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.