Omar struts around Tahrir Square wearing an Egyptian flag as a cape and a pair of shredded shorts as a hat. He says that he’s 12 years old and has lived in the streets near the downtown Cairo area for as long as he can remember.
Like many of Cairo’s street children, Omar protested along with the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. He was attracted by free food, the companionship and sympathy of the protesters, and a chance to fight back against the Egyptian police, who are notorious for their abuse of street children.
Street children were also found on the other side of the conflict. Egyptian activists have accused security forces of recruiting street children to attack protesters and to cause havoc in Tahrir Square and other protest sites.
Many street children were arrested during the revolution and other protests during 2011 and 2012. Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented 43 cases of Egyptian minors being tried before military courts in 2012.
While Egyptians wait for tangible improvements to come to their country following the revolution, street children are among those in the direst need of change.
Over the last two decades, homeless children have become increasingly visible on the streets of Cairo. Estimates vary widely, but the World Health Organization (WHO) puts the number of Egyptian street children at over 1 million. As beggars and thieves, they are seen as a menace to society.
In 2003 the Egyptian government adopted a national strategy for the rehabilitation of street children and tasked the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) with implementation. The policy has been criticized for failing to lead to effective action and the number of street children continues to rise unabated.
Several local organizations and initiatives have appeared in recent years aiming to deal with street children as victims, rather than criminals.
On the outskirts of 6th of October City, a suburb of Cairo, children are found playing and learning at the Institute for Children at Risk, founded by Egyptian NGO Ana El Masry (I, the Egyptian). The organization works to rehabilitate “children at risk”, a broad categorization that includes parentless and homeless street children as well as those who do not enjoy a secure or nurturing family environment.
The institute provides shelter, education, health services, and entertainment to dozens of children at risk, ranging from toddlers to teenagers. As groups of volunteers arrive at the shelter, the children run to greet them with hugs and rough high fives, eager for affection and attention. Many of the children’s faces and bodies are covered in scars, visible reminders of the hard lives they endured on the streets of Cairo.
Soheir Milik, director of the shelter, says that driving factor behind the phenomenon of vulnerable children is the breakdown of the family in the context of widespread poverty.
“We discovered that the cases where the parents are separated, this is one of the most pressing factors to press the children to go to the streets. Many of them refuse to take care of their children,” she says. “Poverty is another factor, but divorce and separated parents, this is a very pressing factor.”
Once on the street, children must find ways to survive. Many form criminal gangs under the protection of an older leader. Others are exploited by adults, who send the children into the streets to beg in exchange for their protection or perhaps a place to sleep. Children's rights activists have accused police of forcing children to work as informants or as guides in gang dominated areas.
Most children are also subject to physical and sexual abuse that becomes an obstacle to their emotional development.
“The most pressing problem is sexual abuse. Most of them, we can say 99% of them, suffered from sexual abuse, boys and girls,” says Milik, noting that one of Ana El Masry’s main focuses is providing physiological services to help children heal from such abuse.
Convincing children to live at the Institute for Children at Risk is an uphill battle, Milik explains. Many of the children do not want to give up the freedom they enjoyed on the streets for the regulated routine of the shelter. Often the children fear retaliation at the hands of gang leaders if they leave the streets or interact with Ana El Masry members.
Once children have made their decision to stay at the center, they are provided with an individually tailored program that helps them prepare for their future.
Children have access to vocational training that will allow them to make an honest living. Within the center, several children operate a small cafeteria in preparation for one day running their own shop outside the center. Ana El Masry works with the Hilton hotel in 6th of October City to provide the children with job training and eventual employment.
Ana El Masry also focuses on working directly with communities to improve the home lives of at-risk children. The organization provides impoverished families, particularly single women, with livelihoods by offering micro-loans to start businesses such as vegetable stalls.
Many children who decide to stay at the center still feel a longing for their past life.
“We have a girl here, she remembers her mother. Her mother was a single mother and she died in the street, over-dose,” says Milik. “The girl is skilled in many things, she is happy doing everything, but suddenly she remembers her mother and she wants to go to the same street where her mother was. It will take time.”
Milik says that Ana El Masry, through group therapy sessions, tries to encourage the children to focus on their future rather than their past.
“The most important thing, we try to build on his future,” she says. “You can’t control the past, but you can control the future.”