When Hope Dies, Nothing Blooms in that Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Break a Girl’s Rib and She’ll Grow 24”: Egypt and Children’s Rights in the New Constitution

Flickr: أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah

I wrote this post originally for Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and can be found here: http://timep.org/commentary/break-a-girls-rib-and-shell-grow-24-egypt-and-childrens-rights

Whether it is in the face of personal or structural violence enacted in the forms of physical, sexual, emotional, cultural, verbal, or financial abuse or neglect, children in Egypt face a rocky road. Many children do not have clear access to their rights and encounter limited recourse in pursuing them. The dreams of political and social improvement that the January 25 uprising embedded in those who care about the plight of children in Egypt were met with infinite amounts of disappointment. In actuality, the situation for the most vulnerable continued to get worse, and lawyers and activists found themselves occupied with fighting for—and trying simply to maintain—the very basic rights of children. Rather than engaging in the lobbying and other efforts needed to enhance and improve children’s rights, these advocates have struggled merely to hold on to the status quo.

One of the first phrases I became familiar with during my work with street children in Cairo was: “break a girl’s rib and she will grow 24.” This was a colloquial saying I often heard during my mediations with parents of street children whom we were trying to reintegrate into society by supporting reunions with their families. The idea that violence towards children is not only acceptable but actually good for them is encountered—and fought—at the grassroots level, where laws protecting children against domestic abuse are not actively implemented.

The saying above illustrates a gap between legal protections and their social contexts, and it is a prime example of the different layers of obstacles that a children’s rights lawyer or activist must combat when tackling any rights abuses that children encounter. Of course, an added difficulty is that children cannot actively engage in the fight for their own rights. Members of the working classes, ethnic and religious minorities, and women have all led struggles for their own rights, but children simply cannot effectively organize in support of their rights. Consequently, children’s rights are often only codified as long as they never conflict with those claimed by adults. Each time a new constitution has been drafted in Egypt’s recent history, it seems as though human rights defenders have been disappointed in general, and the most recent constitution is no different. Specifically, those who have dedicated themselves to protecting children have a few grave concerns with the new document.

In 2011, Amira Qotb and others registered Manadeel Waraq (“Paper Tissue”) as a nationwide popular campaign for the protection of children’s rights in Egypt.  The group’s main responsibility is to lobby for the implementation of international and local laws protecting children in Egypt. However, even as I and other members of Manadeel Waraq were being asked our opinions regarding what would become the 2014 Constitution—which appears to grant basic human rights to children (despite lacking information on their implementation)—we were petitioning against the arrests of children, their detention with adults, and the public distribution of their pictures by the police and press. The distance between the words and actions we continue to encounter speaks volumes on the actual value of the proposed changes when not accompanied by detailed implementation schemes.

Among the articles that concern children are articles 97 and 204, respectively regarding arrests and military trials. Article 97 states that civilians should be brought before their “natural judge”, who for children would be a judge in a juvenile court. This is already somewhat problematic, as the juvenile justice system in Egypt is not a place where fair legal procedures regarding arrest, trial, and detention are observed. As for Article 204, it states that civilians can be tried before a military court under certain circumstances. It appears that this article will lead to a continuation of past treatment for children, as they have stood before military courts for years now. Manadeel Waraq and the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign are engaged in the fight against making children stand before a military court, though with limited real success.

On a slightly more promising note, Article 52 is a positive addition to the constitution in that it criminalizes violence in all forms, regardless of the victim’s position on pressing charges. However, it remains unclear whether this includes cases of abuse that occur within the family or whether such violence is still considered a domestic matter. As it stands, only a member of a child’s family can file a complaint based on physical violence towards a child if the violence involved is neither sexual nor life threatening. Another positive note is found in Article 60, which criminalizes any act that mutilates a human’s body. This article can be seen as laying the foundation for a fight against female genital mutilation, a practice that has affected the vast majority of female Egyptians. However, it is not clear how this article could be specifically invoked in practice. Finally, Article 53 references anti-discrimination principles that should guide the country in general; I and others hope that the guarantees made will be applied to schools that currently refuse to enroll street children with “mainstream” children because of the former’s history and experiences. Of course, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by Egypt, requires such non-discrimination in its second article.

The 2014 Constitution’s Article 80, which focuses particularly on children’s rights, was welcomed by the Egyptian Coalition for the Rights of the Child in Egypt. This article reiterated the state’s responsibility for protecting children from violence and preventing sexual and economic exploitation, including limits on vocational work that puts children in any danger. It remains to be seen how this article will be implemented, though, taking into account the complex economic circumstances that have led to a widespread level of child labor as a source of familial economic support. The article also states a right to identification papers for children—this is a very welcome move from the view of NGOs. Many NGOs working with street children have had their hands tied in attempts to enroll children in school or to get them necessary medical attention because of a lack of proper identification. Such situations present a catch-22: street children often ran away from their parents because of abuse or exploitation, yet previously they could only obtain official papers in the presence of their parents. Finally, Article 80 promises a comprehensive juvenile justice system, including legal aid for children and detention areas separate from adults. Again, we can only hope this will be a priority in the midst of the instability that the country is experiencing.

Article 89, which criminalizes human trafficking in all its forms, is another welcome addition. Though laws that already exist have done little to eradicate trafficking, the placement of a prohibition on the activity in the constitution is a necessary step to battle the violent abuse of young, female domestic workers. Many such workers are effectively “sold” by their families, as they are placed in other’s homes to work and their salaries are paid to their parents. Another area of work that may result from these laws is an investigation of the prevalence and details surrounding the stealing of organs from street children. It also includes criminalizing the prostituting of children whether covertly or in the form of a “child marriage” that lasts a few days. An example of an organized child-marriage-brokering network was portrayed in a secret documentary film done by journalist and former parliamentary candidate Gameela Ismail.

The writing of a constitution that includes explicit acknowledgments of children’s rights is the first step on a long journey to ensuring the safety that children deserve and to providing them with the opportunity to grow and develop into adults who are ready to face the challenges of life. One hopes to see improved methods of implementation and monitoring of these rights. There is also a need for broader recognition of the importance of academic, impartial research that investigates the roots of the social problems that harm children and how those problems can be solved at the earliest stages. Such a need exists because, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Egypt: Where Muslims think heaven is not under the feet of Coptic mothers… and Coptics think to love a muslim is to live in Sin…

“Heaven is under the feet of mothers” says the veiled teacher in Arabic telling us, students, the prophets words; in attempt to exemplify the importance of motherhood and illustrate the reward God will give these good mothers for all the suffering. This particular teacher goes on to say, “Except for Nelly’s mother; because she is Christian.” As a six year old sitting in a religious education class at the King Fahad Academy in 1986, England, I remember being horrified as I, with the big imagination I had, imagined my most loved mother walking on that thin rope they told us you had to cross between hell and heaven – and not making it to the other side… It is, no doubt the same thing my sister felt, 15 years later from the Egyptian Saturday school teacher, also in London, who said the same thing. We both had nightmares of the fall into a pit of fire they told us was waiting, where your skin would heal every time it was burnt so that you could suffer its excruciating pain of burning again and again, and having been informed, by a figure of trusted authority, that the mother we both so much love, would not find heaven under her feet, was simply harrowing.

On both occasions my very brave mother, who I know will be making it to heaven, should heaven actually exist, took herself to our respective schools and demanded to meet the, now quite embarrassed, bigoted, teachers and I loved watching her put them in their place. But who was my mother really fighting? Was she fighting these two small minded, brain washed, unprofessionals? No. The fact that both my sister and I, over the course of 15 years, in two different schools, by different teachers, suggests that what was happening here was a deep rooted, systematic otherisation of Christians in the Muslim/Arab context and that the worrying thing was that it did not get better over time, nor worse, it was stationary, like it was a taken for granted fact repeated over the years. This suggests, perhaps, that you cannot fight sectarianism from the top down, it needs to be grounded, from the roots up, a cleansing of the rotting and decay at the very bottom that is manifest in Egyptian and Arab schools from the day they enrol and are asked what religion they are, not for equality assurance purposes.

Let’s get even more uncomfortable with this, because it’s easy to point fingers only at the Muslim inter-dimensional failings and oversee the problems which the Coptic congregation itself. Before I share my opinion on this, I would like to clarify where I am coming from to justify why I feel credible. At the age of 13, I decided to leave the King Fahad Academy and I started going to the local Coptic Church in the UK where I learnt many wonderful qualities of love, forgiveness, solidarity etc. I spent 8 years going to church, totally taken by the sense of community that was lacking amongst the muslim equivalent. During this time, I enjoyed all the good this community taught, but also was made acutely aware of the biting sting of forming a tight community where the congregation closes it’s gates high to outsiders seeing everyone “muslim” (not other, but muslim) as a persecutor. Of course, there are many reasons the Copts feel justified for feeling this, but it is unhelpful to adopt the “excuse of abuse” to reinforce, in new generations, the divide, the difference and accept it through normalising it, joking about it and sharing secret tapes of muslim converts to christianity being abused by their muslim families, for example, or creating this space where your Coptic children only played football with your coptic friends children, went to the cinema together, trips together etc. etc. The church, too, is guilty of ostracising it’s own followers if they fall in love with non christians, especially muslims. I, for example stood in confrontation with my pastoral Father (now Bishop) and asked him if I was, in the eyes of the church, a bastard child and he stood silent. The first boy to fall in love with me was advise against marrying me because of my muslim father and what this would mean for his children. Any christian woman married to a non christian could not “receive the grace of god” in the form of holy communion should she feel an urge to go to pray because she was having sex, in the eyes of the church, outside marriage.

Passiveness on the part of both Christians and Muslims is also a stamp of shame, guilt and oppression. If you, as a Muslim have done nothing more than recount the times you’ve had a Christian friend or had breakfast with a a Christian neighbour, if you’ve not protested every time they’ve had their churches burnt, if you’ve not been outraged every time they have had to hit walls getting licences to get water into their churches, or building them in the first place; if you have not stood protecting their churches during their festivities to ensure their safety, if you don’t actively teach your children about equality, then you too have contributed to the persecution and death of Copts in Egypt. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to think this way, but its time we stopped giving government more power than it deserves, we, along with the state need to be held accountable.

But the Copts need to step up their game of inclusion too… let me give you an example. When I was getting married, my husband and I decided we would include a quaranic verse and a verse from the bible in our wedding invites. This way, we would be doing something out of respect to all our christian and muslim family and friends. Everyone in our families thought it was a great idea and I was pleased. I went to get these designed and printed at a Coptic wedding stationary store. The assistant took our orders and one day before collection, the manager called and told us he removed the quote from the bible because he was scared of state security – this was two years after 25th Jan!! After lots of fights and tears and frustration – not because I could not have the wedding invites the way I wanted them, but because this guy gave in after my uncle from “state security” called him and his tone was now full of fear, respect etc. I was sickened by this man who epitomised everything wrong with the Coptic community who were scared and lacked the bravery to stand and merge into wider society. The same reasons perhaps that many would not admit led to the poor turn out at Al Khosoos funeral – and of course, the Copts were right… the mourners were indeed attacked – so how can you convince them they are wrong? It is a vicious circle we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into, in Egypt.

The recent deadly attack on Coptics in AlKhoso, Cairo was not solely state responsibility.  The state has a duty of care, and a duty to ensure justice for the church and the Christians murdered in the recent clashes – both which the state has miserably failed in so far; the list is long with offences against the Copts in Egypt where the state has not performed its role, or anywhere near avenged the people it is meant to include in its rubric of protection and security. Of course this is the role of the state, and it’s the role of the government to ensure it is not systematically enforcing its persecution of minorities in, say, the curriculum – many are turning a blind eye that year one religious education books now mention the Muslim Brotherhood ten times etc.

However, we need to very clearly distinguish responsibility so that we, as a society reproducing culture and discourse, can also be held accountable for the role we play in these horrific incidents, because if you’ve asked someone their religion, if you’ve asked your child if the person they’re marrying is of the same religion, if you’ve justified being unfair in your dealings with someone based on their religion or domination, if you’ve refused to employ someone because of their religion, if you’ve preferred to have your children play with kids from the same religion, then I’m sorry to say, you are also responsible for the deaths of the Copts in this country. And… let’s be even more honest, it’s not the Copts burning down mosques, or killing etc etc. So yeah, they have it worse…

Everything needs to be addressed simultaneously; the churches getting burnt and attack is one story, the patriarchal attack by Muslims also needs to be addressed, e.g. the Salafi men harassing Christian women, the Muslim men killing the Christian engaged couple for holding hands, the Muslim men cutting off the ear of the Christian man to teach him a lesson. This superiority Muslim men are giving themselves over children, women, Christians and other minorities is beginning to stink. The Copts too need to start teaching their own children not to carry chips on their shoulders, that it’s not each for their own, to risk integrating outside their congregation. Once the people themselves have been brave enough to address and affect change within their communities, then they will be strengthened to start asking for justice from the state when their churches are burnt and their mourners are attacked. Oh Egypt… what a confusing mess.

قتل «عمر» برصاص اخترق القلب.. وهل لأطفال الشوارع قلوب مثلنا؟

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This post was originally posted in Al Masry Al Youm and has been beautifully translated by my dedicate friend Mohammed Esmat Farag

يعرف كثير جدا من الأطفال الذين في الشوارع تماما ماذا تريد أن تسمع منهم. فهم يتفحصونك، ويقيمون شخصيتك، وفي دقائق يكونون قد جهزوا لك القصة التي من أجلها أتيت إليهم. إنهم يجب أن يكونوا بهذا الذكاء، لأن هذا ما يعتمد عليه بقاؤهم.

أتذكر حديثي مع إحدى الصحفيات التي ذكرت لي دهشتها من الطفلة التي أخبرتها بأنها انضمت للاحتجاجات في يناير 2011بسبب اهتمامها بالبلاد، ولأنها أرادت أن تحدث تغييرا سياسيا واجتماعيا – أعرف جيدا هذه الطفلة التي كانت تتحدث عنها – ولكن الطفلة لم تتمكن من الحديث حول «التغيير السياسي» الذي ذكرته، لأنها ببساطة لم تكن تعرف ماذا تعني هذه الكلمة.

لقد عملت على أن أتعرف على البنات على مدار شهور طويلة، لا من خلال زيارات أو مقابلات «النصف ساعة» الرسمية، لكنني عملت على التعرف عليهن بحق، بتصفيقي لهن عندما كن يرقصن، بتعاطفي معهن حينما كن يتحدثن في جلسات العلاج الجماعي، بضحكي معهن لسماع قصصهن عن الشارع، بتنظيفي لجروحهن بعد أن يؤذين أنفسهن لأي سبب. ولأني عشت هذه القصص شعرت بأنني يمكنني أن أسأل «تغريد»، إحدى البنات اللاتي في الشارع، عن السبب الحقيقي لوجود هؤلاء الأطفال هناك في الميادين.

وعلى هذا بدأنا نلعب أدوارنا في المقابلة: «تغريد» تمسك في فرحة بمسجل صوت إم-بي-ثري بيد واحدة وتتفحصه، وهي تشعر بالدهشة أنها في خلال لحظة واحدة سيكون بوسعها أن تسمع أفكارها (طلبت مني أن أشتري لها مسجل صوت إم-بي-ثري حتى تتمكن من الحديث إلى نفسها فيه، لأنها رغبت في تدوين يوميات لنفسها، لكنها لا تقرأ ولا تكتب)، وأخذت أنا الأخرى دوري في المقابلة، حاملة طفلها الجميل ذا الأربعة أشهر، والذي لم يعرف سوى الابتسام طوال الوقت.

حينما أسرد قصص بنات الشوارع يعلق كثير من الناس بأنني يجب أن أكون قوية حتى أعيش هذه القصص وأسمعها. كلما سمعت هذا أستحضر ذلك الألم الذي تحدثه ابتسامات المواليد الصغار بقلبي.. لا شيء يؤلمني مثل الابتسامات. هذه الانحناءات الصغيرة على الشفاه، هي المظهر العظيم الدال على حقيقة: كم نحن متساوون، وكم هي متشابهة بداياتنا جميعا بشكل عظيم، وكم هي ثمينة بشكل غير عادي بعض الابتسامات عند آخرين؛ لأن الحياة صممت لتكسرهم، ولتعطيهم لا شيء.. مزيدا عن ذلك.. ليبتسموا من أجله.

وأسمع «تغريد» وهي تحكي لي عن الثورة وعن الانتقال الذي قام به الأطفال الذين كانوا يبيتون في ميدان رمسيس إلى ميدان التحرير. إنها تتحدث عنه على أنه هجرة، وكأنما هذه المساحات الخضراء من الأرض، أو التي يفترض أن تكون خضراء، تمثل مدينة قائمة بذاتها، مدينة بمواطنيها الأطفال، هؤلاء الصغار الذين هم بلا بطاقة هوية، وبلا مأوى، وبلا الأسر التي أنجبتهم، وبلا حماية.

تخبرني «تغريد» بأن أحد الأطفال جاء راكضًا إليهم في مدينة «ميدان رمسيس» العظمى قائلا لهم إن هناك ملايين الناس في التحرير. وحينها قرر اثنان «زوج وزوجة» من أصدقائها (وهما طفلان في سن الرابعة عشرة، ويختلف الزواج وتكوين أسرة في أطفال الشوارع عما نعرفه نحن) أن الأفضل هو الانضمام إلى هناك، حتى لا تفوتهما الفرصة العظيمة لسرقة الهواتف المحمولة. تضحك كثيرا جدا وهي تخبرني بذلك وهي تقول: «ماذا كان سيكون رد فعل الصحفيين لو علموا السبب الحقيقي لوجود بعض الأطفال هناك!».

لكنها تستطرد لتقول: «ليس كل الأطفال كانوا هناك من أجل السرقة! لقد كانوا هناك أيضا لأنها تجربة شيقة لهم! وذلك لأن الناس كانوا يقولون لنا دوما إن الشارع شيء سيئ، وأننا يجب أن نترك الشارع، ولكن فجأة كل واحد كان هناك، كل واحد في البلد كان في (التحرير)، ولهذا انتقلنا إلى هناك من (رمسيس). كان الناس هناك يتحدثون إلينا، يطعموننا، ويمزحون معنا، ولدرجة أن بعضهم حاول أن يعلمنا القراءة والكتابة، بل إننا حتى كنا ننام بجوار كل هؤلاء الناس أصحاب الرائحة الجميلة. وقد ساعدناهم نحن أيضا، فقد كنا ندلهم من أين يشترون أرخص الطعام حينما نفد الطعام منهم، وعلمناهم أفضل الطرق للهروب من البوليس، وهذا لأن أحب لعبة إلينا هي الأتاري». وحينها رأت علامات الاستفسار على وجهي، أوضحت: «عربات الشرطة»، نحن نسميها «أتاري» وطوال اليوم نلعب بالجري والاختفاء منهم، لكننا نعلم جميعا أن الشرطة التى في «التحرير» مختلفة، فهي لا تضيغ الوقت جريا وراءك، لكنها بدلا من ذلك تقتلك بالرصاص.

لقد كانت كل قصصها وتحليلاتها حول الأسباب التي دفعت الأطفال إلى المكان الذي دار فيه الحدث كله غير مريبة. جميع الأسباب، حتى سرقة الهواتف المحمولة، كان يمكنني تفهمها، وأمكنني تفهم ذلك لأنني بدأت أتعرف على الأطفال أكثر. لكن، بعد مرور عامين،صارت إجابات الأطفال عن السؤال: «لماذا كانوا هناك بالتحرير» مريبة وتصيبني بقلق حقيقي. فقد كان الأطفال يتحدثون إلى زميلي «عادل» الذي كرس ثمانية عشر عاما من عمره حتى الآن للعمل مع الأطفال حين بدا مهموما وأخبرني إن نغمة الأطفال في الكلام تغيرت، وإن أحدا ما قد يكون تحدث مع بعض منهم، فتغيرت أفكارهم.

فالأطفال الذين يجرون حوله بزجاجات المولوتوف يسألونه «ماذا تساوي حياتي من دون قيمة؟ أنا أريد أن أموت شهيدا فيسامحني الله على جميع الأشياء السيئة التي عملتها في هذه الدنيا. أريد أن يكون لموتي معنى لأن حياتي لم يكن لها أي معنى. أريد أن أموت فيتحدث عني كل هؤلاء الناس الذين في (التحرير)، ويمشوا في جنازتي. أريد أن أموت ويكون هناك أحد ما يتذكرني، ويرسم وجهي على الحائط مثل كل الآخرين، لا.. إذن.. يا (بابا)، أنا لست خائفا من أن أموت».

لقد تغيرت علاقة أطفال الشارع بالثورة في بحر عامين. ولكن، سيظل هذا نوعا من المثالية أن نتجادل حول ما إذا كان الأطفال يذهبون إلى صفوف المواجهات الأمامية مع الأمن لأنهم يفهمون معنى التمرد كوسيلة لنهاية. إن الأطفال – لأنهم أطفال – ينبغي ألا يكونوا محل لوم على الوضع الفكري الذي يكونون عليه حينما يذهبون إلى صفوف المواجهات مع الأمن.

ماذا عن موت عمر ذي الثلاثة عشر عاما؟ عمر، تم قتل الولد الصغير برصاص اخترق القلب بواسطة الجيش الذي أنيط به حماية حدوده أمام الأعداء. هل كان هناك ليسرق الهواتف؟ لا. هل كان هناك لأنه أراد لوجهه الصغير أن يحفر في جرافيتي على الحوائط المحيطة بالميادين؟ لا. قتل عمر بالرصاص لأنه كان هناك. قتل عمر بالرصاص وهو يحاول الحصول على عيش شريف من الشوارع التي صارت مقرا لكثير من الطبقات، والأديان، والأعمار، والأيديولوجيات. قتل عمر بالرصاص لوجوده في طريقهم. قتل عمر بالرصاص – أكثر من أي سبب آخر- لأنه لن تلقى مسؤولية قتله على أحد. استقبل قلب عمر الصغير الرصاصة لأن البعض كانوا شديدي الجبن عن أن يحاسبوا هؤلاء المسؤولين عن ذلك. هذه المقالة لكل «عمر»  اعتقل وقتل بالرصاص، فقط لمجرد تواجده هناك؛ لأنه لم يكن هناك مكان آخر أكثر أمانا يذهب إليه

Street Children and the Big Dream of Citizenship

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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.

Egypt and the Racial Distribution of Labour

You don’t need to be the sharpest tool in the box to realise how racist Egypt is, or how little the discourse of rights relating to race is embraced. I have not previously written about this because it is one of the very few things that make me ashamed to be a human being. Racism: an irrational, innate belief in superiority in oneself over another based on skin pigmentation.

I remember a Jamaican friend of mine in London in 2002 telling me that Egypt was the most beautiful country she’d ever been to, but that she would never go again because of how racist they were. I was shocked. Egypt? Racist? I thought that this girl must have just been very unlucky and had met one person who had said something about her beautiful colour and she’d taken it to heart. But Egypt, my favourite little fruit of Africa, surrounded by all my black brothers and sisters could never, yes never, be racist. Ten years later, however, I am sat in my balcony in Egypt typing this blog fuelled by my rage and disappointment not just because Egypt is, in fact, racist, but at the extent of this racism.

I went to find a quite spot in City Stars today, some café to write up my field notes – I am here in Egypt doing my PhD and doing some work with Street Kids in the meantime. Anyway, so I walked in to City Stars, minutes before they opened for the day. I had a quick chat with a black cleaner outside about the weather and about what a shame it was the person who had discovered air conditioning had not won some world-recognised prize. I then walked into Spinney’s (supermarket) and chatted to the three black cleaning staff about how empty the stores were early in the morning. I had just met four black people. That in it’s own right was strange for Nasr City. Nothing struck me as strange because just as many – and more – white(r) cleaning staff was around. I found my way to Cilantro and settled in. A group of ladies arrived at a nearby table. Again, I only noticed the black girl between them when I realised that when the food came, all the white women started to eat and she was standing with the baby by the door so that his moaning didn’t disturb them while they ate. I sat by the door that Mary was stood by, and we started to speak. We had a pleasant exchange, found out she was an Ethiopian refugee and that she would eat later at home because she didn’t want her employers to spend money on rich food like the food they served here.

I decided to pack my work up and do some other type of research. I walked into 35 shops. I found no black sales assistants. No black management. But during my walk from shop to shop, I met 6 more black cleaners. Why was there no racial equality in the division of the labour available to them? Was it purely a coincidence that the 9 black people I met today lacked the competencies to make them anything other than cleaners and maids? Let me make something totally clear. I have no qualms or issues with cleaning as a job. Be a cleaner, it’s a wonderful job that makes a lot of people’s experience of the world more pleasant. But why was the Nubian graduate of commerce sweeping the floor this morning? Why was Mary from Ethiopia, the law graduate a nanny to the Egyptian elite? Why were Sudanese men famous for being the average mans porter in Egypt? Why were the Nigerian women made to dress in white so you could segregate them as nannies and away from the elite in sports clubs? Why don’t I walk in to the clothes and accessories stores in City Stars and see black sales assistants? Why have I never walked into a hospital to be examined by a black doctor? Or shaken hands with a black engineer at Rehab? Or had my nails done by an African? It seems true, then, that it is the new stamp of status, class, and wealth to employ a black porter to open your door or a black maid to run errands during the day in the city’s scorching sun. We are a nation that will not embrace the minorities or afford them equal opportunities.

Every time, and without exception, when I show my wedding pictures to my family or friends in Egypt, someone must feel the urge to make some comment about pictures of my black friends in their superb coloured clothes. How many of you in Egypt been around a new-born and everyone in it’s family, the first things they are saying are around an examination of how white and beautiful, or black and ugly the baby is. And everyone laughs! What are they laughing at? That child, if the slightest bit dark skinned is doomed to a life of nasty comments from the family of why she/he were so unlucky they didn’t take after their fairer mum/dad.

We are a contradictory society on so many different levels. We claim to be a merciful, kind and religious society. 89% of Egyptians are reportedly Muslims. Despite the fact that I am constantly quoting from the Bible on twitter, I have, to many people’s surprise, read the Quran many times over. In Islam there are many Quranic verses and sayings from Mohammed that totally prohibit racism. Here are a few for the interested reader:

“O Mankind, we created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you in to tribes and nations so that you may know each other (not that you despise each other). Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is he who is most righteous of you.” (Al-Quran, Chapter 49, Verse 13)

And of Mohammed: “Allah does not look at your appearances or wealth but looks at your actions”

As for the 11% Christians in Egypt, they are no better. You would think being discriminated against in their own country they would have some mercy on those who were also a minority. But come on, be honest Christians, how many times have you heard someone from your family or your congregation say something along the lines of “she married a Sudanese man, but he’s white and handsome”. And here is what the bible has to say for racism:

Acts 10:34,35, NIV. “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right.'”

James 2:8-9, NIV. “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

My religious education class over. It needn’t even be a matter of religiosity. It is a humanitarian question. We are equal in Egypt in terms of the injustice the past and current regimes are subjecting us to. Yet it seems we are following the theory that suggests the oppressed become oppressors. And being oppressed by our governments we are turning to the weaker, the poorer and even turning to the equal but different to practice that oppression on.

It is so deeply rooted though. I switched the TV on once (this is always a very rare occasion for I hate the box set), and stood to watch in horror an advert for a product called “Fair and Lovely” that apparently, if applied twice a day over the period of a month, lightens your skin up to seven shades and apparently, as a result you are more beautiful and happier. I felt an acute need to throw up after watching this ad. I remembered reading a study of the poor in Egypt who do all sorts of horrible things to get money to afford skin brightening, lightening creams in hope to become more attractive and have higher chances of finding a husband.

The street kids I work with are mostly dark skinned children. There are two babies born to street mothers that are the favourites. It is no coincidence that they are the lighter skinned babies. They are bought out and shown to the ambassador’s wives when they visit, they get to wear the newer of the hand me down clothes that are donated and they are hugged and wooed the most. Does it not strike anyone that there are no fair skinned street kids? What is that saying about poverty and violence, abandonment and assault directed at the darker skinned kids? Why are they running away while the fairer skinned kids are resilient to poverty, able to deflect violence because they’re too cute to be beaten. These are the stories coming out of the shelters. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s the story that’s easier to dismiss. It’s the feelings that are uncomfortable to deal with.

One day, an old lady hit me with her handbag on the bus in London when I sat next to her. She called me a bloody foreigner. I’ve lived in London 32 years – that’s all my life – and that was the 3rd racist comment that was directed at me. Are there racists in London? Of course there are. But I want to bring my kids up in London because I want them to see a Black, White, Asian, Caucasian, Chinese cleaner, sales assistant, doctor, plumber, teacher. I want them to play in the park and take a picture like the one my best friend Dina sent me of her kids on a merry go round with almost every race represented in the faces of the children.

Do the majority of black people have chips on their shoulders? Of course they do. Just like the Christians and the poor. The “majority” has peeled that potato and have placed that chip nice and firmly on every shoulder so that at the slightest look or gesture they take offence. I’ll know this uprising has hope of becoming a revolution when I see companies take pride in recruiting minorities.

Till then, here’s to all the amazing black people I know, thank you for teaching me how to deal with my afro hair and just for being a standard part of my life. Race is an capricious label that has no legitimacy.

(Picture taken from Motley News and Photos)