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“She works at a sugar factory 28 days a month and she comes to the shelter to stay over two days a month. On her way here, she spends every penny she has earned buying food, toys and clothes for Noor”, Shaymaa was telling me about 14 year old Basma, because she was due to the shelter today to spend those precious two days with 14 month old Noor. Basma suffered from schizophrenia, fell pregnant in Upper Egypt, and was abandoned by the boy who repeatedly raped her once she was with child. At 12 years old she tried to convince her parents to accept her new born, and had called Shaymaa three days after taking the baby to her home, telling her to come save the little child who had been locked in the chicken den by her grandfather in an attempt to ‘hide the shame’ that would come to the family if their neighbors came to know of her. Shaymaa had made the nine-hour journey to save Noor from the neglect that she so bravely endured and which Basma has so bravely took action against.
“At 12 years old she tried to convince her parents to accept her new born, and had called Shaymaa three days after taking the baby to her home, telling her to come save the little child who had been locked in the chicken den by her grandfather in an attempt to ‘hide the shame’”
That day at the shelter, Noor was in her element and would not leave her shy mother’s lap. Basma had a way of saying Noor’s name; which elongates the vowels in a melodic tone that only those from Upper Egypt know how to utter and Noor recognized the difference in how her name was said by her mother in contrast to all of us and would always smile after its utterance and quickly drop her head on Basma’s shoulder or bosom. Basma would start feeding Noor from the moment she entered the shelter until the moment she left, very obviously trying to make up for the nurturing she believed Noor would find in the food and that which she feels she has deprived her of during her absence.
In the group therapy session, the girls were talking about being mothers and what their children meant to them. Some shared their fears of responsibility and of having to let go of certain hopes of a changed future because now they had a child that tied them to their past. Others said it was the only beautiful thing that happened to them and that it was a chance to give someone a certain type of love that they had been denied. Basma said, “I was just really happy when Noor was born, I was so worried that something was going to be wrong with her, the doctors were worried something would be wrong, but look at her, she’s perfect.”
“Maya who had been kept in an imaginary circle for 3 years by her step mother until she was 6-years-old in which she had to sleep, play, excrete, wee and eat”
This day was like any other day for the shelter and the ups and the downs. Maya who had been kept in an imaginary circle for 3 years by her step mother until she was 6-years-old in which she had to sleep, play, excrete, wee and eat, and who had been violent towards not only Summer, but the other under fives came and confided in me telling me that she was violent towards Summer because she wants her to grow up into a tough woman and not to be afraid. She told me that life is violent, full of bad people who hurt weak people, that there were only those two categories, that she didn’t want Summer to be part of the latter group and end up being hurt like she was before she became strong. It was the first time Maya had opened up to me about strength and weakness and what she thought of them. It’s always hard as a researcher not to share what I thought, or advice, but I was a human before I was a researcher and Maya was talking to “that” me. I explored with Maya the other ways Summer could grow with the violence, that it may leave her physically disabled, that she may become scared of loud sounds, just gentle reminders to Maya that she was not in control of how her intentions could pan out. Maya got up saying, “I hadn’t thought about that, I need to think about that because I don’t want bad things for Summer”.
“Taghreed traveled a brave journey to remove a rape scar from her face, counting the stitches as the surgeon was taking them out, tears welling up in the corner of her eyes, fighting the pain”
Taghreed, the 16-year-old who would wet herself every time her father walked into the shelter to find her there since she was 8, who I am ashamed to have judged on the first meeting as cold and quite scary, would stop eating when 12-month-old Rana, whom she had socially adopted at the shelter would be taken away for family visits. Taghreed traveled a brave journey to remove a rape scar from her face, counting the stitches as the surgeon was taking them out, tears welling up in the corner of her eyes, fighting the pain. She had asked for a cream to hide it before I managed to organize this reconstruction, but she had always refused to tell me why it was so important to her. On our journey back after the last visit to the doctor, she told me I could bring my camera in tomorrow because she was now ready to have a picture with her 6-month-old son.
“Children who become mothers before they have grown are children who try the best they can with what they have”
Little snippets of a tender motherhood can be recorded in every one of my visits to the shelter, from laughter of the children in their child mother’s arms, to the horrific moments when you enter a child’s bedroom at night and within seconds she grabs her baby and cowers with her/him in a corner for safety. Children who become mothers before they have grown are children who try the best they can with what they have. This is why I tore up my university business card and replaced it with my own that reads: I go to university to teach and I go to my street children to learn.
Nelly Ali is a PhD student and lecturer at the University of London and Anglia 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, an NGO that has been working with street kids since 1988. You can follow her on twitter @nellyali. Correspondence: email@example.com