mistake me
Even at the doors of heaven, for that, God would not forsake me

You humiliate me to check the piece of skin is in tact
Whether or not it is, it’s you, not me, who lacks honor. That’s a fact!
You’re loyalty was brief or in truth was just a lie
You came to the streets; an opium to make the crowds high

And I am out and screaming and the people still wont believe
That the Egyptian army is capable of corruption or to deceive
We’ve lost our heroes and the illusion that you were all about
Having to thank God that I was one of the lucky ones that made it out.

I get home to hear my brother say… when I grow up I want to be a soldier
My mum, teary eyed said “no son, and I’ll tell you why when you’re older”