Cairo's Street Kids (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. They lie on the couch like corpses. Pallid, marked with sores and dressed in tattered clothing, the two boys, fresh from another night on Cairo's unforgiving streets, are dead to the world. You can barely hear them breathe. Yet you know that, for at least a few hours, they are in a dreamland: a place free from abuse and torment, untouched by the cruel reality of their daily lives. The boys, around 10 years old, like a tiny proportion of Cairo's estimated 150,000-strong population of street children, have found temporary shelter in the Sayida Zeinab day center - one of three such day centers across the Egyptian capital, which are run by the Hope Village Society, a privately owned association dedicated to the care and welfare of underprivileged children. As I walk around the center and past the sleeping bodies of the two little ones, I enter a small dining hall where other boys lie. One, cowering in a fetal position behind a curtain, has covered himself in an old rag. Unconscious from exhaustion, he lies breathing like a wounded beast, vigorously snorting and twitching. Opposite him, two other boys sleep side by side. Here in this center, situated in a poor and run-down Cairo suburb, lies a snapshot of the huge problem of Egypt's street children. "When the children come off the streets and into the center, they will have faced many problems," says Mohammad Tageldin, a manager at Hope Village. "There is, of course, nowhere to protect the children on the street, so they would have had problems with the police because of begging, and even faced problems with other street children. Many have been exposed to physical harm, and strangers - members of the public - will have taken advantage of them because it is very easy to manipulate them." Though it is impossible to verify how many Egyptian children find themselves living, working and sleeping on the streets, UNICEF (the U.N. children's fund) has put the national figure at between 200,000 and one million, with the vast majority of street children scraping an existence in the big urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria. Their numbers are thought to be rising fast. "Many have been used for drug trafficking and others, mainly girls, will be led to prostitution," says Tageldin. "And the people who manage and use these children, will, of course, make a good profit." The Egyptian government has been condemned by Human Rights Watch in its 2003 report, "Charged with being children: Egyptian police abuse of children in need of protection," for its response to the country's street children. Mass arrests for "delinquency" are legal and not uncommon. "President Hosni Mubarak doesn't care about anything other than the political safety and security of the country," says Ismail Imam Issa, Egypt's former under-secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture, speaking to The Jerusalem Report from his home in Cairo. "He knows about the street children issue but he ignores their plight because it does not endanger the country's political stability." At Sayida Zeinab, many of the boys have been using the day center for years. Some come for medical care and food, but return to the streets at nightfall. The charity also runs three "second-level" centers for their short-term care. After that children can move into one of four long-stay shelters in the city where they can live permanently. However, many children, for one reason or another, are unwilling or unable to change from simply visiting the centers for a meal or medicine to living in short-term care. Mohammad is one of those children. He has been coming to the center ever since he ran away from home, although he can't recall how long he has lived on the streets. When I ask him his age, he thinks he may be 15, but he's not certain. "My uncle used to beat me, and that's why I left home," Mohammad says, smiling shyly. "I used to have a grandfather who sold potatoes on a donkey cart. My grandfather and grandmother were the most tender people - they were the kindest to me. "But when my grandfather died nobody was kind to me anymore. "It was then that I made my decision to leave. I found the streets to be quite nice after I left. You could sit with other children; you could play football, and do all kinds of things. "But after a while things weren't quite so good. When I left home, I was under the impression that there were no older street children. So, sometimes the older street children would beat us up. I thought I would be alone, and I could walk alone, but the older children would be violent towards us and they would deal in sexual abuse. I've seen people on the streets having sex, so when someone comes up to me and starts talking about sex, I say, 'Please hurt me, beat me, but don't get me to do that.'" Mohammad won't say whether he has been subjected to sexual abuse, though another boy in the center, Adel, tells me he had been raped many times in the past when he first became homeless. "When I was younger, I was subjected to many things," says 15-year-old Adel who left home several years ago because of continual disagreements with his father. "I was sexually abused by the older street children. "But this was when I was younger. Now I'm older, people fear me, and would never try to do such things to me. I was also offered drugs, and to try many different types of drugs. But the worst thing that happened to me was being raped." Adel, however, is now a so-called "mentor," a position given to a select group of young street children who regularly frequent the Hope Village day centers. Trained by Hope Village to administer first aid, they are also encouraged to use their own harrowing experiences as a way of educating other homeless children about the dangers of street life. UNICEF officials say that family breakdown caused by unemployment, divorce and parental abuse are thought to be the main reasons behind children taking to the streets. Cairo, home to more than 15 million people, is the ideal place in which children can become lost and forgotten. Surveys of these children, including those conducted by Human Rights Watch, indicate that they are between 10 and 18 years old; the average age is 13. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.