Flames of Cruelty; Setting Fire to Childhood

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Fire. That seemed to be the common theme of my work with street girls in the short visit I made to Egypt this time round. Flames. Burns. Scars. Pain. Fire.

I asked Shaymaa what her name was, the little new arrival that I had not seen there before. She couldn’t have been more than two. She stood with her little crisp packet away from everyone. She hadn’t run to the boxes Shariff had bought, like the other little ones had, she stood and waited. Noor was the one who gave her a packet – I love watching the little ones share, perhaps it’s they who heal one another because no one knows, like them, what needs to be healed and how. She opened it up for her too. Little Hannah stood right where she was given the packet and ate, not making eye contact with anyone, not saying anything, and not making the happy sounds the others were making when excited.

I asked her name and the answer was, “we think it’s Hannah, we spent three weeks calling her by all the names we could think of, but when we said Hannah, she looked at me”. I called the little human by the name she had responded to and asked her to come to me. She came, limping, heavy bodied, the toddler walked towards me like she was a 100 years old. When I lifted her on my lap, she also felt heavy; I am not sure whether it was her physical weight, or the weight of whatever it was that she had suffered. It immediately became clear that she had suffered. Copying the other babies on my lap and around me that were trying to share their crisps by ramming them in my mouth, I saw her little fingers make their way up to my lips, and they stood out between the others. Hannah had not nails. My stomach turned. “No, no please no”. I could hear those words shooting to my brain and those damned tears that I try to control escape. I quickly play with Noor so I don’t stop being helpful.

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These are different hugs I give her. So many sorries in small embraces like this. I try to hold her in a way that I will so much love to transfer from me to her, to make up for whatever happened. To last her for whatever is yet to come. Hannah breaks me in a way I haven’t felt before. Shaymaa tells me she’ll tell me how she arrived at the shelter later – on our way to take baby Amy to the reconstructive surgeon for her own burns and scars and those stubborn physical reminders of similar abuse that Hannah has endured. And I am left with “How?! And Why?!”. Two small words which seem so difficult for either the activist or the academic in me to answer.

Hannah had arrived at the shelter with a police officer. She was quickly taken to hospital because there did not seem to be a single bone in her body that was not broken, or piece of skin not burnt. She was plastered and wrapped from neck to toe, with only one little opening for her to go to the toilet. The police knew nothing except that a street dog had pulled her out of a rubbish dump and a bawaab (a building porter) had taken her to the police. That’s it. That’s her story – a few words written by a stranger, a few lines that hold so much torture and abuse and paid and betrayal. How can she have been betrayed so much by every power and force and being meant to protect her? The reason she couldn’t speak back to me was because whoever had tortured her, had burnt her tongue.

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Sometimes I fold. I crumble out of my own selfishness at how stories like this make me react. But it’s not really a story you know, reader. It’s flesh I’ve held, a hint of a smile from stitched lips that were directed at me, it’s a little nail-less finger that made it’s way into my mouth to share it’s food with me, it’s beautiful, big, brown eyes that look at me with a void look that I am free to make my imagination reign with stories of what it could be telling me. So this is not a story, it’s Hannah’s life.

I am sorry this post is more emotional than how I have tried to write before, sorry that my heart and tears and soul bleed on every word I have typed here, but it’s all so raw, so fresh, so real. It’s alive inside the walls of these shelters, on the pavements that are so much kinder than family cruelty. How terrible that there is no need to exaggerate, no need to horrify; but to tell things as they are, in a reality that shames me of being human, that keeps me up, that paralysis my hope. Yet, a reality that shows sparks of humanity coming together again when people give up their time and skills to soothe. The shelter driver driving us four hours, unpaid on his time off, Shaymaa coming to keep us company even though she has left her job and is unpaid, Amira, who accompanied Amy from Alex, so she could have someone she’s familiar with on her trip to the doctor, the doctor himself, who opened the doors of his clinic to us on his day off so we could have it all to ourselves. Humanity.

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Dr Hany has seen Amy and she is on a four-month treatment plan of creams we got as instructed (thank you Samah), that will soften her skin so that when the reconstructive surgery is performed the skin will be able to stretch. I’ve found an ENT doctor who will see to the puss and infection in her eardrum caused by the hole the monsters drilled in it. Hannah too I have started with her, the incredible Sally Toma (psychiatrist) has volunteered to see her on Saturday to work on her trauma, and will let me know what other care she needs and of course I will campaign for it to be available to her. Sima (the girl who had 3rd degree burns on 80% of her body and hospitals refused to admit her till I managed to get her case to the attention of the ministry) received the care she needed in hospital and the Minister of Social Solidarity called me and told me she will get a monthly allowance and a kiosk to be able to support herself and her little baby.

I may have been able to help and coordinate the healing of physical scars, only the surface of what the flames set to these children have marred, but what of their childhood? Their trust is humans? What of their very soul as they were tortured helpless and hopeless by the only people at those moments who were able to help them? It’s time Egypt, really, really, really, really it is, for alternative care in Egypt to step up and provide safe havens for children like Hannah and Amy and Sima – and the so many others we still haven’t reached. But I’ll tell you what, I kind of wont stop till I make their pains and their screams and tears, as the fires consume them, heard by you.

Fire picture from: http://thomaszinsavage.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/FIRE-2-GENERIC.jpg

Update on Taghreed – From Rape by her Father, to Street Gang Rape, to Torture in Institutions, To a Happy End

Good morning world… some good news…

The street girl who I went to visit last week in prison, is out! And it’s her first day at a new job today 🙂

I also arranged for her first three months and a deposit on a one bedroom flat to be paid till she starts getting her monthly salary to continue paying it herself. She will be taking her 18 month old to stay with her.

Nothing makes me as happy as working with the street girls into independent living 🙂

It’s often rare to get all the way to this, and it’s not easy… it’s taken years to get Taghreed this far with ups and downs and constant uphill struggles, getting rid of the abuse (emotional, physical and sexual) of her father, the abuse of the system that had her endure epic levels of physical punishment and torture in “correctional” institutions, never living in a home to know what it is we were trying to reintegrate her into, being slashed in the face with a knife to carry a rape scar when she offered herself to 6 rapists to spare a new girl on the street that was a virgin, to the hospital abuse she suffered when she went in to give birth to her son without a husband….

So in my eyes it’s understandable that she wasn’t really hot on joining this society in the first place and it’s understandable that she didn’t work hard with us at times, and I get it that she always thought we’d abandon her and let her down so she would leave us first, and it’s okay that she relapsed and went back to the street a thousand times.

But it’s about having people in your life that never give up on you and are always there… that’s what me and Shaymaa have tried to be to her. The tears she usually keeps so guarded – so guarded that only one escaped silently while she was getting the stitches out of her cheeks and wouldn’t hold my hand, but they flowed on the prison visits and despite her saying she was sorry she put us in a position to visit her in that horrible place, the force with which she hugged us and the gratitude she spoke with for having someone there, makes me prepared to make that trip a hundred times over.

But there are so many others that we call on for support…. so thank you Dr Hany Hamam for helping her get rid of the facial rape scar, thank you Nadia for sorting out the flat and a thank you to Shaymaa’s cousin who offered her a job when it’s terribly difficult to integrate the girls back into a society that’s always so scared, harsh, skeptical of them. What a great team effort that was done here…

And though my days and nights have been scarred by those prison visits over the last two weeks… it’s such a small price to pay that she knows that someone is ready to go to the pits of hell for her.

She starts a new life today.

Today I’m happy.

Street Girls and the Female Stuff: On Toilets, Periods and Sanitary Towels

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I always try to hold my pee until I go home. Not just in Cairo, but in London, in Germany, in the USA, wherever I am. I have this feeling that my pee needs to pass somewhere clean, somewhere, where I know the people who own the pee that passed before mine. Yes, sometimes that meant bouncing between legs, jumping up and down holding it in. It also meant at times a few drops would escape betraying my control. That didn’t matter, because at home, there was a clean shower next to the toilet and laundry basket and clean clothes. It’s because of this, pretentious need, that I had not had to use any of the shelter toilets till that day.

I had developed a urinary tract infection while I was in Cairo and holding in my pee was more difficult than usual and so, in the spirit of sharing the experience, being the “real” participant observer I was trying to be at the shelter, I excused myself to use the toilet. I knew where it was because I had stood outside it once trying to calm a girl who was self harming inside, trying, along with others to reassure her she was loved. It didn’t smell, but it was dirty, everything was broken, the tiles, the mirror, the toilet seat and there were drops of blood on the sink and the walls. As soon as I closed the door, I gagged. The cockroaches that scurried in such a hurry from between the hinges, or where ever it was they were coming from made me gag. I hold cockroaches, I gently place them outdoors when I see a someone holding a slipper to attack one, so don’t get me wrong, reader; I wasn’t gagging because I was scared of spiders. I gagged because the blood, the cockroaches and the broken everything where the shelter that the children ran to – what then, I wonder, of the circumstance that they were running from?

It was in Germany, while on an exchange programme that I was invited to a shelter for girls and young women. This safe haven was set up for them to escape the violence of the neighbourhood in which they lived. The vibrant colours were so welcoming, I was deciding on taking a few ideas for my future study one day. The smell of baked cookies warmed the air, the pot of tea, the ceremony of opening a library upstairs that a 12 year old had been guided and encouraged to open for the other girls; all so inspiring. I felt so happy and optimistic and prayed so hard one day I would walk into somewhere like this for our girls in Egypt. But when I went into their bathroom to wipe some of the milk that I had spilt on my top, I closed the door behind me and I cried. By the wall, there was a hanging toiletries bag with three types of sanitary towels and tampons. There were posters on the back of the door about female hygiene and numbers the young women could call anonymously if they had any questions or just wanted to talk about the changes that were happening to their bodies as they were growing up. And as my friends had so many dreams for Egypt, to fight for freedoms and rights, I was in a bathroom praying for period pads for the girls I had grown to love.

I remembered the first time I had retracted from my decision not to give money to the shelter. I dug into my bag on an impulse and gave Sarah 100LE and told her to go and get as many pampers for the babies as the money could get her. I am amazed at how judgemental and naïve I was when I first arrived to the shelter. I had such a fixed idea of how things should be run that I got so angry at everyone so quickly not realising the repercussions if things were to be done the way I thought they should be. This was one of those times. I had given the money in anger at hearing that nappies for the babies were rationed to 2 nappies a day. I found this out when I asked the child mothers what they needed from the pharmacy and they all, without exception asked for nappy rash cream. I started a pompous talk about hygiene and how they should wash and change the babies often and it was then they told me that they would, if they could. But later I found out that the reason the nappies are rationed is because the mothers, also children themselves, use them for their periods.

The day I needed to use the toilet at the shelter, I had just finished talking to one of the girls that I later found out was pregnant. I hadn’t realised it then, but I guess she was trying to get advice from me on how to abort a baby without having to go to a doctor, or dying. During this conversation she told me how one of her friends trying to abort a baby that she’d conceived after a gang rape fell very ill after drinking 25 bottles of castor oil as suggested by the street leader. She also recounted how one of her friends on the street had died because she had been advised to remove the foetus with a metal hanger via her vagina. According to her, the hanger went past her tummy and grabbed her soul instead and she bled to death. All the girls and boys that were around her ran away because they were scared the police would think they killed her. Was it the cockroaches that made me gag? I sat on the toilet seat, my body losing more fluid than just the pee, I cried for the things that we don’t notice and the needs that we can fulfil but don’t even know we can because we are so acutely unaware of what needs doing.

I am not writing to change the world or to inspire big changes, but to talk about the small changes that create an amazing ripple affect. How many people, who are good enough to think of the trials of street children, or their resilience, think beyond finding ways to raise money for shelter, food and clothes? It’s time we realise we can build our own small community in a world bent on ridiculing those who believe in utopia. It’s time that someone who works at, or owns a pest control company should go visit these shelters and spray them for the kids, someone who owns a pharmacy or works for P&G should get on to request they provide a monthly supply of period pads for the girls shelters.

We can create alternative realities, redefine utopia into something we can live; a cathartic moment, a moment that eases suffering. So for the mother who offered her breast milk, for the doctors who offer their clinics and staff, for the teachers who go over to read and nurture, for the dancers who go and give aerobics classes, for the lawyers who ran from police station to another making sure our street kids don’t disappear, for the other teacher who makes bracelets of hope with the children in Canada to send to the kids on the street in Egypt, to the hair dresser that goes every week to each the girls the craft and for all the others still figuring out how they can embody change, not out of their purses, but out of their entire being, it is you that give me strength to carry on and it’s you all who have created the utopia I live in. Thank you.

Nelly Ali – International Women’s Day #TakeTheFloor 2013 #UNWomen event

UN Women in collaboration with IFMSA (International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations) and AUC Heya Club are celebrating International Women’s Day for 2013 on Wednesday March 6th, 2013. The event is entitled “Take the Floor” to host inspirational talks and videos that encourages behavioral change and creates awareness about this year’s theme; “A Promise is a Promise — Time to take Action on Ending Violence against Women and Girls”.

Street Children and the Girls who were Once Loved by God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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