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

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

BqlFURfCIAEvfLA

Child Street Mothers – Being the Best Mothers They Can Be.

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“She works at a sugar factory 28 days a month and she comes to the shelter to stay over 2 days a month. On her way here, she spends every penny she has earned buying food, toys and clothes for Noor.” Shaymaa was telling me about 14 year old Basma because she was due to the shelter today to spend those precious two days with 14 month old Noor. Basma suffered from schizophrenia, fell pregnant in Upper Egypt, and was abandoned by the boy who repeatedly raped her once she was with child. At 12 years old she tried to convince her parents to accept her new born, and had called Shaymaa three days after taking the baby to her home, telling her to come save the little child who had been locked in the chicken den by her grandfather in an attempt to ‘hide the shame’ that would come to the family if their neighbours came to know of her. Shaymaa had made the nine-hour journey to save Noor from the neglect that she so bravely endured and which Basma has so bravely took action against.

That day at the shelter, Noor was in her element and would not leave her shy mother’s lap. Basma had a way of saying Noor’s name; which elongates the vowels in a melodic tone that only those from upper Egyptians know how to utter and Noor recognised the difference in how her name was said by her mother in contrast to all of us and would always smile after its utterance and quickly drop her head on Basma’s shoulder or bosom. Basma would start feeding Noor from the moment she entered the shelter, till the moment she left, very obviously trying to make up for the nurturing she believed Noor would find in the food and that which she feels she has deprived her of during her absence.

In the group therapy session, the girls were talking about being mothers and what their children meant to them. Some shared their fears of responsibility and of having to let go of certain hopes of a changed future because now they had a child that tied them to their past. Others said it was the only beautiful thing that happened to them and that it was a chance to give someone a certain type of love that they had been denied. Basma said, “I was just really happy with Noor was born, I was so worried that something was going to be wrong with her, the doctors were worried something would be wrong, but look at her, she’s perfect.”

This day was like any other day for the shelter and the ups and the downs. Maya who had been kept in an imaginary circle for 3 years by her step mother till she was 6-years-old in which she had to sleep, play, excrete, wee and eat, and who had been violent towards not only Summer, but the other under fives came and confided in me telling me that she was violent towards Summer because she wants her to grow up into a tough woman and not to be afraid. She told me that life is violent, full of bad people who hurt weak people, that there were only those two categories, that she didn’t want Summer to be part of the latter group and end up being hurt like she was before she became strong. It was the first time Maya had opened up to me about strength and weakness and what she thought of them. It’s always hard as a researcher not to share what I thought, or advise, but I was a human before I was a researcher and Maya was talking to “that” me. I explored with Maya the other ways Summer could grow with the violence, that it may leave her physically disabled, that she may become scared of loud sounds, just gentle reminders to Maya that she was not in control of how her intentions could pan out. Maya got up saying, “I hadn’t thought about that, I need to think about that because I don’t want bad things for Summer”.

Taghreed, the 16-year-old who would wet herself every time her father walked into the shelter to find her there since she was 8, who I am ashamed to have judged on the first meeting as cold and quite scary, would stop eating when 12-month-old Rana, whom she had socially adopted at the shelter would be taken away for family visits. Taghreed travelled a brave journey to remove a rape scar from her face, counting the stitches as the surgeon was taking them out, tears welling up in the corner of her eyes, fighting the pain. She had asked for a cream to hide it before I managed to organize this reconstruction for, but she had always refused to tell me why it was so important to her. On our journey back after the last visit to the doctor, she told me I could bring my camera in tomorrow because she was now ready to have a picture with her 6-month-old son.

Little snippets of a tender motherhood can be recorded in every on of my visits to the shelter, from laughter of the children in their child mother’s arms, to the horrific moments when you enter a child’s bedroom at night and within seconds she grabs her baby and cowers of her/him in a corner for safety. Children who become mothers before they have grown are children who try the best they can with what they have. This is why I tore up my university business card and replaced it with my own that reads: I go to university to teach and I go to my street children to learn.

Happy Mothers Day to all the child street mothers, all over the world.

Street Children and the Girls who were Once Loved by God

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“Go say hello quickly and bend down to kiss her hand, she’s one of the people that takes care of your daughter”. As soon as the short, fair skinned, green eyed, toothless man with a small white cloth hat fitted tightly on his head, had finished instructing his daughter to hurry towards me, she moved in my direction faster than I had time to retreat, grabbing my hand trying to kiss it. I pulled my hand away and stroked her head asking her how she was today. She stares at me but doesn’t respond.

There had been great commotion half an hour earlier when we got word that Lucy’s mother and grandfather had come to see her. Only yesterday we were discussing the one year old and wondering why she was so scared of sounds unlike her other “brothers and sisters’ at the shelter. She had been bought in the day she was born, but unlike others, she did not enjoy or seek physical affection, cried at the slightest sound and was almost always found laying awake, still, in any one of the cots.

We’d been discussing Lucy specifically because she had acted very much out of character the day my husband came to the shelter to visit. Lucy had demanded his attention, accepted being carried by him, allowed him to rock her to sleep the hour he stood and held her. None of us had commented at the time so as not to disturb the natural bond being experienced by the pair, but as soon as my husband had left and Lucy had returned to her isolation, Shaimaa and I were so joyous to have seen her so emotionally responsive that Shaimaa said she’d have to note this on the little girl’s records.

It was during that conversation that I learnt that no one from Lucy’s family had been to see her since she was born. I wondered whether the lack of any maternal contact contributed to her insecure attachments – even though the other one year olds were often abused and hurt and used by their mothers on the street, when they came back to the shelter they were affectionate and always seeking physical attention from those they were familiar with.

So this visit was very timely. Except, after learning of our visitors arrival, Mama Madeeha took Lucy down to meet her mother and a few moments later we heard a piercing scream and cries of a girl desperately trying to convince someone “She’s not my daughter, she’s not my daughter!! My daughter is only a few days old, this is a big girl, I want to see my daughter, my daughter is small and soft, don’t try to trick me.”

I watched from behind the door not wanting to intrude or to scare the fragile girl any more than she was distressed. Mama Madeeha spoke to her gently explaining how her baby had grown up and had to become bigger and that this was good and she should be happy to see her grow. The sweet, calming reassurance of mama Madeeha seemed to calm the girl back into her detached, blank state. She sat back down. Mama Madeeha slowly placed the one year old into her mothers lap and the girl held Lucy without looking at her and started to gently rock her. Lucy, like a fish in water, accepted being held like the daughter she had missed out on being.

I watched for a few minutes. She handed her daughter back with an angry voice that matched neither the apathetic eyes or the caring grip she had of Lucy “I’ll only hold her if you feed me! Feed me, I’m hungry!” I could tell that Mama Madeeha was running out of resources; her role in the organisation was “alternative mother”, she was there to cuddle, feed,  wash, tuck into bed all the under fives. At times her job description was stretched to incorporate new training for children found on the street abandoned like Maha (5), Mahmoud(4) and Maher(3). The three young siblings have never since had anyone come to ask after them. The three little children, when in need for the toilet, would find a private spot between wardrobes or any other furniture and pull down their trousers and get it done. It would be at those times that Mama Madeeha, according to a special training plan provided by the shelter social workers and psychologist would patiently try to alter these behaviours while looking after four one year olds, three four year olds who have escaped very abusive backgrounds and her own three children. Dealing with Lucy’s mother was not part of neither her job description or her training, or her capacity. So she just laughed at the request of food and went to the kitchen to see what she could offer her.

It was then I  walked in; when Lucy’s mother seemed a little calmer. It was then that the man ordered her to come kiss my hand. When I started stroking her head, continuing to do so when she showed no objection and seemed to be calmer, he tells me this:

“She’s a good girl really, wallahy (I swear by god) she’s a really sweet girl, she used to be my favourite. But look at her, she’s mad, she’s crazy now. I just picked her up an hour ago from Al Abasseya” Al Abasseya is the most infamous mental health care institution in Cairo and he whispers the word. He goes on “she’s been there since she gave birth to Lucy, she went mad you know after they raped her, they did what they did to her and there’s nothing a poor father like me can do. It would have been easy to report it to the police, but one of the men is a police man. What is a poor man to do? We must accept our fate and ask God for compensation. God is the greatest prosecutor of the evil.”

I told him he’d done well to bring her to see her daughter. He suddenly looked ashamed and in an apologetic tone said “I’d bring her every day if I could, I’d even take her out of the hospital but I am poor and cannot feed myself and my wife to be able to feed her and her daughter. I bought her to see the girl because I don’t want God to judge me for not doing the right thing. You know, my daughter, she is really good, God used to love her so much before this happened to her, she used to hear the prophet speaking to her, that’s how pure and good she was. But God  has turned angry with her after they did what they did to her.”

Throughout his story telling, the girl looked ahead of her, only moving once to encourage me to carry on stroking her hair when I had paused for a moment. This tiny move she made with her head made my heart ache, ache for the affection she was craving behind those stone cold eyes. I ached for her, for her father who thought God, if God indeed existed in all his loving compassion, would stop loving his child that had been violently gang raped. My heart ached for little Lucy who had become a living, breathing reminder to her mother and grandfather of, in his own words “God’s spell of anger towards the family”.

Mama Madeeha returned with some food. The girl refused it and reached out for her daughter. She sat holding her vertically by her heart, stroking her hair just the way I had been stroking hers moments earlier.