Street Children: Resilient Decisions and The Shackles of Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street Children: Reem and the Four Year Old Eyes that Haunt Me

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.

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.

Mob Sex Attacks and the Everyday Reality of Street Children.

Painting by the incredibly talented Mohamed Negm - mo*star art www.mostarart.com

“Red Square”. Painting by the incredibly talented Mohamed Negm – mo*star art http://www.mostarart.com

I read the papers and online testimonials of mob attacks on women in the streets protesting and if I had not read the titles, I would have thought that the authors had suddenly taken a keen interest in the every day life of street children. I would have justifiably concluded they have become avid observers who have taken to the street to highlight the prevalence and normality of sexual violence in street culture that very little children live every night. But no, I have read the title; the words indicate this is about other girls; younger and older women, “welaad naas”, of the working and middle class (because remember street kids are the “excluded” class, second class citizens if that!). These articles are written because “citizens” have been struck, “citizens” honour has been violated; “citizens” human rights have been wronged. But street children? They aren’t citizens – they don’t even hold ID. When they come raped, shot, dead, and left in front of shelter doors, there’s not been a crime, because a citizen hasn’t been involved. So no, this flood of articles about harassment, sexual attacks and gang rape on the street, are not about the street kids.

But because this is the every day reality for those children, I have come to know the streets as what they have been recently discovered by others. So I thought that maybe by writing this, I could shed a different light, a look from a different angle on a phenomenon that many are so horrified by, so unfamiliar with.

I am arguing here that this is one of the ugly faces of the street. And, just as each human, each friend, has an ugly face, you only get to see it, know it, get scorned by it, once you have spent long enough with it. It’s reality and it’s crudeness cannot hide forever and the euphoria of the imagined utopia of solidarity that the street brings during revolutionary times, begins to crack and the street and all it’s non-citizen inhabitants become a reality that you cannot escape and one whose reality you have shared, one which has scarred you, too.

Talking of scarring, a lot of attention and horror has been expressed following the attack where a blade was used on one victim to these assaults. I wondered about the irony of the timing of this. Just last month I took one of my street girls to a generous plastic surgeon who had offered my girls free reconstructive surgery for the scars they suffered during such attacks on the street. The scarring is part of the street rape culture – any boy or girl who has been raped on the street, will be “marked”. This mark, usually a curve under the eye of the victim, will mean they are no longer virgins. Subsequent sexual attacks, and there will be many, will lead to smaller marks anywhere else on the body. One girl, none of us at the shelter forget, was lucky. She escaped the scarring on the face, but needed 16 stitches on her lower back where she was knifed as she escaped her rapists.

I am not an expert in conspiracy theories, but I am a consultant on street kids and the risks of the street. And so, when I read the musings that the NDP, the MB, the who ever else is organizing these mob sex attacks, my better judgment makes me tentative. I remember that no one paid the four men in their thirties and forties to gang rape seven-year-old Maya who had been living on the street just four days. The younger the child, the attackers think, the smaller the risk of contracting HIV.

Being on the street brings with it much risk, the longer you stay on it, the more likely you will be exposed to that risk. Does it make it ok? Of course not! But what it does, is highlight the plight of the children who do not conjure up the same attention and horror when these attacks happen to them, daily. What it does do is emphasize the terror that the streets have become because we have allowed them not to be safe. How the law and it’s enforcement is,  and always has been neglectful of the sphere, that in our country, is home to many. Does it deserve to be treated with less fury because it’s an every day reality? No, but the anger, the support, the reform that needs to come after it, has to be extended to those who are not on the official count of these attacks – because there has not just been 25 attacks on the street since the start of the year.

As street kids will tell you; gang rape is just the start for them – prostitution, trafficking and pornography come shortly afterwards. What the revolutionary class are experiencing now is only the initiation of what thousands of children on our streets, boys and girls experience. Imagine that?

The dysfunctional compass of blame is at work. Just as people point a finger of reprimand at the street kids for being on the street and not at home, ignoring all the reasons that have pushed them on it, now the same fingers point at the females getting attacked in Tahrir and elsewhere suggesting it’s their fault for not staying safe at home. Accountability. Once we learn the meaning of this word, perhaps the streets might be a little safer for all.