She was only 5 years old at the time and her little legs weren’t long enough to jump after her mother from rooftop to rooftop after the last violent beating her mother had received, tied up from a father high on drugs. She’d managed to jump six roof tops, but the distance of the seventh jump, was just too hard. She would have fallen and died if she had even tried. She tells me that she should have tried, she might as well have been dead than go back the six rooftops she’d managed, back to her father who sat in the corner, crouched over, crying in regret for what he had done to his wife.
It was three days before Eid, I sat, now casually after the group therapy session and the TV was on playing Sha’abi songs in the background, amused at the affect the music had on the little ones. 5 year old Maher bent on the wooden, loose legged coffee table, drumming out of beat, as 1 year old Noor bobbed up and down in her nappies – both blissfully enjoying what little life had afforded them. There was a good spirit in the shelter today, the special Eid clean was well under way and there was talk amongst the girls of new clothes they’d saved up for, what they’d do and where they’d go.
“She told Sarah while looking at me, “she’s going to spend the day with her family of course, ya Sarah, that’s what children of people (welaad elnas) do””
Sarah asked me what I would be doing for Eid. The truth was, I hadn’t really thought about it, my celebration of all religious festivals (and yes, I try and celebrate as many different ones as I can) was something that was decided on the day, spontaneously. So, with the honesty I had learnt to deal with the girls with, I told them I wasn’t sure yet. Maya, for the first time since I had come to the shelter, looked sad, though she was smiling. She told Sarah while looking at me, “she’s going to spend the day with her family of course, ya Sarah, that’s what children of people (welaad elnas) do” and she jokingly slapped Sarah on the back and swore at her saying that bastard children like them should be grateful that they had each other. I, as casually as they had acted, said, I will come one of the three days here for sure. I could not hide how touched I was at the excitement this promise was met with.
And I did come to them in Eid. I was thinking most of Sarah who had said she wished she had been in the shelter long enough to save money like the other girls to afford new clothes for Eid. She had only been there for a week and had 20 LE to her name. Sharif and Abdelazim had both given me lots of money to share amongst the girls for Eid. We went and bought toys, balloons, masks, sweets, fruits and cakes for the children and we were already enjoying this Eid more than any other – and we hadn’t even got there!
“It was like the children, all ages, were taking this one day out in time to truly enjoy themselves.”
We walked in and the squeals of happiness and hugs and kisses we were met with are something that will stay with me forever. It was like the children, all ages, were taking this one day out in time to truly enjoy themselves. I was so grateful that they had wanted me to share it! I quickly gave the money out equally and got in trouble (just as quickly) by management who said it should go through them! But nothing was going to dampen today.
“one day a girl is there and you get to know her, love her, build a future for and with her, but one day you’ll go and she’s gone and you know that more likely than not, you won’t see her again.”
Except that Sarah wasn’t there. Maya told me she had a fight over the baby’s milk and… I didn’t hear the rest of Maya’s recollection of the incident, I was devastated she wasn’t there to share the day with us, to take the money and buy her and her baby some Eid clothes, to eat the mangoes and make an absolute mess with us… I couldn’t get over that she was missing today. It’s the way it is in the shelter, one day a girl is there and you get to know her, love her, build a future for and with her, but one day you’ll go and she’s gone and you know that more likely than not, you won’t see her again. Often, you may only hear about her again if she’s been arrested, or has passed away. This thought made me achingly uncomfortable for the rest of the day. I worried for her, for her daughter that she was begging with.
“None of what she was saying is funny, but she and the girls all sat on the floor around me cross-legged laughing, in tears laughing.”
I didn’t have to wait long though, three days after all the Eid festivities, Sarah was back with her little baby Lamees at the shelter, laughing at herself and how the week at the Sayeda Zainab was just too much for her this time under the “supervision” of Hafeeza, the infamous street leader who most of the children in the area beg and sell paper tissues for and are absolutely terrified of. None of what she was saying is funny, but she and the girls all sat on the floor around me cross-legged laughing, in tears laughing. I force myself off the chair to sit on the floor with them; something they’ve been resisting for fifteen minutes now out of respect. Sarah tells me “ya Miss!! You won’t believe it, but I held a dollar!! I swear on my daughter’s head!! I held a dollar and when Hafeeza saw me she ran after me and I ran and ran but had to go back because I’d forgotten Lamees and had to go back for her and when I went back for her, she told me if I don’t give her the dollar she’d cut my hair”. To which, all the girls laughed. She then started to act, changing her voice – a skill all the girls had, to show how she begged from passersby retelling all the stories she’d been using to gain their sympathy.
“It was amazing she had to think of stories to make people sorry for her. I was sitting in front of her by this stage and I could see the wrinkled, burnt skin covering the full length of her ankles and two feet.”
It was amazing she had to think of stories to make people sorry for her. I was sitting in front of her by this stage and I could see the wrinkled, burnt skin covering the full length of her ankles and two feet. This was a scar; which had been there for ten years now. Sarah had gone shopping and came home late, her stepmother had convinced her father he needed to teach her a lesson she’d never forget, so she held her for him in the bath and watched the drugged father pour boiling water from the kettle over the little tender skin until it burnt.
“Listening to her speak about it, about all the reasons she had to forgive him when he, sober the next morning, held her and cried and begged her forgiveness”
One thing you’re trained to do when working with the street girls is to not show emotion as they recount their stories, but to this I could not but cry. Listening to her speak about it, about all the reasons she had to forgive him when he, sober the next morning, held her and cried and begged her forgiveness. This articulate, pretty, well spoken 16 year old street mother that she is today, the only thing out of all her contradictions that I am finding hard to not be surprised about, is how much she forgives her father. At the end of every recount of abuse, she ends with, “I hate how weak he is, and I feel sorry for him that he often can’t stand up straight, probably like his willy”.
She told me she was sorry she missed Eid, passed me Lamees and told me to look after her for an hour, it was her turn to go out and buy the babies their rationed nappies.
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