It was my third visit to the shelter. There was a happy atmosphere today which I later learnt always accompanied the arrival of a new baby. Shadia had come home with her new born after a C-Section the day before. I asked if I could go in to see her. I had never met Shadia before. I walked into the bedroom that housed 3 bunk beds and 6 single wardrobes, each padlocked. Shadia lay shaking in the middle of the well made bed. I panicked. I had never met someone with Parkinson’s disease before. My ignorance, both of the illness and of street children hadn’t prepared me that a child with Parkinson’s could end up here. Shadia also had her left eye gauged out. But Shadia was beautiful.
I was new to my research with street children and still very unprepared for the heartache that this work brought with it. I am, however, great at covering up my reactions so I smiled, asking Shadia if I could touch her new born baby Hannah. She smiles as her whole body convulses and nods that I can. How soft Hannah was! How content and calm this little pink human, wrapped in a clean yellow hand me down blanket, she lay next to her mother blissfully unaware of all that she was missing already. I told Shadia how beautiful her daughter was and wished her a life of happiness bringing her up. I look back at what I said that day and cringe.
I went out to speak with the incredible psychologist Shaimaa, who having realised I was shaken, tried to reassure me. She told me this was Shadia’s fourth baby. In her attempt to explain this was something Shadia was used to, I knew that this image of her laying there, me as an intruder, the lack of family around her, would be one that would haunt me for lifetimes to come. What I did not know, was that there was more to this particular street girl’s story that would plague my dreams, cause aching regrets and raise so many questions about the true value, or lack of, the work that I had gone there to do.
Leaving the shelter, stronger than I anticipated, I remembered who Shadia was. I had very briefly been given a summary of her circumstances; a street girl who left her abusive parents and prostitutes herself on the street for safety. Shadia has come to the shelter to receive care during each of her pregnancies and leaves four months after she gives birth, taking her baby with her. I am not a fan of statistics, but the shelter staff tells me only 20% of the girls that come to them are rehabilitated back into mainstream society. The rest, like Shadia leave back to the street and research is acutely lacking so that there is no comprehensive understanding as to why.
Shadia, in her incredible resilience to her parent’s abuse of their disabled child, ran away and has been living on the street for many years. This too is something I have found to be taboo. Again, the culture of ownership of children sheds an extraordinarily dangerous and disappointing shadow on the trauma disabled children in Egypt suffer. It is also frequently misattributed to poverty or illiteracy. This is not true. I know an outstanding engineer who suffers from a disability who comes from an extremely wealthy family of doctors. During his childhood he was “hidden” away from guests, not allowed out on family visits to friends and though not physically abused like Shadia, the emotional and psychological abuse that resulted from his parents reaction to his disability is still crippling in many areas of his life.
In extremely difficult circumstances, I say that Shadia is much luckier than many other poor, disabled children who are so vulnerable they are unable to imagine an alternative life. Shadia made a series of decisions that led her to lay on this bed with a fourth child she knew she would not keep. But who is to judge her for this? In Egypt, there is no alternative child care system worth the letters typed and turning to the street that is more bearable to her, as it is to many children with all it’s risks and dangers, Shadia prostitutes herself for food and shelter. I wonder who it is that would sleep with a disabled child in exchange for a sandwich and safety? Are they the same men I am hoping will campaign with us for change, for protection of our most vulnerable children?
The shelter’s attempts to rehabilitate Shadia have been many, from giving her a micro loan to open a kiosk which she was not able to run, to trying to marry her to a man she bought back, to trying to convince her to leave her child in the Dreams shelter for under fives in which other street girls leave their babies and come to visit them. All of these attempts had failed.
Despite my not having got to know most of her story from her, Shadia picked up that I could be a useful source to her, so she would ask me for deodorant, shower gel, mp3 headphones. I would oblige; the least I could do. But it was during my visit in Eid that Shadia surprised me with an unexpected request. She asked me to take Hannah. I lifted her into my arms thinking Shadia wanted to go put away her Eid money. But no, Shadia wanted me to take Hannah, for good.
I spent an hour talking at Shadia, telling her how well she takes care of her daughter. It was true, little Hannah and Shadia always smelt delightful, she was so well taken care of, always calm, always close to her. I told her how much Hannah obviously loves her, how she would grow to be her support. I was still so naive, months after living amongst them. The next time I visited, Shadia and Hannah were gone.
It was a few months later, on my three hour ride to the reconstructive surgeon with Taghreed that I find out Shadia had sold Hannah for 500 LE, and that the couple who took her took Hannah and never paid Shadia.
Somewhere in all this, Hannah’s blood is on my hands for not taking her when Shadia asked me to. But society and government too are accountable for making it legally impossible for me to take her. And we are all responsible that our country does not offer monitored alternative care. Hannah will continue to haunt me and I pray that she weighs heavily on all Egyptians who have the power to have provided an alternative for Shadia and safety for her babies and did not.
It’s the same street babies that pull at the strings of our heart today, that grow into the thugs that pull the trigger to our heads tomorrow. And we would deserve it.