Flames of Cruelty; Setting Fire to Childhood

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Fire. That seemed to be the common theme of my work with street girls in the short visit I made to Egypt this time round. Flames. Burns. Scars. Pain. Fire.

I asked Shaymaa what her name was, the little new arrival that I had not seen there before. She couldn’t have been more than two. She stood with her little crisp packet away from everyone. She hadn’t run to the boxes Shariff had bought, like the other little ones had, she stood and waited. Noor was the one who gave her a packet – I love watching the little ones share, perhaps it’s they who heal one another because no one knows, like them, what needs to be healed and how. She opened it up for her too. Little Hannah stood right where she was given the packet and ate, not making eye contact with anyone, not saying anything, and not making the happy sounds the others were making when excited.

I asked her name and the answer was, “we think it’s Hannah, we spent three weeks calling her by all the names we could think of, but when we said Hannah, she looked at me”. I called the little human by the name she had responded to and asked her to come to me. She came, limping, heavy bodied, the toddler walked towards me like she was a 100 years old. When I lifted her on my lap, she also felt heavy; I am not sure whether it was her physical weight, or the weight of whatever it was that she had suffered. It immediately became clear that she had suffered. Copying the other babies on my lap and around me that were trying to share their crisps by ramming them in my mouth, I saw her little fingers make their way up to my lips, and they stood out between the others. Hannah had not nails. My stomach turned. “No, no please no”. I could hear those words shooting to my brain and those damned tears that I try to control escape. I quickly play with Noor so I don’t stop being helpful.

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These are different hugs I give her. So many sorries in small embraces like this. I try to hold her in a way that I will so much love to transfer from me to her, to make up for whatever happened. To last her for whatever is yet to come. Hannah breaks me in a way I haven’t felt before. Shaymaa tells me she’ll tell me how she arrived at the shelter later – on our way to take baby Amy to the reconstructive surgeon for her own burns and scars and those stubborn physical reminders of similar abuse that Hannah has endured. And I am left with “How?! And Why?!”. Two small words which seem so difficult for either the activist or the academic in me to answer.

Hannah had arrived at the shelter with a police officer. She was quickly taken to hospital because there did not seem to be a single bone in her body that was not broken, or piece of skin not burnt. She was plastered and wrapped from neck to toe, with only one little opening for her to go to the toilet. The police knew nothing except that a street dog had pulled her out of a rubbish dump and a bawaab (a building porter) had taken her to the police. That’s it. That’s her story – a few words written by a stranger, a few lines that hold so much torture and abuse and paid and betrayal. How can she have been betrayed so much by every power and force and being meant to protect her? The reason she couldn’t speak back to me was because whoever had tortured her, had burnt her tongue.

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Sometimes I fold. I crumble out of my own selfishness at how stories like this make me react. But it’s not really a story you know, reader. It’s flesh I’ve held, a hint of a smile from stitched lips that were directed at me, it’s a little nail-less finger that made it’s way into my mouth to share it’s food with me, it’s beautiful, big, brown eyes that look at me with a void look that I am free to make my imagination reign with stories of what it could be telling me. So this is not a story, it’s Hannah’s life.

I am sorry this post is more emotional than how I have tried to write before, sorry that my heart and tears and soul bleed on every word I have typed here, but it’s all so raw, so fresh, so real. It’s alive inside the walls of these shelters, on the pavements that are so much kinder than family cruelty. How terrible that there is no need to exaggerate, no need to horrify; but to tell things as they are, in a reality that shames me of being human, that keeps me up, that paralysis my hope. Yet, a reality that shows sparks of humanity coming together again when people give up their time and skills to soothe. The shelter driver driving us four hours, unpaid on his time off, Shaymaa coming to keep us company even though she has left her job and is unpaid, Amira, who accompanied Amy from Alex, so she could have someone she’s familiar with on her trip to the doctor, the doctor himself, who opened the doors of his clinic to us on his day off so we could have it all to ourselves. Humanity.

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Dr Hany has seen Amy and she is on a four-month treatment plan of creams we got as instructed (thank you Samah), that will soften her skin so that when the reconstructive surgery is performed the skin will be able to stretch. I’ve found an ENT doctor who will see to the puss and infection in her eardrum caused by the hole the monsters drilled in it. Hannah too I have started with her, the incredible Sally Toma (psychiatrist) has volunteered to see her on Saturday to work on her trauma, and will let me know what other care she needs and of course I will campaign for it to be available to her. Sima (the girl who had 3rd degree burns on 80% of her body and hospitals refused to admit her till I managed to get her case to the attention of the ministry) received the care she needed in hospital and the Minister of Social Solidarity called me and told me she will get a monthly allowance and a kiosk to be able to support herself and her little baby.

I may have been able to help and coordinate the healing of physical scars, only the surface of what the flames set to these children have marred, but what of their childhood? Their trust is humans? What of their very soul as they were tortured helpless and hopeless by the only people at those moments who were able to help them? It’s time Egypt, really, really, really, really it is, for alternative care in Egypt to step up and provide safe havens for children like Hannah and Amy and Sima – and the so many others we still haven’t reached. But I’ll tell you what, I kind of wont stop till I make their pains and their screams and tears, as the fires consume them, heard by you.

Fire picture from: http://thomaszinsavage.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/FIRE-2-GENERIC.jpg

Update on Taghreed – From Rape by her Father, to Street Gang Rape, to Torture in Institutions, To a Happy End

Good morning world… some good news…

The street girl who I went to visit last week in prison, is out! And it’s her first day at a new job today 🙂

I also arranged for her first three months and a deposit on a one bedroom flat to be paid till she starts getting her monthly salary to continue paying it herself. She will be taking her 18 month old to stay with her.

Nothing makes me as happy as working with the street girls into independent living 🙂

It’s often rare to get all the way to this, and it’s not easy… it’s taken years to get Taghreed this far with ups and downs and constant uphill struggles, getting rid of the abuse (emotional, physical and sexual) of her father, the abuse of the system that had her endure epic levels of physical punishment and torture in “correctional” institutions, never living in a home to know what it is we were trying to reintegrate her into, being slashed in the face with a knife to carry a rape scar when she offered herself to 6 rapists to spare a new girl on the street that was a virgin, to the hospital abuse she suffered when she went in to give birth to her son without a husband….

So in my eyes it’s understandable that she wasn’t really hot on joining this society in the first place and it’s understandable that she didn’t work hard with us at times, and I get it that she always thought we’d abandon her and let her down so she would leave us first, and it’s okay that she relapsed and went back to the street a thousand times.

But it’s about having people in your life that never give up on you and are always there… that’s what me and Shaymaa have tried to be to her. The tears she usually keeps so guarded – so guarded that only one escaped silently while she was getting the stitches out of her cheeks and wouldn’t hold my hand, but they flowed on the prison visits and despite her saying she was sorry she put us in a position to visit her in that horrible place, the force with which she hugged us and the gratitude she spoke with for having someone there, makes me prepared to make that trip a hundred times over.

But there are so many others that we call on for support…. so thank you Dr Hany Hamam for helping her get rid of the facial rape scar, thank you Nadia for sorting out the flat and a thank you to Shaymaa’s cousin who offered her a job when it’s terribly difficult to integrate the girls back into a society that’s always so scared, harsh, skeptical of them. What a great team effort that was done here…

And though my days and nights have been scarred by those prison visits over the last two weeks… it’s such a small price to pay that she knows that someone is ready to go to the pits of hell for her.

She starts a new life today.

Today I’m happy.

A Photo Essay: Street Children – The Achievements where Little is More than Nothing.

This post will be regularly updated to collect the happy moments that the children enjoy as a result of all your incredibly responses to this blog – thank you for being the alternative world, a world we’ve created to work parallel to the one that subjects these children to daily oppression and violence.

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

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

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This photo will forever remain incredibly dear to my heart… It was taken this week after the SAFE team had delivered training to my street babies on how to protect their bodies from sexual abuse and had just received their certificates of completing the training Thank you Sara Aziz and your lovely team for agreeing to deliver the training completely free to the shelter… i love you xxx

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Perhaps nothing in the world that I have done, or will ever do, could feel as good as being able to facilitate this… This is the angel reconstructive surgeon who generously invited me and my street girls to remove the scars I often talk about… I have blurred the girls face for obvious reasons… He performs these procedures for free… these are my alternative communities and the reason why I don’t fundraise. Up till 2012 Dr Hany Hamam had performed 137 reconstructive surgeries free to Libyan and Syrian refugees… he has since then also honoured my requests that he extend his offer to children who get bitten by stray dogs in Cairo, but are not necessarily street children. The one glimpse of heaven on earth, is to fight a losing cause; and not lose it.

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The great Rugby club in Egypt, moved by the blog offered training, donations and access to their grounds for the street kids they met.

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Mia who once wrote to me saying: “Hi Nelly, I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan of your work with street children and I was wondering if there is anyway I can help.” Mia has since been a reliable and dedicated friend and art teacher not just to the one girl I was looking for a mentor for, but to the street girls at shelter more generally. The feedback from the girls has been wonderful. It always means so much to them to have volunteers. They told me knowing people helped them for no money was the closest thing they felt to having good family. Mia is another beautiful example of how skills, and not money, build a more beautiful world, how we have the power to create kinder alternative communities to the ones we sometimes find hateful or unsatisfactory. Thank you Mia for helping me still believe in this world and for not just reading the blog and thinking it’s a sad world but for getting in touch and giving your all. You literally made the world a better place xx

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I personally believe that one of the best things that we can give these children, beside the basic rights and services, is love. The comfort and love that Shariff shares with the children is next to none… You honour and humble me with your gentleness towards the children and it’s no wonder you are able to calm the most irritable and comfort the most distressed of them… I love you for this xx

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A beautiful photo of the hands of little children in Canada and the bracelets they have been making for me to give to the other beautiful street kids that I meet along the way… what a happy moment this is to know that little hearts across the continents are touched and giving to other little souls so far away… These little children were so touched by the stories of street children in Egypt that I shared and wanted to make something they could post and that would be easy for me to carry around… They have an afternoon club called HOPE (helping other people everywhere) and they make stuff to sell for local charities… their project this time was for the street kids

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When the coldest winter hit Cairo, I used the blog and social media to ask everyone to share their winter clothes with the street children… An incredible effort started and the people involved are too many to even start to mention here… but the photo shows where the clothes were collected in London (thank you Judy and Tara) and packed and organised in Cairo (Thank you Ahmed Nader)… and the getting them from one country to another involved strangers and friends and everyone was just incredible with this… special thanks to Rabia, Tom, Su Zee who carried luggage… and all those who donated their kids clothes!!!

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The night before my wedding party in Cairo, I was at the hair dressers getting my hair done (yes, the local one, the night before lol|). Afterwards, at around 11.30pm I was meeting Nawara, Roba and Shady for the first time three angels who had been reading my blog who I had never had the pleasure of meeting before. After a couple of hours sharing some stories of the street children I had known, after they were moved to both laughter and tears, we agreed they would visit the shelter to meet the street children. What they did not know at this point was that I always have a filtering session with people while I was in Egypt to make sure the children would not be “used” by anyone for their work and projects (a decision I had taken when I dedicated my time away from PhD research to make sure I could give back to the children and not use them as mere subjects for my PhD data). But I loved Nawara, Shady and Roba. I loved the passion with which they spoke of their plans. Caravan – the group of story tellers and performances these three were part of, planned to engage university students, amateur story tellers, with the street children to tell their stories. A few sessions were arranged at the boys and girl’s shelters. None of the children’s stories were changed or edit. 13 children’s stories were told with the exact words and expressions chosen by the children, creating a new avenue for the most marginalised voices to be given a window of expression to an audience that would normally not have access to it. It was only when Shariff came looking for me and said “we’re getting married in a few hours, do you wanna go home get some rest” that I had to leave and that they realised I had a wedding in a bit But I left my heart and passion with the three who did an incredible job and something I am so proud of having somehow contributed to just by writing a blog, and they took this, turning it, through their weeks of practice and hard work into something extremely real, extremely valid and credible. One of the beautiful reflections made by the team was team: “By the end of the rehearsals period and performance date, we were able to identify a conceptual change to the tellers personal commitment towards the kids and their stories, and to identify with the show as an ethically challenging responsibility towards those kids and the acknowledgement that by telling these stories we are only connecting dotes between the young boys and girls and an audience of not more than 150 attendees.”

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The ability and the opportunity to inspire people into action, is an incredible gift.. The photo below is of two 14 year olds in America that I have never met. The children have been reading my blog posts on street girls and were moved into action. Diana, one of these 2 girls wrote to me over the last few months on how her and her church friends spent their spring break baby sitting, doing yard work and “hiring (themselves) out” to raise enough money to buy feminine hygiene stuff to put these bags together for each one of the street girls at the shelter. They’ve asked me to find a way to get these bags across so the children I work with know that other children think of them, care about them and are working towards helping them in some way. In the midst of all the horrific statuses and news and pictures shared on Facebook these days, these photos and this status are equally important. This is a reminder that you can inspire and be inspired and that you have the power to do and not just be ‘done to’… There is still good in this world; if you can’t find it or see it, then do it and be it.

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This photo was drawn by a girl who has been raped by her step father since she was nine years old. The incredibly brave mother gave up the little security she had in the form of a home and husband and having no shelter to turn to, left to the streets with Amal and her 4 sisters. The sisters got separated in different shelters catering for different ages, while the mother searched for a hospital who would issue a report saying Amal was no longer a virgin due to rape, so she could be admitted to a shelter. Having been subjected to two virginity checks at their local hospital where her step father worked, he was able to bribe the administration to change the report. Amal’s mother did not give up and took her daughter to a different town and after the third virginity check, Amal was admitted to Hope Village for Young Street Mothers (a shelter that homes non virgin girls – and yes, this split is necessary in a culture where a woman’s value is hinged on a thin membrane between her legs). Each of the girls was at a different shelter and their mother had nowhere to turn to but the streets, highlighting another gap in services that vulnerable women in Egypt must face. After reading the post about this girl, an amazing human in Egypt paid a very long period of rent upfront and we bought the woman off the streets and she is now in her own home with her daughters around her again – I’m currently working with Esraa on getting her trained on a handy craft so she can generate her own income.

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I received a call about a girl in Alexandria that was burnt so badly her bones were showing through. 3rd degree burns in over 80% of her body meant she was a liability to any hospital. Added to that was the fact she was a street girl so had no papers or ID. After 6 hours of media pressure, I received a call from the Minister of Social Solidarity who assured me that in the morning, an ambulance would pick the girl up and take her to hospital for admission. True to their words, the girl was admitted, her daughter allowed to visit and she has been promised a kiosk to be able to live off once she’s recovered. Thank you Nesma for being affected to get the right people on board 🙂

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Donna Coyle is one of the beautiful souls who having read about the street girls in my blogs got in touch to offer to be a part of this parallel world we create Since being in touch, Donna has faithfully and regularly visited the street girls shelter, after getting her friends to donate shampoos and creams. She arrives with her gifts to pamper the girls, do their hair and also teach them the skill of hair dressing so that they may pick it up and maybe earn an independent living from it themselves… Thank yoy Donna for reminding me of the absolute beauty that humanity still has to offer us… and on a personal note, thank you for giving a very real meaning to the impact of the work I do that sometimes leaves me frustrated, heart broken and poor you remind me it’s all worth it xxx

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a few days before Eid, one of the older girls asked me what time I would be arriving on the day of festivities… then she stopped speaking and looked at me for a moment before saying “Of course you’re not going to come… you have family and friends outside of here that you’ll be spending the day with”… She had shamed me without knowing because I hadn’t thought about Eid or who I would be spending it with… but in the end, me, Shariff and Adelazim bought the kids gifts and balloons and spent the day with them… it was the best Eid ever!

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After a day out, the little ones in the shelter who are starting their first day at school, were trying on their school uniforms bought by the lovely May AbdelAzim. New starts and hopefully a new life where these little ones can be spared the pain of their mothers… Also… thank you for the IceCream trip that was made to the kids 🙂

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It’s such an incredible achievement that this blog is being read in over 172 countries by over 105,000 people… The amount of awareness raised and help shared through it has been incredible… thank you xx

‘Hunting Street Children Like Dogs and Shooting Them” is NOT the Solution! My Response to the Horrific Op-Ed in AlMasry AlYoum Today

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I am writing this blog post today out of pure and simple RAGE!!

 

An article published in Al Masry Al Youm (regrettably, but appropriately named “The Egyptian Today”), an Op-Ed contributor, whom I contest should be arrested for hate speech and locked up pending investigation of being a dangerous psychopath, wrote an article entitled “Street Children: The Brazilian Solution”.

 

In this article, the author starts out by listing the dangers to society that street children contribute to; naming HIV/AIDS among the ‘crimes’ that they are responsible for, alongside rape, murder, etc. After listing these, the writer reminds us of the Brazilian ‘solution’ which, he says may be regrettable, but bravely, in light of it’s economic hardship. He applauds the difficult decision the Brazilian authorities took, noting how inhuman and desperate the measure was, but how necessary. He also mentions that despite the population knowing what was happening, they decided to turn a blind eye for the greater good of the hard working, worthy citizens who would benefit from this ‘determined decision’ to bring back order to the city. He says they knew it would be more ethical to help the children reintegrate into society, but that this would come with a high economic cost that they could not afford. He concludes by saying, it is by taking brave measures such as this, that the Brazilian solution worked in ridding the main streets of street children and pushing what was left over from them in to favelas. He notes that the so called ‘success’ may not excuse the action, but what it does do is demonstrate a real will for correcting the ills of society and he links this to a following rise of employment.

 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the events the author is referring to, here is an unemotional, factual summary. Death squads in Brazil, shot children whist they were sleeping outside churches. 50 homeless children were sleeping on the grounds of the Candelaria cathedral in downtown Rio de Janeiro, when a group of gunmen drove past, shooting unarmed, sleeping children, to their deaths. Those who did not die, were abducted, beaten, tortured and shot. They died a few days later.

 

I am unsure as to the level I need to engage this author with but let me keep this brief and simple, as I am unsure he has the intellectual capacity of understanding much of what I will say – despite the fact that you are a professor of philosophy in Egypt (apparently). Sir, Nazi initiatives have done nothing over the ages but bring shame to both the leaders and followers and blind eyes of those who live within a discourse of those beliefs. Street children are not a disease for which you try to find a cure. Street children are but a symptom of the ills, not only of society but of delusional and weak governments and states that cannot stop the vulnerable children from escaping abusive homes and adults and finding refuge in the dangers of the street.

 

The children you speak of and whom you place the burden of responsibility on, for a failing society, are the same children I have worked for, for over two years. They are children who have escaped torture, ran away from being tied and scorched with boiling water for not cleaning well, for not giving blow jobs to step parents well, children who are too young to endure sexual, emotional, psychological, financial abuse. I invite you, Sir, to come and work with us for a few nights and visit the children who sleep huddled together for safety under bridges, who get raped every night but still feel safer than in their own homes or the correctional institutions where they are tied to beds and beaten with their wooden frames. I invite you to accompany us, who work with these children, to the maternity ward and see the abuse of the staff there towards the frightened 13 or 14 year olds who we take in to give birth as they carry the shame, alone, of being raped by a family member, or a police man, or a carer, or someone on the street. I invite you, Sir, to come with us as we try and issue ID, birth or death certificates for those who do not even make is as second class citizens. Only then, Sir, can you be in a place to suggest ‘brave’ solutions!

 

But let me speak to you, in a manner that you may understand a little better: Thanks for your suggestion of how we might improve the ills of Egypt, but it DOESN’T actually work. On 30th April 1996 those police officers involved in the shooting were sentenced to 309 years in prison – not so much of a blind eye after all. Also, the latest statistics show that there are almost 8,000,000 street children in Brazil (800,00 of them child prostitutes) and the unemployment rate in 1993 in Brazil was 5.4%, this year it’s 5.2% (21 years later). I recommend you do your research before suggesting that stealing the lives of children is the recommendation for demonstrating state seriousness in adopting correctional approaches to it’s problems.

 

I agree with you on one thing: a need for a government to show bravery. But, Sir, we are not cavemen, neither are we Nazi’s. Bravery must be shown by our governments in admitting they have not got the first clue on how to solve the problems that lead children to the street. They must be humble in admitting they need help from professional researchers and NGO staff to get together and find out what’s leading the children to the streets, why they stay there and they must be brave in investing money to trial solutions of monitored alternative care where families have abused their children out of their homes! This Mr Op-Ed writer is a far braver solution.

 

Below are a couple of photos of some of the street children I have met, none of them have committed crimes, none have raped anyone, none have HIV/AIDS, none are stealing anyone’s jobs. Does your suggestion for brave measures include ‘fishing’ and ‘shooting’ these little ones? Or will the cute ones escape the executioner?!

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Update: The article has been successfully taken down from the Newspaper’s online website!! Well done for the public outrage that made the newspaper bring it down!! For those who missed it… Here is a copy

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Street Children: Resilient Decisions and The Shackles of Vulnerability

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This blog is for Farah, whose incredible courage and strength remain unmatched in my mind.

One of the things I’m most taken aback by with my work with street children is how articulate they are. They often surprise and humble me with how well they can express themselves in narrative. Whilst speaking with Maya, whom I had now known for a few months, I felt I could pry a little further “I know your step mother was cruel and your father always took her side, but it sometimes sounds like the life you led on the street was so much crueler. A lot of people ask me why kids like you choose the street if it’s not as dangerous at home?” to which she replied “because it’s easier to forgive the street, you don’t expect it to love you.”

Maya’s life, both off and on the street, is one filled with reasons to make you lose faith in the world and humanity; her resilience and laughter, enough to make you regain it.

It’s one of the things I learnt from Maya, the power of choice between two harms, between two worst scenarios. Street children like Maya can, and do, generate different responses from people who meet her and hear her story because in a series of choices, she’s often made the wrong ones. The less tolerant will fail to see that the neglect and abuse she suffered as she spent years in an imaginary circle since 3years old, may have not equipped her with what it takes to make better ones. For other children, the street is not a choice between two unfortunate cruelties, but the only choice for survival.

Poverty is often unfairly made guilty as the prime reason children are pushed to the streets. Family breakdown and violence are the real culprits. Abuse is to blame. Why else would Farah be on the street?

Farah is an incredibly beautiful 14-year-old girl. When she turned 12, her maternal uncle, Medhat, decided it was time for Farah to join his prostitution ring. He offered her no proposal; she was merely to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Farah’s mother had been bringing in money for her brother for years and Medhat had high hopes for the young Farah to add more to this income. Brave in all her decisions, Farah refused. Client after client would complain hearing Farah being dragged to where they were and eventually Medhat had to resort to violence.

Farah was chained for 8 months, hanging from the ceiling, supported by a chair, with wrists tied behind her back. In this solitary world that became her new home, and in this position, Farah was raped daily by her uncle. She was fed hanging, went to the toilet hanging, slept in her shackles; and in her resilience, the little girl refused to give in.

It is here were need to consider vulnerabilities when talking of resilience. The body of a child, it’s weakness, it’s limitation, that despite everything agency and voice can do to shift positionalities, the physical vulnerability of children is the very thing the adult world has a duty to protect. It’s this lack of protection, which let down the courage of Farah making decisions she could not live through. And it was when that body became even weaker, when the shackles had become tighter, the metal gnawing it’s way past her skin through to her bones, did she make her next decision.

Farah told her uncle that she gave up, that he had won. She told him she would be the “good girl” he’d wanted and she’d do as she pleases. Unchaining her, turning the locks of the chains that had bound her thin ankles and wrists, her escape was planned. Farah ran to the window and threw herself from the fourth floor.

How she survived is unknown to all of us at the shelter. The number of broken bones was manifest of the desperation and the price this little girl paid for those physical vulnerabilities and resilient choices. She was carried to the nearest hospital not only for the broken bones, but also for the skin infections on her thighs and buttocks from having wet and soiled herself all those months, from the burns where she was tied. But; what of the rape? What of the trauma? What of the future? Whose responsibility was it to heal these?

When she was well enough to leave, she left to the street. It was then the police referred her to the shelter. The moment she walked in is a moment all who were there will never forget. Shaimaa tells me she still can see this girl’s wrists in her dreams.

Why have I told you this story, reader? You are mistaken to think it is merely to break your heart. I have not even written it as a reminder of the individual stories of each of the girls on the street, like I often do. I have written this so that we can start asking different questions. I am sharing this to demonstrate that trying to convince many children that the street is bad for them is ineffectual. For children like Farah, and unfortunately, there are many, the street is hope, it is freedom, it is friendship, it is unpredictable. Till we understand the meaning of the street for children, till the first thing we do with them is NOT to reintegrate them with their families as a priority to secure more funding, till we can offer alternatives, then we may be doing more harm than good.

She was only 5 years old at the time and her little legs weren’t long enough to jump after her mother from rooftop to rooftop after the last violent beating her mother had received, tied up from a father high on drugs. She’d managed to jump six roof tops, but the distance of the seventh jump, was just too hard, she would have fallen and died if she had even tried. She tells me that she should have tried, she might as well have been dead than go back the six rooftops she’d managed, back to her father who sat in the corner, crouched over, crying in regret for what he had done to his wife…

It was three days before Eid, I sat, now casually after the group therapy session and the TV was on playing Sha’abi songs in the background, amused at the affect the music had on the little ones, 5 year old Maher bent on the wooden, loose legged coffee table, drumming out of beat, as 1 year old Noor bobbed up and down in her nappies – both blissfully enjoying what little life had afforded them. There was a good spirit in the shelter today, the special Eid clean was well under way and there was talk amongst the girls of new clothes they’d saved up for, what they’d do and where they’d go.

Sarah asked me what I would be doing for Eid. The truth was, I hadn’t really thought about it, my celebration of all religious festivals (and yes, I try and celebrate as many different ones as I can) was something that was decided on the day, spontaneously. So, with the honesty I had learnt to deal with the girls with, I told them I wasn’t sure yet. Maya, for the first time since I had come to the shelter, looked sad, though she was smiling. She told Sarah while looking at me, “she’s going to spend the day with her family of course, ya Sarah, that’s what children of people (welaad elnaas) do” and she jokingly slapped Sarah on the back and swore at her saying that bastard children like them should be grateful that they had each other. To which Sarah, of course, got up and hit her back till they ran around the whole room and made it back to their seats so composed, it was almost like this conversation didn’t happen. And I, as casually as they had acted, said, I will come one of the three days here for sure. I could not hide how touched I was at the excitement this promise was met with.

And I did come to them in Eid. I was thinking most of Sarah who had said she wished she had been in the shelter long enough to save money like the other girls to afford new clothes for Eid. She had only been there for a week and had 20 LE (£2) to her name. Shariff and Abdelazim had both given me lots of money to share amongst the girls for Eid. We went and bought toys, balloons, masks, sweets, fruits and cakes for the children and we were already enjoying this Eid more than any other – and we hadn’t even got there!

We walked in and the squeals of happiness and hugs and kisses we were met with are something that will stay with me forever. It was like the children, all ages, were taking this one day out in time to truly enjoy themselves. I was so grateful that they had wanted me to share it! I quickly gave the money out equally and got in trouble (just as quickly) by management who said it should go through them! But nothing was going to dampen today.

Except that Sarah wasn’t there. Maya told me she had a fight over the babies milk and… I didn’t hear the rest of Maya’s recollection of the incident, I was devastated she wasn’t there to share the day with us, to take the money and buy her and her baby some Eid clothes, to eat the mangoes and make an absolute mess with us… I couldn’t get over that she was missing today. It’s the way it is in the shelter, one day a girl is there and you get to know her, love her, build a future for and with her, but one day you’ll go and she’s gone and you know that more likely than not, you wont see her again. Often, you may only hear about her again if she’s been arrested, or has passed away. This thought made me achingly uncomfortable for the rest of the day. I worried for her, for her daughter that she was begging with.

I didn’t have to wait long though, three days after all the Eid festivities, Sarah was back with her little baby Lamees at the shelter, laughing at herself and how the week at the Sayeda Zainab was just too much for her this time under the “supervision” of Hafeeza, the infamous street leader who most of the children in the area beg and sell paper tissue for and are absolutely terrified of. None of what she was saying is funny, but she and the girls all sat on the floor around me cross-legged laughing, in tears laughing. I force myself off the chair to sit on the floor with them; something they’ve been resisting for fifteen minutes now out of respect. Sarah tells me “ya Miss!! You wont believe it, but I held a dollar!! I swear on my daughter’s head!! I held a dollar and when Hafeeza saw me she ran after me and I ran and ran but had to go back because I’d forgotten Lamees and had to go back for her and when I went back for her, she told me if I don’t give her the dollar she’d cut my hair”. To which, all the girls laughed. She then started to act, changing her voice – a skill all the girls had, to show how she begged from passersby retelling all the stories she’d been using to gain their sympathy.

It was amazing she had to think of stories to make people sorry for her. I was sitting in front of her by this stage and I could see the wrinkled, burnt skin covering the full length of her ankles and two feet. This was a scar; which had been there for ten years now. Sarah had gone shopping and came home late, her step-mother had convinced her father he needed to teach her a lesson she’d never forget, so she held her for him in the bath and watched the drugged father pour boiling water from the kettle over the little tender skin till it burnt.

One thing you’re trained to do when working with the street girls is to not show emotion as they recount their stories, but to this I could not but cry. Listening to her speak about it, about all the reasons she had to forgive him when he, sober the next morning, held her and cried and begged her forgiveness, this articulate, pretty, well spoken 16 year old street mother that she is today, the only thing out of all her contradictions that I am finding hard to not be surprised about, is how much she forgives her father. At the end of every recount of abuse, she ends with, “I hate how weak he is, and I feel sorry for him that he often can’t stand up straight, probably like his willy”.

She told me she was sorry she missed Eid, passed me Lamees and told me to look after her for an hour, it was her turn to go out and buy the babies their rationed nappies.