I hadn't seen Reem before. I had only heard of her when Shaimaa was telling me about the strange names some of the children are given and how the shelter gives them nick names while they are there.
Five-year-old Reem’s name on the birth certificate is Om Hammed. Reem watched me with eyes that shone with intelligence. Having lived on the street all of her five years, she was trained to eye up strangers and judge how dangerous or harmless they were just a few moments after meeting them.
She saw me playing with the others and watched as a few came to hug and be hugged. Out of the corner of my eye I saw how attentively she listened as they recounted their morning at the shelter and told me how Sally was punished for swearing at one of her "sisters".
Once she had decided I posed no threat, she walked up to me tentatively. I held her, complimenting her clothes and asked who she was. She said, "Ana Reem". "Oh!! Reeeeeem" I said, "I have heard all about you! Mama Shaimaa and Mama Nahed tell me how they have missed you and keep talking about how beautiful and well behaved you are."
I told the little child that I had been waiting to meet her
Her reaction touched me. She flung her little arms around my neck and climbed to sit on my knee. I noticed at once that she had lice in her hair and I was ashamed at myself for pulling away a little so that the insects don't crawl into mine.
It's moments like this that I want to remind you, reader, of the incredible work and dedication of those who, for what is often very little money, chose to commit their lives to work with the street kids on a day-to-day basis. I would like you to remember those, who have on many occasions caught nits, rashes and infections from the children and do not shy away from hugging them, caring for them and from accepting them. My hat is taken off to those who put their lives in danger when protecting these young ones who are often a source of income through begging and prostitution to the thugs and street leaders.
This post is about the grandchildren of the street - a new generation that are more marginalised than the children they are born to. Not fitting the conventional categories of "orphan", they are often sold, killed, used for begging or prostituted – all of which there are documented cases. If they are very lucky, then they are left in the shelter that has learnt to adapt to the needs of street children through trial and error for lack of an example to follow.
Some of us chose to silence the screams of our conscience by blaming the children for having children of their own. We say “how can they do that, can’t they see how miserable their own lives are?!” To those people, I would like to ask you “how?”
There are children at the shelter who have been raped by their parents, stepparents, brothers and employers, and there are children with mental health problems who have been raped by those who are meant to care for them. You may find the list horrific; incest, institutional and police rape are taboo and rarely spoken of, but believe me, my dear reader, that if the girl is pregnant through those attacks, then she is lucky. Being raped on the street, bares greater pain.
There is a specific culture of rape on the streets of Cairo. A street girl, raped for the first time, will be carved on her face, under the eye, or above her bottom - one girl seeking refuge at the shelter received 16 stitches after such an attack. It is a sign that the men (yes, plural) have "marked her" and "broken her".
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Subsequent rapes result in a vertical scar on the side of the face. The plight of street girls after rape is intense; these markings and pregnancy mark only a few. During her time at the shelter, the child mother will receive pre-natal care at the in-house clinic where she is spared the abuse she has experienced on the street.
One of the biggest achievements that the NGO Hope Village are proud of is their successful advocacy around the change of a child law in 2008. Prior to 2008, a child born to a street girl was taken away from her, registered as "of unknown parentage", separated from the mother who is then labelled a prostitute and locked up in a correctional institution on that charge and is never to be re-united with her child again. Following a large campaign and much effort, this law was changed and with the right help, young street mothers are able to register their babies as " of half unknown parentage” and keep them.
After my first visit to the shelter a few months ago, I left wondering how these little girls with big tummies will be able to handle motherhood, these children who have run away to the street after what is often violent, physical and sexual abuse. There is a history to each of these girls that is a horror story in its own right. How, after being raped by both her mother and father, can 12-year-old Samira be judged for her fear and running away two days after having a C-Section? How can Maya be blamed for the violence she inflicts on baby Samar after being stripped naked by her father, and subsequently beaten and left covered in honey on the roof for the bees? How can you easily teach 14-year-old Shosho to wake up to feed her hungry two-month-old when she has had her eye burned out in a series of abusive attacks by her parents for being a disabled child.
A couple months later, I sat in the group therapy session and watched 14-year-old Hadeer hold her breast for her new born baby in both her hands, with a tenderness I have never seen, read, or heard about. I left that day with an ache at the unfairness of this world in which we live and a prayer to whoever is out there hearing prayers, for these little ones to not give up, to give these babies a chance, even if they themselves were not afforded one. The reality, however, is much different to that prayer. Only 20% of street children stay at the shelter.
Even the girls, who grew attached to their babies, often cannot stay. One of the most heart breaking examples is of a 13-year-old schizophrenic child who had baby, Hend. Manal was raped by a boy in a rural part of Egypt and stayed for months at the shelter during her pregnancy. She thought if she took her baby back with her, the little bright eyes and soft feet would move her parents to accepting the child. The psychologist was called two days later in a plea from Manal to save Hend from being locked in the farm with the chickens in an attempt from her parents to hide what they saw as the shame that was bought on the family. The amazing Shaimaa took a nine-hour bus ride and carried on her chest the little child, the nine hours back. Manal comes every month to stay two days with Hend. She works all other days to buy her food and clothes and her struggle to leave at the end of the two days is something I challenge any observer to sleep the night after.
"I'm going to kill my dad."
It is not just the money that seems to be hoarded after the revolution that is missing from the lives of these children, but a legal and societal concern and awareness that begs to be present. The grandchildren of the street have hope of being spared rape, the hunger, and the violence if we as a society are outraged that there are no laws enforced and implemented to protect these children.
Reader, I want you to be angry that we were not legally allowed to keep four-year-old Jude from her street mother taking her away from the shelter to beg now that she has developed a lump in her head that would make her more successful at gaining passer-by sympathy. When you pass Jude and the thousand of other Jude’s on the street, and you have not been angry with us, realise that we are all to blame. Help campaign to protect these children so that we do not continue to make them, along with all other minorities in our country, the indigenous people of Egypt.
But now back to five-year-old Reem. After she had climbed onto my lap and I had given in to hugging her, her lice infested hair mingled with my newly washed strands, remembering comfortably that I had lice shampoo from London that promised to work in 10 minutes while Reem would soon be the cause of an outbreak to all the other 10 children.
I told the little child that I had been waiting to meet her and had heard she was away on a family visit. She looked at me seriously with her round bright eyes and said, "I was with my father and mother. He hits mama and she cries all the time. I hate family visits. Heba slammed the cup down hard and so my dad tied us both up and beat us. He hit me with a belt here.” she shows me the bruises on her small back “He stopped hitting me when I wet myself. When I grow up, I am going to be a policewoman. I'm going to kill my dad."
Nelly is, in addition to her regular work, also Project and Implementation Manager at Hope Village in Cairo.
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