Two years into Egypt’s first comprehensive program to tackle a long-standing phenomenon of homeless children in the gloomy streets, Egypt Today closely shadows the project’s components in the streets and behind the walls of its institutions.
Right outside the Sayeda Zeinab Metro Station, the bus of the government’s “Protecting Homeless Children” program was waiting to resume its daily mission. One of 17 teams working in 10 governorates, the West Cairo street team is responsible for one of the most dangerous neighborhoods. The five-member team is credited for saving almost 30 homeless children from the gloomy streets this past year alone; ever since the program kicked off on the ground.
As you enter the bus, the first thing you spot is the PlayStation screen on the wall, a cooler, and a couple of sofa seats. Then there is a door that leads to a small room for medical care for the homeless children, and often adults, who visit the bus on its daily stops.
Photo by Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
As I stepped into the bus, I was welcomed by Youssef, 6, who was so absorbed in his PlayStation game; it looked like he was quite familiar with the bus and with the team. Shortly after, we moved to Sayeda Zeinab Square, one of the team’s rotating target areas. We parked; the team got off the bus; and Amr, 12, was the first to come meet us in front of the bus and welcome us; he is a “frequenter” (the children are classified as frequenters and new). Amr was just recounting how the team had taken him to an institution that he hated and how he left after a few days to go back to the street, when he suddenly ran to the parallel pavement to break up a fight. At least four or five girls were quarrelling in an “everyday street fight,” as Amr told me later on; and one of them turned out to be his niece, Shahd, who looked a few years older than him. He had to step in and defend her. Amr has “countless” siblings, several of his brothers died in car accidents, and his whole family is living on the street.
More visitors started coming onto the bus within minutes; including Shahd who had hurt her foot in the fight. The two children were engaged in their PlayStation game, when Shaimaa, an older lady came for medical assistance. Shaimaa, whose arms and face were covered in scars, scratches and bruises, was pregnant; but she had actually come in for first aid for her black eye. The coordinator later told us that Shaimaa is actually a handler of the neighborhood’s homeless children.
Some time later, a kind woman stepped in and offered to train the homeless girls and teach them embroidery. “My girls have a place to sleep; but these girls don’t,” she said sadly, as she gave her contact information.
Photo by Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
We were then called by the team coordinator to go talk to two “new” girls (new faces in the area). And this is when we met Aya and Kholoud; who had originally come from Upper Egypt.
Right before leaving the square, two young men, covered with scratches and bruises, came onto the bus. They said they were there for medical assistance but they were actually there for Aya, who got their friend El Brazili jailed the day before after complaining to a police officer about him harassing her. “This girl is mine… And if I ever see her in the street, I will tear her apart,” one of them told the coordinator.
As intensely dramatic as it all may seem, this is actually as real as the life of tens of thousands of homeless children can get. The street team, one of five components of the state’s two-year-old project, makes the direct contact with the target group (the homeless children), providing them with on-the-spot assistance, gaining their trust, and hopefully taking them to the next step, to either reunite them with their families, or transfer them to social care institutions.
From the street teams to renovated institutions, family reunifications, evaluations, inspections, and more, this month, we are taking a closer look at the government’s comprehensive “Protecting Homeless Children” program.
Taking a closer look at two of the program’s main components; we shadowed a street team all the way from spotting two “new” children, to convincing them of how dangerous the street is, and finally taking them to a hosting institution. We then visited one of the institutions that the project has revamped, by providing a humane infrastructure, establishing a new building, staff hiring and training.
About the program
The Ministry of Social Solidarity started developing its strategy to “limit the phenomenon of homeless children, empower them economically and socially, and include them in the society” with a national data collection process back in 2014. According to the ministry’s report, there were almost 20,000 homeless children, 12,772 of whom were located in 10 governorates; Cairo, Giza, Qalyubia, Alexandria, Menoufia, Sharqiya, Suez, Beni Suef, Minia and Assiut. The “Protecting Homeless children Program” was built on the results of this study and focusing on those concentration areas, Hazem el Malah, the project’s media spokesman, tells Egypt Today.
The program consists of five main components: The street teams and mobile units reach out for the children in the streets to offer them temporary medical and psychological services. The second component is the development of the hosting institutions; in terms of infrastructure, staffing, developing their programs, and so on. The case management component is the connecting link among all elements; but more importantly, it is the one that keeps in touch with the family once the child is reunited and makes sure that their needs are met so that they don’t go back to the street. The inspection and evaluation part monitors the whole program; and lastly, there is the social marketing component. “The society is still rejecting the street child… If the society does not accept and help street children, all the effort will be gone… He will be rejected and will turn back to the street,” Malah says.
Launched in April 2016, the program was financed with LE 50 million from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and LE 114 million from the Tahya Misr Fund. The first year was spent working on things like the infrastructure work of the institutions, preparing the mobile teams, and training; and the whole project was officially put in action in April 2017. It has so far approached 12,251 homeless children, out of which 681 were either reunited with their families or transferred to institutions, according to Malah. The others, however, wouldn’t be convinced to move off the streets and to institutions; a place they still perceive as Draconian.
Mobile Units and Street Teams
The program currently has 17 street teams employed in the 10 selected governorates, seven of which are in Greater Cairo. “We had a problem in the past years with the NGOs; that they did not have a mechanism to deal with the children on the street. The mobile units aim at filling this gap,” Malah says.
Each team consists of five members; social, psychological and activities specialists, a paramedic, and the driver. They work six hours a day, six days a week in preset target areas. “The teams were selected carefully…we had 3,000 applicants and we chose the best elements after several committees. They were trained, in collaboration with international organizations that have experience in the field, like Face, Save the Children and the UNICEF,” Malah explains.
Each unit is equipped with a first aid kit, coloring books and pens, short stories, games and healthy meals. It has a place for activities, with a laptop and a PlayStation, and another for medical treatment, including a bed and necessary equipment.
Each member of the street team has a clear role. They know how to identify a homeless child looking at the back of their head, the dead skin on their heels, their messy hair or untidy clothes; then, they follow the best approach to gain their trust. The psychologist is always observing to make a primary assessment, and eventually, after as many visits as it takes, the child is referred to case management to either be reunited with the family or allocated in a residence or a partner organization.
Once identified, the key to approaching any child is emotional acceptance, Kamal stresses. “These children have a very bad idea of the society and the police,” he adds. “They believe that if found, they would be taken straight to juvenile detention.”
“He would always question [our good attitude] based on previous experiences; a time when he trusted someone and they ended up to be panders or were planning to sexually assault them. They are very conscious… They would study you well when they sit with you and analyze you,” Kamal says.
The team follows different scenarios to approach a child for the first time, according to the situation. “If he is in a group with his handler we have to divide ourselves; we need to distance the child to talk to him. If the child is asleep; there are different opinions, some say we shouldn’t wake him up, but we would risk not finding him when we come back. We would try to talk to him gently and wake him up as if he is at home… He would be afraid at first and we should try to make him feel safe … If it is an urgent case, we take an immediate decision to convince the child to go to an institution or an organization. They must be convinced that this place would change their life,” Kamal explains.
Although this doesn’t actually happen very often, I happened to be there when the team took one of those urgent decisions. On a pavement by Sayeda Zeinab Square, a young woman aged between 16 and 18, was spotted defending a younger girl in what seemed like an everyday street quarrel. Soon after, we were given the alert; these were two “new” girls, not familiar to the vicious cycle of homelessness; and who called for immediate intervention.
Once the quarrel was settled, I went with the “street team” and sat next to Aya, the older girl, on the bus bench. With some small talk, the specialists became almost certain she was a recent homeless child, along with her sister Kholoud, 6.
Aya first told us she came from Sohag, in Upper Egypt, five days earlier and was staying with her aunt. We were then approached by another woman, one of the “pillars” of the street as I was told (and Amr’s sister); she affirmed our suspicions that both girls were “new” and that they had been in the street for days and probably needed help.
As she felt a bit safe with us, the team accompanied Aya and her sister to the bus to evaluate her situation and hopefully convince her to go to a shelter or an institution. “We are not the police … we are here to talk to you and help you. You look decent and not someone who likes problems; and the street is full of danger. How can we help you?” Kamal said gently to Aya.
As she felt more comfortable, Aya told us she was not staying with an aunt, just a janitor whose wife she knew before. “I came to Cairo to work,” she said. “I left my town a year ago … we did not escape. Our step-mother kicked us out and a kind woman told us to leave,” she recounted.
“The street is not permanent and the people sheltering you aren’t too .. The street is dangerous for you and your sister, and no matter how strong you are, you will not be able to protect her,” Kamal pursued gently. “If you want a place to live in, we will take you …. This place is very good; and if at anytime you don’t want to stay there, we will still stand by your side.”
I had always heard that convincing a homeless child to go to a shelter is a challenge. However, in a few seconds the girls were sold on the idea, especially after they saw a video of the institution. “It is much better than staying here in the street with the boys,” Aya said.
We then walked with Aya a few blocks; and she introduced us to the kind janitor they were living with. It turned out that he did not know the girls. He just found them the day before crying near the building and took them in. Aya and Kholoud packed their clothes in two plastic bags, said goodbye; and as soon as we reached the door of that building, I could see the smile of those two girls for the first time in over an hour.
Aya and her sister were immediately on the road to their new home, and would never have to see the two thugs who came onto the bus looking for her again.
The story of Aya and Kholoud ends at a care institution in Agouza, or at least it ends here for me. I was told, however, that the two sisters will have to be separated soon, because of their age difference; Kholoud will have to go to another institution that takes in younger girls. The place looked tidy and the girls were all friendly; and started signing to us and showing us their talents as soon as we got there. Aya and to work while at it to guarantee a good life for her sister.
Photo by Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
Developing social care institutions
Although the best case scenario would be to return the children to a healthy family life, this ideal option is not always available. Therefore, one significant aspect of the program targets social care institutions. Following the evaluation of 27 institutions nationwide, a database was developed and a set of quality standards were put forth for all institutions to abide by. “We had a huge challenge with the institutions in Egypt… We have started developing the institutions to have good examples of safe homes to receive the children,” Malah says.
The program targeted 21 institutions in the 10 selected governorates. Six of these institutions were chosen for a full infrastructure development. “Through governorates’ representatives, we spotted the institutions that needed urgent intervention,” Malah explains. And all 21 of them are being developed in terms of staffing and advancing their programs and activities, following a protocol with the faculty of education of Helwan University that set a program to train everyone offering services to the children inside the institutions. “We also listened to the children and heard their opinion on the clothes, the food, the colors of the residencies … And we are making sure that they feel they are partners in [creating] their home,” Malah adds.
Photo by Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
Originally founded in 1919, El Horreya (Freedom) institution was the very first to be renovated and inaugurated by the program in April 2017. “The inauguration of El Horreya Institution was considered an onset for the program,” says Mahmoud Abdel Salam, who participated in the development of the project and was appointed director of the institution two months after its inauguration.
According to Eman Haggag, chief of staff at El Horreya Institution who had been working there for seven years before the project kicked in, the renovations have allowed the children to feel “their humanity.” The institution’s capacity was raised to shelter up to 150 children. It is currently accommodating 80 residents, 10 of whom joined through the program’s street teams.
“Once you enter through the door, you can tell that Tahya Masr and the Ministry have made a lot of effort. The football courts were previously like a mountain land. The bathrooms were inhumane, they could not sleep from the voice of the water and the sewage was always blocked. I would go in the morning and find the children sleeping on the floor, tired of fixing the beds that keep falling apart…We didn’t have carpets on the floor or fans, the dining place and the equipment were very difficult, and the children did not have a place to study until the Ministry built a whole education building for them to study and take their lessons,” Haggag says. “The children were always unhappy. They were ashamed of bringing their friends in. Now they are proud and they come asking me to show their friends their beds and wardrobes.”
Photo by Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
Apart from the necessary infrastructure, one of the most significant and continuing contributions of the project has been with the staffing, Abdelsalam says, explaining that the institution only had two specialists working with the children, which resulted in non-intentional negligence. There are currently eight social specialists, three psychologists, as well as sports and music trainers. “The employees came with their salaries … I wouldn’t have been able to pay them. As an organization, I did not have the capacity to have enough employees to fit with the number of children we have,” Abdelsalam says.
The children at El Horreya Institution, like most residencies of homeless kids, can be divided into two groups; orphans or victims of a dissociative family. Through mentoring sessions and activities, the specialist’s mission is to straighten their behavior and eventually help the children find their way back in the society and into a normal life. In the case of El Horreya, which focuses primarily on education, the specialists also become teachers when needed. And if the family is still in the picture somehow, they also work on bracing the family to be able to take the children back in.
Everyday, the children of the El Horreya Institution wake up at 6am; they go to schools, then come back and gather for lunch in their newly renovated dining room. Right after the meal, they head to their study room-also brand new-for two hours, before starting their fun activities, in the football court, the music room or the library. In summer, the schedule changes a bit, with more outings, trips and activities.
Photo by Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
“I want to work in a bank so that I can help anyone who comes in begging or asking for something,” says Sayed, 13, who joined El Horreya a year earlier. Youssef had stayed in another institution for over four years; then he ran away and lived in the street for three months until he was picked up by the street team. “I didn’t want to go with them; but since I came here, I have loved Mrs. Eman and I do a lot of activities now,” says Sayed. Sayed is now a student at elementary school and member in the football academy. If he doesn’t become a banker, he would also like to be like his idol Mohamed Salah.
Four of the sixth institutions targeted for better infrastructure have already been inaugurated; one in Minya, one in Alexandria, one in Sharekya and El Horreya Institution, and two more should open soon in Greater Cairo.
It is not all rosy, however, many institutions still make the children’s lives so difficult that they prefer to live on the streets. Malah explains that they’re trying to improve the situation through training employees and taking reports by follow-up teams, journalists, insiders or residents seriously. He adds, however, that civil society plays a huge role in monitoring the program and changing the wrong mental image of homeless children.
“We don’t have the capacity to monitor all of these institutions and teams. People should visit the institutions and report if there is anything wrong; and there is a hotline 16439, for anyone who sees children on the streets or spots any problems in the institutions,” Malah says, adding that one major challenge has been the huge gap between the children and the society. “The children need people to sit with them and listen to them. They need to know that people accept them,” he says, affirming how important it is to donate time to homeless children.