Street Children: “Rubbish is Only Matter Out of Place”

One question that I was often asked about the lives of street children was why they would sleep on the street instead if going back to the “comfort and safety” of their own home: concepts that us, privileged few automatically associate with the word home.

When I heard the horror stories of the street, I often wondered similar things. But when I started visiting where these children’s families lived, often answer was found in the photos I took. Sometimes the stories of emotional, financial, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, violence and neglect inside the home were the reason. But often, less sensational reasons presented themselves. The physical structure of “home” was so small that they often had to sleep outside it anyway, under the staircases, in the building entrances, outside altogether.

So I started answering that question with one of my own: “what would make a child want to travel for miles back to an area that is often dirtier, scarier, lonelier, often more abusive and less comfortable than the street corner or under the bridge where they had spent their whole day, made friends and learned to survive in?”

There is dirt, danger and discomfort in both places… One was just miles away and not worth the effort of the journey back… But what makes us ask the question is rarely the state of the alternative place the child has to return to, but mainstream society’s absolute distaste and discomfort for seeing private life routines taking place in public spaces. The reminder of our failures as a society to protect the vulnerable by ensuring we provide them with safe alternatives. That’s what’s ugly about the street and children out of place – not the children and their practices, but society and it’s apathy towards the lack of alternative care.

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The title of this blog quotes Mary Douglas who argues that rubbish is nothing more than something out of place and so becomes dirty and dangerous. That would apply to children out of “place” the place we (again, the privileged few) would see suitable for children: home or school etc. and so what of child soldiers, child prostitutes, street children? And this of course leads to the problems with definitions.

So many working with street children are so concerned with the politically (and sometimes academically) correct definitions and we see terms like “street connected children”, “children of the street”, “children in the street”, “children in a street situation”. I find them all unhelpful. So when I went out working with street children I thought I would focus on finding another definition and I chose to look at what the slang for street children in different countries was… here’s a summary of what I found:

  • India – Without root or roof or carrying the stamp of the street
  • Brazil – A younger child of a slave or an individual with no word of honour
  • Egypt – A  small insect that destroys grains and crops
  • Columbia – The plague
  • Ethiopia – Vermin
  • Cameroon – Mosquitoes

The biggest problem with these definitions is that they dehumanise the victim. When you start referring to children as pests, then it becomes more acceptable and justifiable to mistreat them. It is acceptable for the police to run after a mosquito and abuse the vermin and try to get rid of the plague.

The one slang word that moved me to tears and perhaps summarises the plight of street children the most came from Vietnam, where the children are referred to as “bui doi” which translates to “The Dust of Life”.

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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.

Be Socrates – The First Street Worker

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Yesterday I met a 23 year old girl who has just finished her second year at university, she’s incredible. She used to be a street child here in the UK. She had parents who could no longer look after her and she fell through the social services and child protection net and ended up on the streets. It’s always hard isn’t it when something like this happens in your own back yard? You cannot so comfortably shake your head in disapproval towards those ‘primitive developing countries’ that don’t appreciate the beauty and innocence of childhood. But I’m talking about a child who slept rough in the UK that you and I have never met. I hate statistics, but just for context, did you know that a child runs away from home every 5 minutes in the UK? That’s 100,000 children under 16 a year, and 70% of those children are never even reported missing by those who are supposed to care for and protect them.

She spoke for a while about her experiences and the negotiations she had to make to ensure her safety during the nights. As a child in London, sleeping on benches, in parks, riding up and down night buses, asking to lay on a piece of carpet at friends who could sneak her in after their parents had gone to sleep. She spoke about the ‘interest’ that she succumbed to during her years on the street, interest that she was lured into because of her need to be loved and cared for.

She spoke too of the tiny gestures of genuine kindness from adults and people on the streets who she considered the best types of ‘street worker’ even though they did not realise that this is what they were being, often’,she said those acts of kindness saved her life. She said that sometimes even a smile would change how the day was for someone on the street.

There was so much that was remarkable and humbling and empowering about her story. One of the many things I took away though, was how great this country is, how forgiving. Despite the many battles we need to still passionately pursue for gender equality, we must also stop to celebrate the huge achievements we’ve made so far. The fact that this young woman was given a second chance, is admired for her resilience, encouraged on her path or rebuilding, and not made to cower in the shame of a past she did not chose, as my girls must suffer in Egypt, is definitely a cause of pride for this country.

The other thing is, each and everyone of you is a street worker, whether you chose to be or not, the very fact that you use the street and are in it make you one. You can be the act of kindness that help the homeless experience a better day, or indeed, save their life. All you need to do is remember how incredible powerful you are. Do not refrain from helping because you think your help is insignificant, you’re not. Hold on to, and use that power.

And remember Socrates, yes the philosopher. Socrates devoted his life to the poor and underprivileged spending a considerable amount of time in street markets: the prototype of the street worker at the time. Be Socrates.

الحل البرازيلى

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نشرت صحيفة «المصرى اليوم» مقالا لكاتب أرى أنه ينبغى إلقاء القبض عليه بتهمة استخدام خطاب يحض على الكراهية؛ تحت عنوان «أطفال الشوارع: الحل البرازيلى».

ويبدأ الكاتب مقاله، بسرد الأخطار التى يمثلها أطفال الشوارع على المجتمع؛ محددا الجرائم التى يحملهم مسئوليتها، ومن بينها فيروس نقص المناعة البشرية/ الإيدز، إلى جانب الاغتصاب والقتل وما إلى ذلك. وبعد هذا السرد، يذكرنا بـ «الحل» البرازيلى الذى، يقول إنه قد يكون مؤسفًا، ولكنه شجاع! فى ضوء ما تعانيه البرازيل من مصاعب اقتصادية.

وأشاد بالقرار الصعب الذى اتخذته السلطات البرازيلية، موضحا كونه لا إنسانيا ويائسا، ولكنه ضرورى! ويذكر أيضا أن السكان على الرغم من معرفتهم بما كان يحدث، قرروا غض الطرف، من أجل المصلحة الكبرى للعمل الجاد، والمواطنين الذين سوف يستفيدون من هذا «القرار المصيرى» لإعادة النظام الى المدينة. ويقول إنهم كانوا يدركون أن التصرف الأكثر أخلاقية هو مساعدة الأطفال على الاندماج فى المجتمع، ولكن هذا من شأنه أن يتحقق بتكلفة اقتصادية عالية لا يمكن تحملها. ويخلص نصار عبدالله إلى الزعم أنه بفضل اتخاذ تدابير «شجاعة» من هذا النوع، نجح الحل البرازيلى فى تخليص الشوارع الرئيسية من أطفال الشوارع، ودفع ما تبقى منهم إلى الأحياء الفقيرة، ويشير إلى أن ما يسمى «نجاح» لا يبرر هذا العمل، ولكنه يبرهن على وجود إرادة حقيقية لتصحيح علل المجتمع، ويربطه بما تلاه من ارتفاع معدلات العمالة.

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وبالنسبة لمن لم يتابعوا الأحداث التى يشير إليها المؤلف، إليكم ملخص الوقائع: أطلقت فرق الموت فى البرازيل النار على الأطفال بينما كانوا نائمين خارج الكنائس. وقتل 50 طفلا مشردا أثناء النوم على أرض كاتدرائية كانديلاريا فى وسط مدينة ريو دى جانيرو، عندما أطلق مجموعة من المسلحين النار على الأطفال العزل فقتلوهم. وتم خطف أولئك الذين لم يموتوا، وضربهم وتعذيبهم وأطلقت عليهم الأعيرة النارية، فماتوا بعد أيام قليلة.

ولست متأكدة من المستوى الذى يفيد فى التفاهم مع هذا الكاتب، ولكن اسمحوا لى أن أتحدث بشكل مختصر وبسيط: على الرغم من كونك أستاذا للفلسفة فى مصر لم تفعل المبادرات النازية على مر العصور سوى جلب العار على كل من القادة والأتباع ومن يغضون الطرف عنها، من أولئك الذين يعيشون داخل خطاب تلك المعتقدات. فليس أطفال الشوارع مرضا يتطلب علاجًا؛ وإنما عرض من أعراض علل؛ ليس فقط المجتمع ولكن الحكومات والدول الوهمية والضعيفة التى تعجز عن وقف هروب الأطفال المعرضين للخطر، من البيوت والكبار والبحث عن ملجأ فى مخاطر الشارع.

ولتعلم، أن الأطفال الذين تتحدث عنهم، وحملتهم مسئولية فشل المجتمع، هم نفس الأطفال الذين كنت أعمل من أجلهم، لأكثر من عامين. وهم الأطفال الذين هربوا من التعذيب؛ من تقييدهم وإلقاء الماء المغلى على أجسادهم، لعدم قيامهم بأعمال التنظيف جيدا، أو عدم الانصياع لأوامر الآباء جيدا، والأطفال الذين هم أصغر من أن يتحملوا الانتهاك الجنسى والعاطفى والنفسى والمالى. أدعوك، يا سيدى، أن تأتى ولتعمل معنا لبضع ليال، وتقوم بزيارة الأطفال الذين ينامون ويتجمعون معا ـ طلبا للأمان ـ تحت الكبارى، الذين يتعرضون للاغتصاب كل ليلة ولكنهم لا يزالون يشعرون بالأمان، أكثر مما كان عليه الحال فى منازلهم، أو فى المؤسسات الإصلاحية؛ حيث يتم تقييدهم فى السرير، ويتعرضون للضرب بأخشاب السرير. أدعوك لمرافقتنا، نحن الذين نعمل مع هؤلاء الأطفال، إلى أجنحة الولادة والتعرف إلى تعامل الموظفين هناك مع الفتيات اللاتى تتراوح أعمارهم بين 13 أو 14 عاما، المرعوبات، اللاتى نأخذهن للولادة لأنهن يحملن، وحدهن، عار الاغتصاب من قبل أحد أفراد الأسرة، أو رجل شرطة، أو موظف الرعاية، أو أى شخص فى الشارع. أدعوك، سيدى، أن تأتى معنا ونحن نحاول استخراج شهادات الميلاد أو الوفاة بالنسبة لأولئك الذين لا يعيشون كمواطنين من الدرجة الثانية حتى. عندها فقط، يا سيدى، هل يمكن أن تكون فى وضع يسمح باقتراح حلول «شجاعة»؟

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ولكن، دعنى أتحدث إليك، على نحو ربما يمكن أن تفهمه بصورة أفضل. نشكرك على اقتراحك لكيفية تحسين علل مصر، لكنه حل لم ينجح فعليا. ففى 30 أبريل 1996، صدرت أحكام بالسجن على الضباط الذين تورطوا فى إطلاق النار لمدد تصل إلى 309 سنوات. كما توضح الإحصاءات الأخيرة أن هناك نحو ثمانية ملايين من أطفال الشوارع فى البرازيل (800 ألف منهم يعملون فى دعارة الأطفال) وكان معدل البطالة فى البرازيل عام 1993 نحو 5.4 فى المائة، بلغ هذا العام (5.2 فى المائة (بعد مرور 21 عامًا). وأوصيك بالبحث قبل أن تعتبر أن سرقة حياة الأطفال، نصيحة لإثبات جدية الدولة فى اعتماد نهج إصلاحى لمشاكلها. وأنا أتفق معك فى شىء واحد: حاجة الحكومة لإظهار الشجاعة. ولكن، يا سيدى، نحن لسنا من أهل الكهف، ولسنا نازيين. يجب أن تبدى حكوماتنا الشجاعة فى الاعتراف بأنها لم تدرك منذ البداية كيفية حل المشكلات التى تدفع بالأطفال إلى الشارع. يجب أن تتسم بالتواضع وتعترف بحاجتها إلى مساعدة من الباحثين المحترفين والعاملين فى المنظمات غير الحكومية، للعمل معا ومعرفة ما يقود الأطفال إلى الشوارع، وأسباب بقائهم فيه، كما ينبغى أن تظهر شجاعة فى استثمار الأموال من أجل تجربة الرعاية البديلة الخاضعة للمراقبة، حيثما تسىء الأسر معاملة أطفالها خارج المنازل! ولاشك أن هذا الكاتب يمثل حلا مفرطا فى الشجاعة!

‘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

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The Air that we Breathe… Too much for Street Kids?

As you clicked on this link to open it and read this post, you breathed, right? You just did it again. And again, right there, you did it again. Breathing, it’s so natural, so taken for granted.

Today a little 1 day old baby couldn’t find those breaths, and she couldn’t get the help other babies are afforded to find it.

The thing is, after I got the news that she had died, I stopped to think what went wrong? What had I not done? What wasn’t enough?

I received a message this morning at 07.18 saying: “Nelly quick, we need help. We need an incubator for a baby born yesterday or she’ll die.” Thankfully I was up early because I had to go with a family member to hospital as they were getting tests, and I saw the message 12 minutes later at which point I started tweeting and posted a Facebook status asking people to put me in touch with a doctor or hospital who could help us. At 08.26, less than an hour later, a doctor and hospital had been identified, a few minutes later, the exact needs were identified and an ambulance was on its way. But the hospital the baby was originally at, had no support, so from last night this little human was struggling for her life, with no life support machine, no incubator, no nothing. They didn’t even have a pediatrician who could accompany the baby on her journey so she had to wait some more till that was arranged.

What was incredible was that in the 56 minutes it took to get a volunteer doctor and hospital, I got offers of donations from around the world, people I know and those I don’t know. The one’s who knew me said they knew I don’t accept donations, but if I made an exception for an emergency, they’d be happy to help. But Shariff and I could have sent the money. The money was an issue of course, because that’s the reason the baby was born at that hospital in the first place, but I realised today that money cant even help the poor. We couldn’t find an incubator – that was the problem!! A friend tried to call three private hospital emergency numbers, they didn’t pick up. One charity, we were told, could only accept kids of a certain religion. The only movement we were getting was from people who value life equally. Why do I say that? Because I’ve been told that the street kids who die shouldn’t be mourned because of the suffering that life would give them. I swear someone said that!!

But what went wrong? Till now, Nada’s mother doesn’t know her baby has died, she’s not doing too well after the birth and everyone is too worried to tell her. What will we tell her? Won’t she, like every other mother want to know who’s to blame? Who’s fault was it? Was it my fault that there was a 12-minute delay? Was it Egypt’s fault because it lacked a fundamental infrastructure that could really and practically help the poor? Was it mere negligence on part of the hospital? And that’s the point I want to make in this blog? Who will fight for Laila’s right to find out what happened to her baby and who let her down? Who will make sure the hospital admits to its shortcomings and mistakes that led to the newborn’s death? Who, in the midst of the political hysteria and taking sides will take time out to make sure that the basic right to life that was stripped Nada and Laila is investigated, understood, reprimanded, compensated? Though even that is not enough?

This baby’s mother was very special to me. She was one of the girls from the shelter I had previously written about. The only virgin girl at the shelter who had sparked the controversy of whether the girls should continue to be divided according to virginity. Her presence in the shelter had aggravated the girls there, most of whom bore the scars of their rape, not only in their spirits, but in the form of a fleshy piece of meat hanging from their cheeks, a result of a carving with a pen knife street girls get after their first gang rape. Laila had escaped that fate, but her presence at the shelter bought her even closer to it. The girls, having convinced themselves that the staff there had more respect and love for her because she was a virgin, had planned that a taxi driver and some street boys kidnap and rape her. We found this out just in time and sent her to another shelter telling her we needed help with the younger kids there. She, in her sweet nature was unaware of the conspiracy and unaware of the efforts made to protect her from it.

After I’d written a blog about this, an interesting thing happened. I got help not only for her, but also for the girls who had planned this attack; after all they too were children who had others conspire against them. A reconstructive surgeon offered his services, clinic and staff for free to help my street girls have the rape scars removed and an incredible lady offered to pay what was left from Laila’s fiancé’s debts so they could get married and she could find a way out of the shelter and off the street. I remember how Laila found a way to call me from Cairo after I had returned to London, to tell me she was getting married on that day and that she was thinking about me even though she knew it wasn’t me who had paid the money. This gesture of gratitude was not only characteristic of Laila, but of street kids in general, you do one thing for them and they would happily lay their lives for you in return; one of the many things they taught me.

I couldn’t help compare the medical center we were in, the children’s pictures on the walls, the surviving children who came here no matter how rich or poor, no matter what class they were from, to the hospital little Nada was fighting for her life in. Can we not create a team of people who could dedicate a fraction of their time and hospital staff and efforts to taken care of these children as they give birth? Just like the reconstructive surgeon Dr. Hany Hamam who ended up a true part of our team and performed many procedures, not only on street kids but children who had been deformed by stray dog attacks. Laila was one of the “lucky” ones because she went there with a husband. The girls who’ve been raped get humiliated when they go there to give birth alone, usually used for training, as one girls said “because we know they’re doing us a favour, we can’t really say no to the 20 students they bring in to put their fingers in us to learn what it is for a woman to be dialated. You know, they have to learn and they can’t do that with daughters of real people (welaad naas)”. Can we not get together and have a place for these girls to go to give birth where they are treated with dignity and a respect for their life?

Though little Nada’s life was ever so brief, only taking with her the few breathes her tiny lung managed on it’s own, she was special in how she got people to work together from all sorts of backgrounds and places. She didn’t make it, but in a world where her breaths were not as valued as other baby breaths, then maybe this world didn’t deserve her after all.

 

 

Image from: http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/2011/04/14/stillbirth-new-zealands-quiet-epidemic/empty-cot/