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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Post: Frustration of Working with “Be Grateful” Charity Mentality

“A Kind Word is Better than a Charitable Deed Followed by Harm” The Holy Qur’an

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The Holy Bible

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” Mother Teresa
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Many of you would have been following my excitement about getting Taghreed a birth certificate. Let me tell you what happened:

A couple got in touch after this blog was posted telling me they were happy to pay for the costs that would see Taghreed through the legal system. This was exciting for the chance this offered us to set a precedence of getting ID for children on the street without the presence of abusive parents. An appointment with the lawyer was set. Taghreed turned up with a social worker and one representative from the couple. Taghreed turned up with no documents, no idea of when/where she was born, what her parents marital status was, what her mother’s real name is and they faced the first hurdle; she could not sign a power of attorney because she had no ID! This caused great frustration to the lady paying for the lawyers time.

I realised a week later that I was “unfollowed” on twitter by the man who got in touch and when I wrote to him saying I hope all was well, this is an extract of what he wrote back:

“You associate yourself to a sad bunch of people…  [the meeting] went extremely bad because of you dealing with the matter in such an unprofessional way. When I originally contacted you, I felt a sense of importance in the case you presented. When my wife explained what happened in the meeting, I realised it was just smoke and mirrors and we both felt being lied to. There is no excuse for not bringing the file that was on the girl to the meeting. The fact that you have lawyers there and no one bothered to meet but the worker coming totally unprepared… well I’m speechless.”

I first want to talk about this very specifically, and then try and deconstruct some “myths” about working with street children.

I do not “associate” myself with anyone. I am a random person who did my research fieldwork in an NGO in Egypt with street children. This NGO, like others, does amazing, incredible, extremely valuable work with children who have endured incredible amounts of disadvantage. They are DEFINITELY NOT a “sad bunch of people”. They are, in fact, an incredibly dedicated, under valued, under paid, under trained bunch of people who believe in a cause that is unfashionable, disappointing and down right dangerous, often putting their lives at risk protecting the children they work with. I found this highly offensive.
The NGO do not have LAWYERS. They have one lawyer who works for the NGO’s legal affairs, not the children. Had you spent some time asking, this is  what you would have found out. I do understand it may be hard when you are a CEO of an international company, living in the most affluent parts of Cairo, to understand that local NGO’s, especially after Jan 25 are working against incredible odds to just feed their dependents and many months “owe” their staff their salary. When help was offered for this girl through the legal process, it was my fault, perhaps, to have not highlighted it was not about the money alone!
From the very first email I had with the lady who went to this meeting, I asked to follow up with the shelter manager, to which I was told off in an email and told that she was offering us a favour and would not chase! I definitely should have stopped at this point.

In a way, I am glad this has happened. It has highlighted the need to critically consider the idea of “charity”, of doing good, of getting involved, and of my responsibility to make sure I do not subject the children that have trusted me to encounter experiences that further victimise them. But before I move on, there is something that baffles me… The person writing said they felt lied to. I am so amazed by this. The complexity of the case, the contradictions, the insecurities and uncertainties of the lives of these children are so out of the ordinary that those who come into contact with them are so uncomfortable that they want to dismiss them as lies? Why would anyone lie to you? I am not sure I understand this bit – what is there to gain from you? What street child would want to go through the legal process just for fun?!

Let me now deconstruct some myths around my work with street children:

Myth Number One: Charity

Street children are not waiting for bread crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. It is important to note this very well before ever working with street children: if you are NOT going to be kind in your dealings with the kids, then it is far better you direct your charity elsewhere. I should have trusted my feeling from the start when the lady told me she was doing us a favour and would not chase. Working with street kids is a struggle, you are fighting for them, against them, with them, despite of them. That’s the reality you should come to them armed with, or like this couple, you will find an excuse to run away from them at the first disappointment.

Two amazing examples of this are my favourite Dr Hany Hamam, the generous and kind cosmetic surgeon who offered Taghreed free cosmetic surgery  a real example of the exact opposite of what these people were. He contacted me to offer his services, chased me with a few emails and every time Taghreed is due for a checkup or a followup operation, he tries to contact the shelter, emails me while I’m out of the country to chase. Someone who really wants to help. Then there’s Dr Ahmed who offered to help the kids who were bitten by the stray dogs. We organised an appointment with someone he asked a favour of, a top doctor in the field and the parents of the kids injured just didn’t turn up. Even though it was not my fault, I emailed him apologetically, his graceful response was “Anytime!! It’s important that the option for them is there”. This gracefulness, I realised, was something not to be taken for granted, and I am honoured that my path has made me encounter these people who feel responsible for the part they should play in a society.

Myth Number Two: Working with street children is gratifying/fulfilling

One of the hardest realities about working with street children is the bitter, painful statistic, that all who work with them try hard not to think of, there is only a 20% success rate in rehabilitating street children. I write about her a lot, Maya… a great example of how society, all parts of it, has deeply let her down; as a child and as a teenager. The NGO has been working with her since she was 7 years old. Maya too was a great disappointment to the social workers who invested so much time, hope, energy, belief in her to wake up one day and find her stir up a scene at the shelter, the same evening gone, now working in prostitution, abandoning her child. I spoke to many of the people working with Maya over the years. Most of them shrugged their shoulders and told me that what was important was that during her time in and out of the shelter, she knew she had them, that she knows, still, that they will be here. That it’s about what they can offer the kids, not what the kids offer them in terms of gratitude. It’s true that all over the world, rehabilitation of street children almost never works. Does that mean we should give up on them? Does that mean we should not give them the little we can afford them of the skills, love, material stuff that we can?

What did they expect Taghreed would turn up with? Taghreed trusts no one, she has never known her mother’s real first name!!! Yes, of course it’s disappointing. But to expect her to turn up suited up for your up market lawyer, with a team of her own lawyers and files and paperwork is naive.

Myth Number Three: Being a Professional

I am NOT a professional. I was quite taken aback by the claim that the couple who had offered their help had decided to withdraw it because of how “unprofessional” I had acted. I had to mull on this for a while. I wondered at which point I was ever deemed a professional in getting a case to the legal system. I am, after all, just an interested academic… an “expert” on street children that happened to write about my experiences working with them that has made this blog popular. I had left the “professional” world in 2010 when I left my role as Project Manager in a risk consultancy company.

While doing my research, I had to pass an ethics committee board to ensure that my work with vulnerable people would be done ethically and cause them and myself no harm. It took seven months to do this. When I finally got the ethics clearance and went to work with the children, I realised that my own ethics clearance would come if I were able to help these children in some way. I could not “pass” my PhD, get a job and then leave them and their stories behind. I am not a professional! I am not employed by anyone, I have not been paid to do my research, I have gotten myself into debt working with street children and I refuse to get paid for anything I write about the kids I have worked with – so definitely that description of me is inaccurate.

The other thing I want to mention is that I am totally thankful and overwhelmed by the response of people and every day I get many, many emails from offering help. I have to admit that I am not as good at dealing with this as I hoped I would be. Many of the people who have written have been able to help, one way or another, they just needed some contacts and got on with the helping themselves. I am not a professional volunteers manager, organiser or anything else of the sort. I have just used my accessibility to channel help towards the kids as it came in – at this point it’s all I can offer in an administrative sense. I am involved in academia and grass root work with the children themselves rather than a administrative professional associated with anyone/thing.

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All being said and done and off my chest, I have to say that I have walked around today with the biggest lump in my throat. The irony is, I received this email of blame at the same time as my last class in a module on childhood where students wrote me a card, mostly calling me “inspirational”. When I spoke to a few of them about what that meant, they said it was about helping them discover what they could do for the children they work with. This is key. That is all I am trying to do here. That what I have set out to do is to raise awareness, to highlight the fact that we are lacking a sense of social, collective responsibility. I am not here to hold anyone’s hand while they do a good deed, to applaud them or to beg from them. At no point was this my intention and it will never be.

I owe Taghreed an apology for letting her experience another event of being let down and abandoned. And I guess for now I have no other way to help her but to bribe her father to come in and help us get her the ID.

Broken Boned, Bitten and Burnt and No Foster Care in Egypt.

This is what the email Manadeel Waraq received said:

“Dear all,

Today the hospital admitted a three year old girl. Her mother and father bought her into hospital saying she had suffered a fall from the second floor. Upon examination, the doctor issued a report with the following:

– both arms broken
– concussion
– cigarette burns all over the three year old’s body
– second degree burns caused by an iron on both legs
– deformities in the body where the girl has been bitten, needing reconstructive surgery

We have called the police and the mother and father have been arrested.”

That was the email… A string of words that I am not ashamed to say made me cry while translating for this post. The email was so cold in its lack of emotion, it’s “factualness”, its rawness. But it had to be, because what words can ever capture the feeling the person who had gone to see this girl and writing to us reaching out for help, has experienced. What words could truly represent the fear, the pain, the cruelty, the injustice that this three year old girl had suffered, is suffering and will suffer? Damn words for being so limiting, damn her parents for their cruelty and damn life for making them so heartless.

The email was sent out to us, a group of individuals around the word who could do nothing but coordinate help, working with a reality that while we advocate for real social change towards children, we were working on the premise that we will save one child at a time. But what was to save here? We were a group of individuals working against a system bent on the victimisation of children, a government that’s every attempt to talk about children oppressed them further, a country whose children aren’t and never have been its priority.

I try, as much as I possibly can, to write my posts without emotion, without coercing my readers to feel a certain way, and definitely without trying to portray the children as mere victims but as agents capable of change, capable of influencing there own world. It’s what I teach, it’s what the new sociology of childhood is all about. But this three year old? How can I not ask you, reader, to cry with me? Or not ask you whose victim she is? Or your role in what’s going to happen to her if not what’s already happened.

I managed to enlist the help of one my heroes (Dr Hany Hamam) the reconstructive cosmetic surgeon who performed the rape scar surgery for one of my girls. He said he’d take care of that bit. Manadeel Waraq’s Amira Qotb enlisted the help of the head of the Coalition for Children’s Rights in Egypt lawyers, for the legal aspect of the case. Emails going back and forth throwing about ideas of which shelters we could move the child to temporarily. Great.. But then what?

If this little three year old girl miraculously gets better, she will need two things that will not be available to her: psychological help and shelter/ alternative care. Perhaps with the amazing twitter response I get to my call outs for help we’ll find the former, but what of the latter? There are only two types of child alternative care systems in Egypt: orphanages for biological orphans and street children shelters for social orphans. So what of abused children? What of foster care, kinship, adoption?

There is no where suitable for this three year old to go if she gets better. It cannot be up to our mailing list at Manadeel Waraq to deal with this alone or to forever continue working on a case by case basis. This is we’re we as a society must get together to advocate and be part of change – all of us. This is what we need to do:

– we MUST admit that familial abuse happens, torture, incest, gendered violence
– change the deep rooted idea that children somehow “belong” to their parents so that it is not society’s role to interfere
– we need to campaign for a foster care system that is well planned, structured and monitored

If you think what I am calling for is unrealistic, please let me remind you that in 1988 it took one Englishman, Richard Hemsley, to look around and notice that the only forms for alternative care in Egypt were old people’s homes and orphanages and he set up the first home for street children. We need to be progressive, it will only take a few of us to look around and see the truth that perhaps with a monitored, foster care system, we can not only get appropriate shelter for our three year old once she’s better, but perhaps a whole system that may mean kids have an alternative to the street.

Please, please let’s get the conversation going, please don’t think that you cannot help, you can, we all can… We all have to. It’s only a coincidence that it isn’t you, as a baby that’s waiting, burnt, broken boned, bitten, alone in hospital waiting for help. We have a responsibility we can no longer ignore. I hope you can forgive my first emotional call for help, I had no other choice.

In the end it seems that even the three year old can be an agent for change, if only we’ll let her

Personal Post: Diary Entry for my Trip to Lebanon

I was amused at the gates boarding the plane to find that the Lebanese were more eager to get on it than were the Egyptians on my familiar Egypt Air flight. As soon as the gates were opened every single Lebanese got up rushing towards it, despite numerous requests by staff to remain seated till our rows were called for. Another major difference were the menus the stewardesses gave out, in 3 different languages, as they walked by with their drinks trolly that had an array of different types of alcohol to the layman economy class traveller I was. Perhaps if I wasn’t so ill I’d have indulged in the luxury. But, feeling under the weather as I was, I made do with the roasted peanuts that came with the pineapple juice- joining the tens of passengers with no personality who chewed away at nuts they probably didn’t want to eat, simply because we were handed them!

It’s the first time I’m not excited to travel, a mix between feeling extremely ill, not being well enough to go to teach my classes this morning, being behind with my work for the first time, being without Shariff for the first time since we’ve moved in, and being confused about my academic identity. But, with one hour and a half to go, I’m making a promise to myself not to be ungrateful. I am on am all expenses paid trip to Lebanon, to attend the Arab Council for Social Sciences conference, chosen from 120 candidates, I had a chance not only to speak about the street kids role in social movements, but to talk about the incredible work Manadeel Waraq gets up to for the children in egypt.

We’re landing now… Outside the window, the different colour flickering lights feel like its a country having a party – not one divided by war or ideology…

There’s something about airports, something universal about these completely different countries… I wonder what Margaret Mead would have made of that universality? Of the fact that there are the same tears and smiles and the same eager run-ups along the corridor, hugs and kisses and proclamations of how much each child had grown. It didn’t matter what country I was in, airports were the same.

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My confusion between being an activist an academic became even more serious being surrounded by 70 other academics that I couldn’t easily start conversations with. A lot of the time it felt like a competition with how many big words you could string together in a sentence to be worthy of conversing with. But maybe that’s unfair, I was very ill, feeling unsociable and also trying to coordinate help for a 3 year old girl that we were told about who was in hospital in Egypt, burnt, tortured, broken boned, hurt very severely by her parents who got arrested after taking her to hospital claiming she had fallen from the second floor building. We were trying to work around a system that provided no foster care for abused children – we only have orphanages and shelters for street kids, but nothing for abused children. It was hard to keep up with papers on theoretical frameworks of inequalities and revolution when I felt I was so acutely helpless affecting real change.

But as the second day came about, I got some help for the girl, the rest of the Manadeel Waraq team got other help, following the “saving one child at a time” method, I eased up, started talking to fascinating academics and realised I could keep up the battle of bridging academia and activism, but I learnt how much the former was dependent on the latter for me. It was an amazing event in reality, bringing together so many disciplines in the region and discussing where research in the Middle East was going, and a refreshingly honest admission that it wasn’t the intellectuals bringing about change, but almost everyone else…

By this time I was well enough to go out for a walk… And I did………………….

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I waited for them to come out of the sea and as they dried up and got dressed, I found my self making all sorts of assumptions about them, quickly trying to categories them in every box I knew, I hated myself for it. But I couldn’t stop smiling; the boys were radiating fun and enjoyment it was contagious… They were different to the boys fishing, the ones on roller blades, different to the boys here for an afternoon stroll with their parents. I couldn’t place them. It was only after they pulled out some stock from under a parked car to sell that I recognised them. They were so polite, so cleaaaan, so clean in fact that I heard myself saying, “7adretak tefl shaware3?” There was no other option for me than to address the child than that way! As we all laughed and started talking about and they told me that he and his friends lived on the street, but they got up to work early every day so they could afford this play time in the sea.

It was amazing watching the women run and do press ups in tight Lycra along the beach and though some men would stare, they were left to do their thing with no one invading their space, it was exactly at this point that I thought my earlier comparison and declaration of similarity with egypt become totally invalid. The fact that there wasn’t a cigarette butt on the street rendered me comparison invalid too.

I got lost on my way to “down town” that I never reached in the end. I ended up on the hills in roads parallel to the Qornish and immediately the vulgarity of poverty and decay was apparent, a painful contrast to the beauty of nature that the sea, just less than a 100 steps away had emanated. Homes made of cardboard and cloth and other cheap materials, but still, like the street boys I’d met earlier, so superiorly clean; something that made poverty itself vulgar, but not the homes, and definitely not the people.

I didn’t take any photos of the homes because I felt it would be a huge invasion of their privacy, these tucked away manifestations of struggle, though I would have been trying to capture this cleanliness I could not explain. Why were the poor on Lebanese streets so squeeky clean and not the Egyptian poor on the street? It threw up so many questions about dignity, valuing life and the self, having self esteem, perhaps… Or was it hope, hope that things were definitely going to get better so one had to look their best to greet good fortune when it came to them.

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I’m sitting now on the Qornish writing this, I’ve decided that there is no way you can “travel the world” if you don’t stay in each place at least a few months, enough time to make friends, need to go to its hospital, pick up a friends child from its school, enough time to get to know you’re way around, to deconstruct all your previous notions of that place. I know so much has been written about this, so much analysis on space and culture, on deconstructing normativities, but each persons experience of it is different, each one of our consumption of space is unique, and at each destination I faced my own revolution and self discovery in relation to that space. I had to question too why I was far more comfortable talking to the street kids here in Beirut, than I was the academics in the conference I was supposedly more associated with..

I definitely want to come again, come back here as a person and not an academic, a distinction that has recently become very painful to acknowledge. The hills I can see in the distance are enchanting, something about them calls you to emerge yourself in them, even the air here is full of resilience and resistance, and a paradoxical calm… A city that could have fallen apart as a result of earthquakes, floods and civil war, it’s people’s ability to enjoy song and dance, perhaps like the Egyptians ability to joke, after each catastrophe, is perhaps what held this city together, keeping it clean, keeping it ready to embrace a change of fortune when it came.

INTERVIEW: Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges

Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges.

Bertelsmann Future Challenges

Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers

Egyptian Journalist - Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Egyptian Journalist – Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Nelly Ali sometimes carries a magic wand in her bag. She uses Twitter to fundraise for clothes for those kids (Cairo street children and mothers).

She’s a strong woman tirelessly fighting for the rights of street children and young homeless mothers to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

An International Childhood Studies PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London in the department of Geography, Environment and Development, Ali is currently working on an ethnography of street girls and child street mothers in Cairo, Egypt.

Her research interests are the prevalence of violence in the day-to-day life of street children and their experience of resilience, vulnerability, gender identity and sexuality.

Nelly Ali has recently been volunteering at Hope Village, a shelter for young street mothers in Cairo, where she developed deep relationships with the girls. She has been writing and tweeting about their stories and fears, keeping a promise that she would put a human face on the “problem” of street children and mothers living on the city’s streets, swiftly marginalized by society. Nelly Ali is a dreamer, and she now shares her dreams with the girls at Hope Village.

In an interview with Future Challenges, Ali speaks of the challenges she faces, and the hope that keeps her going in this battle for the rights of street children and young mothers.

FC: You are a strong advocate for street girls and young street mothers in Cairo. When was the moment you decided you would fight for this cause?

NA: I started by doing my PhD research. My fieldwork was with street kids in general and so I found an NGO that would let me work under their supervision – it’s hard to just take to the streets as the kids are managed by a whole community of street adults that don’t take kindly to researchers. It was during the fieldwork that I got to know the street girls and realized that very little academic or social work was being done with this marginalized group of young women and as I built my friendships with them, I realized that I was being read and listened to about other issues I was commentating on, on Egypt at the time and so I took this opportunity use social media and blogging as a channel to which they could be heard.

FC: As an anthropologist, how can you explain the ailing situation of street children in Egypt today?

NA: The children have developed their own language, terminology, defense mechanisms, dress codes, survival strategies and society seems happy with the “otherness” this creates. It was interesting too to learn how the government upon being offered 17,000,000 LE for the street kids “problem” they did not consult a single NGO that works with street kids and instead decided they would build a city where they would move all street children to. This highlighted how marginalized this group of kids are, how they are perceived as a threat to society and also highlights that their situation worsens by mainstreams perception and lack of understanding.

FC: Can you describe the plight of street children in Egypt, particularly girls and women?

NA: This is a really hard question to answer in just a few words, but I’m going to try. I think it would be useful to talk about the plight of street girls and young women in terms of the different stages of their life cycle, so to speak.

These girls come from families who have been violent to them in one way or another and have found no support at the time, before migrating to the street in an attempt of reconciliation and of course, where inappropriate, then a lack of appropriate alternative care.

Then they move to the streets; which are even harsher than their home circumstances at times where they are subjected to a whole new range of violence and abuse and deprivation. One extremely articulate street girl answered me, when I asked her why she wouldn’t go home if the street was worse: “you can forgive the street because it’s not supposed to care for you, but how can you forgive your mum and dad who are supposed to be nothing but love and care”. This really threw a new light on the issue of rehabilitation and why it is, often, unsuccessful.

Then the violence and struggle at correctional centers and institutions where the monitoring of staff is catastrophic and lacking to say the least.

And then to the challenges they face when they fall pregnant, lack of antenatal care, humiliation at the hospitals they go to give birth in, lack of support with the paper work and the huge emotional and practical responsibility of having a child when they are children themselves.

FC: You are a volunteer and project manager at Hope Village, a day-shelter for young mothers in Cairo. What are the biggest challenges you face at the shelters?

NA: The biggest challenge is fighting the feeling that I just want to take them all home with me! But there are more challenges of course, treating them all fairly, listening without surprise – remember these kids have more experience in their small number of years than we have in a lifetime. One of the greatest challenges is standing around helpless as a parent of one of the children comes in to take his/her son/daughter and we know they will bring them back in a very bad state, but we have our hands tied by the laws which allow abusive parents to take their children away to beg with them for instance.

FC: Encountering the agony of homeless children day after day, you must often be overcome by a desire to stop. What keeps you going?

NA: I need to keep going because I realize on the days I don’t tweet and blog about them, no one is. When I went to speak to the girls about my research, I told them I had no questions for them, all I would report on was what was important for them that the world knew, the stories they wanted others to hear and know. If I stop that, all they will have are the sensational stories and numbers and statistics that totally dehumanize them. Many other things keep me going, the way they hug and kiss me when I come in through the door, the same girls that flinch at the slightest gesture from a stranger.

FC: In one of your articles, you revealed the story of Taghreed, a girl who ran away from her abusive father and now lives alone with her baby on the street. You wrote she only dreams of issuing a national ID. How have your dreams as a person changed, in light of the unorthodox stories you encounter everyday?

NA: Yes, definitely. I’m glad you asked this question because it’s been playing on my mind for a while. I was wondering recently where my “future plans/dreams” were and couldn’t find any… I realized that after working with the girls I have started to dream “collectively” so to speak, every dream is for a group of people, for families, for nations, etc. I find this really interesting and I am still figuring out what it’s about.

It isn’t just my dreams that have changed, though. Working with the street girls has changed me as a person. I try and write in all my bios now “I go to university to teach and I go to the street kids to learn”. They have taught me the most important lessons in friendship, love, maternal matters, struggle, resilience, resistance and they have also taught me the power of dreaming, that without holding on to dreams, you wouldn’t have the way to carry on.

I feel like I am so privileged to live these girl’s lives with them for many reasons. One of the things I’ve learnt is that once you start living for a cause, your personal problems aren’t an issue anymore, you learn to let go and be far more reasonable, forgiving and willing to compromise – you are armed with the “bigger picture” through their stories.

FC: If there is one human right you are fighting for, what would it be?

NA: The right to sleep with both eyes closed: the right to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

FC: Let’s dream for a minute. If you had a magic wand, what would you change/fix in order for those street children and mothers to lead normal lives? 

NA: I love magic wands… do you know that I actually carry one in my bag often! If I had one that would work for the girls, though, I would wave it at two things, the first would be their parents to push them to the street and the other at society who cannot embrace their misfortune.

Street Children and the Big Dream of Citizenship

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There was no mistaking the horror this six year old girl was experiencing. Nothing more telling of the fear than the warm yellow fluid running down her short, scarred legs as her knees started to visibly shake. There was little mistaking the heaving chest as her heartbeats escalate while the quiver of her small, cracked lips began. Following her gaze to the door of the drop in centre for street children she was at, an angry man with blank eyes stood gazing right at her. Her father had found out where she was spending the day.

There is little the staff at day care centres can do to stop fathers or mothers coming to take their children, little they can do even if they had signed them in to permanent shelters. The law handicaps those who are trying to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents. Staff had to watch Taghreed be pulled by the wrist as she wet herself leaving the shelter which she had escaped one afternoon’s scorching sun to. All they could do was pray that they would see her again, minus the scars and bruises she had returned to them with previously.

Taghreed is not a lone street child. She has lived all her small number of years on the street with her father and mothers and siblings. They are travellers living on the streets of the cities they migrate back and forth between depending on which had a “mowlid” that the father could use his kids to sell little plastic toys or to beg if that didn’t work. Our society is one of alms, of course, but to care about where those alms went or what would be more affective than giving a few pounds, rarely is the case.

Taghreed didn’t like selling stuff for which her father took all her money; she didn’t like her father either – understandably. And when she found her way back after a couple of weeks to the day care centre, the psychologist asked her why she was so afraid of her father when she was such a strong little girl herself. Without shame, Taghreed recounted the ways in which her father ties her up in metal chains, locking the shackles at her ankles and wrists and beating her till he can no longer lift a finger. Many street kids lie to gain sympathy in hope for a pound or two. But Taghreed knew Shaimaa was not going to give her money; her body also bared witness to the genuineness of her account.

Eventually, the exploited girl ran away. She shaved her hair, bound her breasts and lived as a boy trying to protect herself on the streets. She tells me she could forgive those who did her wrong on the street far more than the parents she knew were meant to protect her. Taghreed is one of the most special and beautiful girls I have known. She is trustworthy and loyal and never forgets a good deed done for her. As she sits holding her cheerful 5 month old baby, she tells me her dream is to get ID for her and her child. That’s it – that is what she dreams of. But it’s a dream none of us who love and care about her have found easy to realise for her. Taghreed’s parents are not married; her father beats her every time she goes to try to convince him to go with her to get an ID issued and bureaucracy means she cannot get it done without him.

So unlike women fighting for equal rights, for employment rights, for child care rights, for divorce rights, Taghreed is a young woman fighting for the right to exist in the state, the right to be recognised as a citizen, the right, in her own words “to be human”. These are not things that we, as a society, can cure with giving a few pounds to passing street kids we feel sorry for, or a few pounds of meat during Eid to satisfy religious obligation.

We must, as the “honourable” citizens we like to think of ourselves as, be outraged that some are still fighting to be missed when they are dead, to hold pieces of paper that ensure the basic treatment at hospital if they fall ill, a basic education even if wont take them anywhere. We must be so outraged that this rage brings about change. We must refuse the social contracts we are in if they do not embrace those too poor, too weak, too scared to fight their way into our worlds – worlds in which we have become so blind that we are surprised to hear that some do not hold ID. I know someone who had their ID issued the same day it was requested while they were in a foreign country because they had the money and connections. Taghreed has spent ten years of her life being beaten and abused, travelling back and forth with money she has hated making and to no avail.

If you are reading this and know any way to help Taghreed get her ID without her father having to be there, without her parents having to be married, email me: nelly.ali@gmail.com – Taghreed and I need to hear from you. If you can’t, then tell everyone you know – tell them that before we concern ourselves with which hand to eat with so the devil doesn’t join us, we must extend that hand to those whose wrists are tied in chains, before we concern ourselves with never entering the toilet with our left foot, we must first concern ourselves with lifting the feet that step on the weak because their voices don’t make their way to our ears.

Taghreed once gave herself to a violent gang rape to save a new virgin on the street – the least that sort of loyalty deserves is ID.

Omar was shot through the heart? Street kids have hearts like us?!

So many of the kids on the streets know exactly what you want to hear from them. They eye you up, suss you out and in minutes they conjure up the story you are there to hear. They have to be this clever. Their survival depends on it.

I remember speaking with one journalist who told me she was in awe at a child who told her she had joined the protests in January 2011 because she cared about the country and wanted to bring political and social change. I knew the girl she was speaking about well. She didn’t give a crap about political change, simply because she didn’t understand what the word meant.

I got to know the girls over many months — not formal 30-minute visits or interviews, but I’d really got to know them, by clapping while they danced, sympathizing when they spoke in group therapy, by laughing at stories of the street, by cleaning wounds after self-harm. It was because I lived those stories I felt I could ask Taghreed, one of the girls on the street, why the kids were really there in the squares.

So we took our interview roles: Taghreed happily holding the mp3 recorder in one hand turning it over and amazed that in a bit she would be able to hear her own thoughts (she had asked me to buy her an mp3 recorder so she could speak to herself in it because she wanted to keep a diary but couldn’t read or write), and I took my interview position, holding her cheerful four-month baby who knew nothing but to smile all the time.

Many people to whom I tell the stories of the street girls comment that I must be strong to live and hear these stories. Every time I hear this I recall the ache in my heart at the smiles of the little babies — nothing pains me as much as the smiles. These little curves on the lips, the greatest manifestation of how equal we are, how painfully similar our starts are, how incredibly precious some smiles are to others because life is set out to break them, to give them nothing more to smile about.

And I hear Taghreed tell me about the revolution and the move the children who slept in Ramses Square made to Tahrir Square. She speaks of it as a migration, as if those little green, or what should be green, patches of land represent a city in their own right; a city with its children citizens, those kids without IDs, without shelter, without biological families and without protection.

Taghreed tells me that one child had come running to them in the great city of Ramses Square telling them that millions of people where in Tahrir. Two of her “married” friends (these are children who are 14, marriage and family makeup to street children are different to how we know them) decided it was best to join so they didn’t miss the greatest opportunity to steal mobile phones. She tells me this and laughs for ages saying she wonders what the reaction of journalists would be to the real reason why some children were there.

But she goes on to say “not all the children were there to steal though! It was just so fun! For so long people were telling us that the street was bad, that we had to get off the street, but suddenly everyone was on it, everyone in the country was in Tahrir, so we moved there from Ramses. People there spoke to us, fed us, joked with us, some even tried to teach us to read and write. We even slept next to all these people with their good smells. And we helped them too. When food ran out we told them where the cheapest places to get food were. We taught them the best ways to run away from the police. That is because our favorite game is Atari.”

When she saw a look of confusion on my face she explained: Police cars, we call them Atari, and we play all day running and hiding from them. But we all realized that the police in Tahrir were different, they didn’t waste time running after you, they just shot you instead.”

Her stories and analysis of what led the children to the place where all the action was weren’t sinister. All the reasons, even stealing mobile phones, were understandable and I could relate to having started to know the kids. However, two years later, the children’s answers to why they were taking part started the chills down my spine. The kids were speaking to my colleague Adel who had dedicated the last 18 years of his life working with the children. He looks down and tells me there’s been a change of tone, that he doesn’t know who’s been speaking to some of these children, but someone different has. The kids running around with Molotov bottles are asking him, “What worth does my life have? I want to die a martyr so that God could forgive me for all the bad things that I have done in this world. I want my death to mean something because my life didn’t mean anything. I want to die and have all those people in Tahrir talk about me, walk in my funeral. I want to die and have someone remember me, draw my face on the wall like all the others, so no, ‘baba’, I’m not afraid to die.”

The relation of the street children with the revolution has changed in the course of two years. However, it would still be a kind of romanticism to argue that children were at the front lines because they understood the meaning of revolt as a means to an end. The children, because they are children, are not to blame for the state of mind they are in when they take to the front lines.

What about 13-year-old Omar’s death? Omar, the little boy shot through the heart by the army that was meant to protect his borders against the enemy. Was he there to steal phones? No. Was he there because he wanted his little face etched in graffiti on the squares surrounding walls? No. Omar was shot because he was there. Omar was shot trying to earn an honest living off the streets that have become home to so many classes, religions, ages and ideologies. Omar was shot because he was in the way. But more than any other reason, Omar was shot because no one would be held accountable. Omar’s little heart took the bullet because some are too cowardly to hold those responsible accountable. This article is for all the Omars arrested and shot, just for being there because there was nowhere else safer for them to be.