North Africa, West Asia

Egypt: the stamp of the street on its children

Egypt's legal system does not protect vulnerable children and mainstream society is too self absorbed to reach out to those in need – but there are those doing all they can to help.

Nelly Ali
15 March 2016
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Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images. All rights reserved.Omar is the first street child that I have seen a photo of before he became a street boy. Someone had once said to me that all street children look like each other. Looking at the children I didn’t have a clue what this person was saying, but looking at photos of Omar before and after the street, I see that there is a look on their faces they all share – rather than physical characteristics – a stamp the street leaves on you, of all the horrors you survive.

Dr Hany, who had kindly offered to take on Omar’s case as soon as I brought it to him, has a way of dealing with petrified children. And make no mistake, the children I bring him are petrified. They are particularly scared of adults in any position of authority because in their worlds, those responsible for their well being and safety have – always – been the cause of their horrific experiences in their early years.

Omar was no different in the fear he displayed, but added to his emotional distress was a terror that the doctors would amputate his hands, and he started off reluctant to show his wounds. After an admirable display of patience and reassurance by the doctor, showing him photos of previous cases, recounting the happiness at their success, Omar opened up.

For both doctors to tell me the injury was terrible (especially coming from Egyptian doctors, who are optimistic even if your head is rolling between your feet), this was bad news. Omar had suffered third degree chemical burns with complete loss of skin, all his fingers were stuck together becoming one mass and his thumb had been partially amputated. Dr Hany tells me there’s a shortening too of all his tendons and arteries. X-rays and lab tests are being carried out now and the operations (two or three) will be started within a few days. All this will be done in a private hospital with the best doctor and facilities and Omar will have it all done free (you see, my utopian dream of sharif skills and time and facilities does come true).

A recap on Omar: an 11-year-old boy who ran away from home after the violence his father perpetrated towards his sister. In fear, Omar left in October, taking a train to another city. After his disappearance, his father (a taxi driver) pled with one of his passengers to put Omar’s photo up on Facebook groups for missing children in an attempt to find him. The photo of the smiling, handsome little boy went viral. In February, a kind woman in Alexandria found Omar at the gates of a train station passing out from pain with both hands wrapped in dirty pieces of cloth, with what she describes as a nauseating smell coming from them. She tried taking him to two hospitals and met with failure – the first told her no doctors were present and the second refused to treat him on grounds it was not a new wound and he had no papers.

The lady took photos of Omar and uploaded to Facebook pages for missing children in Egypt in the hope his parents would find him. Despite the changes the streets write on your face (even in just four months), Omar was reunited with his family. He refused to return to his parents and his aunt and her husband came to his rescue and took him in.

Extended family can be such a blessing, as they are in Omar’s case. Despite having his mother and father come with him to the appointment, Omar, who was clearly petrified, did not direct a single word to them. Instead, he was in the comfort of his aunt and her husband, who have been caring for him since he’s come off the street. The father sat in shame and regret, finally understanding the gravity of what it means to be a violent caregiver (oh the irony of those words together), understanding that Omar ran away because of his parenting and is now suffering a disability because of being on the streets.

Shame on the legal system that doesn’t enforce laws to protect children in vulnerable situations.

Shame on the father whose regret comes too late, and shame on the legal system that doesn’t enforce laws to protect children in vulnerable situations, and shame on the harsh streets that are filled with a mainstream society too self absorbed to reach out to those in need.

But just as our world is filled with disappointments, it is filled with beacons of light that shine so bright they heal the darkness and what it brings. Below are two of those beacons in my and the street children’s worlds. They are two of the reasons I am SO proud of the blog I started for street children that acted as an introduction. I love them with all my heart.

Hany is a well known plastic and reconstructive surgeon. The first blog post I had written about street children was one about the rape scars the children suffer (the gang who rape them will knife their face – usually a curved scar under the eyes to mark them as no longer being virgins, ‘spoilt goods’ and this scar would result in a thick piece of flesh hanging from their face serving as a reminder of the horror they faced but also as a deterrent to society at every attempt the girls tried to reintegrate back into it). Hany wrote to me several times, trying to reach me on all platforms and not giving up until I answered. He was offering to perform surgery, free of charge to any and all of the children I worked with who needed this scar removed.

The respect and love with which I have seen him treat my girls, from the older children who have been raped to the four-year-old I once took to him who had been abused by her parents and suffered burns to her chest and pubic areas. He was often the balance in humanity I needed to remember our world was not all bad. Angels lived among us.

Yara, a young, newly graduated doctor, busy studying for her board exams and who lived the other side of the city was there. I had asked her to go because I trusted her with my life and so I trusted her to be the go-to person with Omar. She had previously humbled me with her proactive nature. She too had read my blogs of street girls and wrote repeatedly to tell me all she would try to do…

Having lived in Egypt, I know you need to have the will and patience to move heaven and earth to change an injustice and do something good. Since Yara emailed me the first time, so much good has been done. She got together with a group of other incredible doctors who guaranteed the street girls were treated with dignity and respect when they went into labour (previously they would be so scared because of the verbal and physical abuse they’d get for going in to give birth without being married or being so young – bearing in mind they were often raped). Yara was also my go-to person when I was not in Egypt for a number of other cases doing what I would do, only ten times better.

I need a third hero in this story. I know he or she exists somewhere out there. I need a physiotherapist for Omar who will see that all the efforts made have a great outcome. Without this person, Omar will lose any hope of using his hands again. As always, I don’t work with fundraising, so this human will need to agree to share their skill for free.

I’m asking if you could all help me find the third pillar to this success story by sharing it as widely as you can till we find our physiotherapist in Cairo.

This piece was first published on 21 February 2016 here.

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