“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 lying awake, still, in any one of the cots.
“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.”
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 Madiha 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 Madiha 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 Madiha seemed to calm the girl back into her detached, blank state. She sat back down. Mama Madiha 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.
“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.”
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 Madiha was running out of resources; her role in the organization 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 Madiha, according to a special training plan provided by the shelter social workers and psychologist would patiently try to alter these behaviors 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 favorite. 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 who raped her 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.”
“My heart ached for 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”.”
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 Madiha 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.
Nelly Ali is a PhD student and lecturer at the University of London and Angalia Ruskin University in Cambridge. She works with street children in Egypt and has a particular passion for working with street girls in Cairo. She is a volunteer Project Manager at Hope Village, a NGO that has been working wi street kids since 1988. you can follow her on twitter @nellyali . Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org