This is for Farah, whose incredible courage and strength remain unmatched in my mind.
One of the things I’m most taken aback by with my work with street children is how articulate they are. They often surprise and humble me with how well they can express themselves in narrative. Whilst speaking with Maya, whom I had now known for a few months, I felt I could pry a little further “I know your step mother was cruel and your father always took her side, but it sometimes sounds like the life you led on the street was so much more cruel. A lot of people ask me why kids like you choose the street if it’s not as dangerous at home?” to which she replied “because it’s easier to forgive the street, you don’t expect it to love you the way you do with your family.”
Maya’s life both off and on the street is one filled with reasons to make you lose faith in the world and humanity; her resilience and laughter, enough to make you regain it. It’s one of the things I learnt from Maya, the power of choice between two harms, between two worst scenarios. Street children like Maya can and do generate different responses from people who meet her and hear her story because in a series of choices, she’s often made the wrong ones. The less tolerant will fail to see that the neglect and abuse she suffered at 3 years old, may have not equipped her with what it takes to make better ones. For other children, the street is not a choice between two unfortunate cruelties, but the only choice for survival.
Poverty is often unfairly made guilty as the prime reason children are pushed to the streets. Family breakdown and violence are the real culprits. Abuse is to blame. Why else would Farah be on the street?
Farah is an incredibly beautiful 14-year-old girl. When she turned 12, her maternal uncle, Medhat, decided it was time for Farah to join his prostitution ring. He offered her no proposal; she was merely to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Farah’s mother had been bringing in money for her brother for years and Medhat had high hopes for the young Farah to add more to this income. Brave in all her decisions, Farah refused. Client after client would complain hearing Farah being dragged to where they were and eventually Medhat had to resort to violence.
Farah was chained for 8 months from the ceiling. In this solitary world that became her new home, and in this position, Farah was raped daily by her uncle. She was fed hanging, went to the toilet hanging, slept in her shackles; and in her resilience, the little girl refused to give in.
It is here were need to consider vulnerabilities when talking of resilience. The body of a child, its weakness, its limitation, that despite everything agency and voice can do to shift positional ties, the physical vulnerability of children is the very thing the adult world has the duty to protect. It’s this lack of protection, which let down the courage of Farah making decisions she could not live through. And it was when that body became even weaker, when the shackles had become tighter, the metal gnawing its way past her skin through to her bones, did she make her next decision.
Farah told her uncle that she gave up, that he had won. She told him she would be the “good girl” he’d wanted and she’d do as she pleases. Unchaining her, turning the locks of the chains that had bound her thin ankles and wrists, her escape was planned. Farah ran to the window and threw herself from the fourth floor.
How she survived is unknown to all of us at the shelter. The number of broken bones was manifest of the desperation and the price this little girl paid for those physical vulnerabilities and resilient choices. She was carried to the nearest hospital not only for the bones, but also for the eroded skin on her thighs and buttocks from having wet and soiled herself all those months, from the burns where she was tied. But what of the rape? What of the trauma? What of the future? Whose responsibility was it to heal these?
When she was well enough to leave, she left to the street. It was then the police referred her to the shelter. The moment she walked in is a moment all who were there will never forget. Shaimaa tells me she still can see this girl’s wrists in her dreams.
Why have I told you this story, reader? You are mistaken to think it is merely to break your heart. I have not even written it as a reminder of the individual stories of each of the girls on the street, like I often do. I have written this so that we can start asking different questions. I am sharing this to demonstrate that trying to convince many children that the street is bad for them is ineffectual. For children like Farah, and unfortunately, there are many, the street is hope, it is freedom, it is friendship, it is unpredictable. Till we understand the meaning of the street for children, till the first thing we do with them is NOT to reintegrate them with their families as a priority to secure more funding, till we can offer alternatives, then we may be doing more harm than good.