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

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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.

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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

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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.