It was 3 am when she heard the bell ringing. Completely alone, she was wondering who might visit her at such a late hour. Adding to her utter astonishment, her eyes met a grown-up boy at her doorstep telling her, “Mama Azza, I escaped from the orphanage and I want to live with you”. Shocked to her core, she didn’t really know what to do but to tell him to go back to the orphanage and she would see him in the morning. “I kept crying all night because I felt like I had pushed him away like his real mother. I had my excuse at the time, it was a crime to keep him. But it was a crossroads in my life and my perceptions about orphans in Egypt,” says the abso lute role model Azza Abdelhamid, recalling what first triggered her to realize something is obviously wrong with how orphanages are being run in Egypt.
Originally an English literature graduate, Azza always believed that literature helped her stay in touch with her humanitarian side. “Reading something like Oliver Twist, and seeing how orphans are treated, of course, affects how one views things in one’s life,” she adds. Until her early forties, Azza used to visit orphanages like the rest of Egyptians but didn’t yet focus on it professionally. At the time, she learned about a method to help people with hearing impairment transfer voice through their bones -and not just rely on sign language. Accordingly, in 1997, she founded the organization Nida, back then as a nursery to rehabilitate children with hear ing impairments, and later with visual impairments using a holis tic approach.
After her successful experience with Nida, and because of her constant visits to orphanages, she realized she had to do some thing about them. “I was once visiting an orphanage and found that some children are more aggressive and stuttering. When I asked, they told me they are depressed and hence on medications. Later, I realized that they would give the kids pills to calm them down,” Azza explains.
After two years of research and observation, both domestically and internationally, Azza launched the Wataneya Society organization in 2008, to install the quality of standards, and child protection policies adapt able to the Egyptian community. “I started going to orphanages just to observe. I documented how people treated them. I start ed seeing all the things I’ve been doing wrong as a contributor,” she says.
Wataneya has a variety of initiatives aiming to empower and develop orphans, orphanages, caregivers, and the community as a whole. They work on alternative childcare programs, and other programs to prepare the youth for the job market and help them discover their talents. They also work on conferences, youth forums, educational scholarships, and they are the first accredited center for vocational training. “We advocate for, and apply equal opportunities for youth. A lot of them join our staff when they fin ish college because of the respectful environment,” Azza says.
Besides these programs, Wataneya established a cooperation pact with the Ministry of Social Solidarity as they watch over all the other orphanages through professional evaluation, supervision, and technical support pro grams. Minister Ghada Wali understood their cause and created a committee from the Ministry to check their quality of standards, and other NGOs as well. In 2014, she made the standards obliga tory for all the orphanages.
“E3arfny ana mesh bas yateeem” Arabic for “Get to know me, I’m not just an orphan” is one of their creative awareness campaigns to combat all the stereotypes that surround orphans. “Whenever someone says he was raised in an orphanage, a wall gets built between them and the person. When he says he’s an orphan, it’s automatically perceived that he came from an illegal marriage or that he’s not up to society standards,” Azza explains, showing why they work on psychological resilience for the kids as well.
For Azza, the ultimate indication for success is to have psychologi cal stability. “We want them em powered and can say, “Yes, we are orphans” because as soon as they get over this burden, they face their fears,” she adds.
To all those aiming to start their own NGO, Azza shares some tips. “You have to aim high and get the best things and calibers for the kids. Believe in what you’re doing. Be patient because results take time. You have to have a second line of calibers and believe in specialization. Nobody knows everything. You have to get specialized people involved,” she states.