“A faraway place… where there are no people, only the sea and trees. Where people live very far away, because people are bad and they hurt each other and those who are good aren’t able and don’t know how to do anything about the bad people and they can’t help me”. This was Amal’s description when we asked the children at the shelter to draw a picture of what the best place they could think of (her picture is above). Continue reading
It was my third visit to the shelter. There was a happy atmosphere today which I later learnt always accompanied the arrival of a new baby. Shadia had come home with her new born after a C-Section the day before. I asked if I could go in to see her. I had never met Shadia before. I walked into the bedroom that housed 3 bunk beds and 6 single wardrobes, each padlocked. Shadia lay shaking in the middle of the well made bed. I panicked. I had never met someone with Parkinson’s disease before. My ignorance, both of the illness and of street children hadn’t prepared me that a child with parkinson’s could end up here. Shadia also had her left eye gauged out. But Shadia was beautiful.
I was new to my research with street children and still very unprepared for the heart ache that this work brought with it. I am, however, great at covering up my reactions so I smiled, asking Shadia if I could touch her new born baby Hannah. She smiles as her whole body convulses and nods that I can. How soft Hannah was! How content and calm this little pink human, wrapped in a clean yellow hand me down blanket, she lay next to her mother blissfully unaware of all that she was missing already. I told Shadia how beautiful her daughter was and wished her a life of happiness bringing her up. I look back at what I said that day and cringe.
I went out to speak with the incredible psychologist Shaimaa, who having realised I was shaken, tried to reassure me. She told me this was Shadia’s fourth baby. In her attempt to explain this was something Shadia was used to, I knew that this image of her laying there, me as an intruder, the lack of family around her, would be one that would haunt me for lifetimes to come. What I did not know, was that there was more to this particular street girl’s story that would plague my dreams, cause aching regrets and raise so many questions about the true value, or lack of, the work that I had gone there to do.
Leaving the shelter, stronger than I anticipated, I remembered who Shadia was. I had very briefly been given a summary of her circumstances; a street girl who left her abusive parents and prostitutes herself on the street for safety. Shadia has come to the shelter to receive care during each of her pregnancies and leaves four months after she gives birth, taking her baby with her. I am not a fan of statistics, but the shelter staff tell me only 20% of the girls that come to them are rehabilitated back into mainstream society. The rest, like Shadia leave back to the street and research is acutely lacking so that there is no comprehensive understanding as to why.
Shadia, in her incredible resilience to her parent’s abuse of their disabled child, ran away and has been living on the street for many years. This too is something I have found to be taboo. Again, the culture of ownership of children sheds an extraordinarily dangerous and disappointing shadow on the trauma disabled children in Egypt suffer. It is also frequently misattributed to poverty or illiteracy. This is not true. I know an outstanding engineer who suffers from a disability who comes from an extremely wealthy family of doctors. During his childhood he was “hidden” away from guests, not allowed out on family visits to friends and though not physically abused like Shadia, the emotional and psychological abuse that resulted from his parents reaction to his disability is still crippling in many areas of his life.
In extremely difficult circumstances, I say that Shadia is much luckier than many other poor, disabled children who are so vulnerable they are unable to imagine an alternative life. Shadia made a series of decisions that led her to lay on this bed with a fourth child she knew she would not keep. But who is to judge her for this? In Egypt, there is no alternative child care system worth the letters typed and turning to the street that is more bearable to her, as it is to many children with all it’s risks and dangers, Shadia prostitutes herself for food and shelter. I wonder who it is that would sleep with a disabled child in exchange for a sandwich and safety? Are they the same men I am hoping will campaign with us for change, for protection of our most vulnerable children?
The shelter’s attempts to rehabilitate Shadia have been many, from giving her a micro loan to open a kiosk which she was not able to run, to trying to marry her to a man she bought back, to trying to convince her to leave her child in the Dreams shelter for under fives which other street girls leave their babies and come to visit them. All of these attempts had failed.
Despite my not having got to know most of her story from her, Shadia picked up that I could be a useful source to her, so she would ask me for deodorant, shower gel, mp3 headphones. I would oblige; the least I could do. But it was during my visit in Eid that Shadia surprised me with an unexpected request. She asked me to take Hannah. I lifted her into my arms thinking Shadia wanted to go put away her Eid money. But no, Shadia wanted me to take Hannah, for good.
I spent an hour talking at Shadia, telling her how well she takes care of her daughter. It was true, little Hannah and Shadia always smelt delightful, she was so well taken care of, always calm, always close to her. I told her how much Hannah obviously loves her, how she would grow to be her support. I was still so naive, months after living amongst them. The next time I visited, Shadia and Hannah were gone.
It was a few months later, on my three hour ride to the reconstructive surgeon with Taghreed that I find out Shadia had sold Hannah for £50, and that the couple who took her took Hannah and never paid Shadia.
Somewhere in all this, Hannah’s blood is on my hands for not taking her when Shadia asked me to. But society and government too are accountable for making it legally impossible for me to take her. And we are all responsible that our country does not offer monitored alternative care. Hannah will continue to haunt me and I pray that she weighs heavily on all Egyptians who have the power to have provided an alternative for Shadia and safety for her babies and did not.
It’s the same street babies that pull at the strings of our heart today, that grow into the thugs that pull the trigger to our heads tomorrow. And we would deserve it.
She looks at me very seriously every time I walk through the door to the children’s room on the third room. As the other under fives come crawling or running towards me, depending on which they can do, Reem stays where she is looking me, piercingly. It’s hard not trying to interpret and analyse Reem’s looks, her tone, her words. She looks at me as if she is waiting to see if I have delivered a justice she is expecting. I ache at these looks and I want to tell her to stop looking at me. I want to tell her the burden she is expecting me to carry is one too heavy. But when she eventually joins the other children to either fight to hold my hand or crawl up on my lap, the warmth of her small body balances out the cold with which she had looked at me.
She never speaks till she is spoken to – a lesson; I imagine she has learnt a hard way. Heba who speaks with a vulgarity that is shocking to those who come for visits for the first time and endearing to me for it’s unpretentious spontaneity, tells me “mama, Reem was holding a glass and she was going to cut herself and the Miss took it off her, she wanted to do it because she was angry”. Calmly, but with a hint of defensiveness, Reem tells me, “No, I’m going to do it because I want them to know I want to be with me sisters!” Not having the slightest idea how to deal with the issue of self-harm with a four-year-old, despite years working in a child helpline, I say, “you must miss them very much… you only have one more year Ya Reem to join them in the big girls shelter, did you know that?” She nods once, not humouring my attempt at making her feel better.
But I’m not going to give up. I am here for Reem as well as all the other little ones. Despite the way she looks at me and questions me, her little fingers wrap around mine, her little head rests in competition with the others over the parts of my body that they fit themselves on and around. I’m amused by a thought that jumps to my head: for a moment I am grateful that I am fat so there is more of me they can sit on! I laugh and Reem asks me if I’m laughing because I’m happy to be with them. I tell her I am. I tell her that I am happy because I am around children that I love. She responds without compliment, “I am happy when I am with my big sisters. They cry when they know what Hassan does to me”. I ask her who Hassan is and she tells me that’s her father’s name. “Hassan did this the last time, look” and her little fingers leave my hand and she jumps off my knee to give me her back as she lifts her little hand-me-down t-shirt and shows me some bruises.
Is it because Reem’s story is so fresh, so current that I cannot deal with it the same way I am able to absorb the older girl’s stories that they relay from their past? Or is it because Reem, unlike them, has not had the years to teach her to accept it, deal with it, and sometimes laugh about it? I’m not sure, but when Reem is at the shelter I know that for nights to come I will not be able to sleep, I will call my mother and cry about injustice and I will hear her little voice and see her beautiful, accusing black eyes stare right at me asking me what have I done since the last time we spoke. I will her those frightening words she says in the little innocent four-year-old voice that will keep ringing in my ears and which I cannot shut out.
Without having asked for anything else, Reem says “Om Ashraf came in and kept saying “leave her ya Hassan, she’s only small, leave her and God will be pleased with you if you leave her,” and when he didn’t listen to her, she came in and pulled him off me and she carried me and hid me in her house till she bought me here.” I pulled her back up on my knee and 1-year-old Maria passed her a crisp right into her mouth; which Reem took. Reem rested her head on my chest and said “one day the police will come and get him and put him away so my mum can rest and if they don’t I’ll grow and be strong and kill him.”
Why am I writing this? Because I want to you, reader, to be outraged like me that there is nothing that the shelter can do to protect Reem from her abusive father. There are no laws implemented that can stop us handing over Reem when he comes to take her on “family visits”. We are campaigning and we are fighting for children’s rights… all battles so they can access services and are afforded protection they are entitled to. Money isn’t going to help us save these kids; rather, having a rights based understanding of how to help them will. Funding won’t ensure their inclusion in society, a will to include them, will.