“I am all alone. I have no relatives, lovers, or strangers” … Out of dozens of characters and countless lines that caught our eyes and ears during Ramadan season, this ‘hilarious’ sentence by the naïve orphaned Naglaa in B100 Wesh (100 Faces) was one that stuck with almost all of us, whether we watched the series or simply came across all the memes on social media.
Nevertheless, the appealing and clumsy character, who was such a laugh for many viewers, had a different and much deeper impact on an often-forgotten and misrepresented strata in our society; those who really grow up without parental care and are very eager for the drama to stop the misconceptions defining Naglaa’s character and her likes.
Addressing these ‘too common’ misrepresentations and their serious societal consequences, Wateneya Society for the Development of Orphanages held a webinar tackling the “role of drama in changing the stereotyped image of children and youth without parental care.” Featuring scriptwriter Mariam Naoum, actor Asser Yassin, and four youths who represent heartwarming and inspirational success stories reflecting the real challenges and accomplishments of Arab orphans Marwan Khalil, Naglaa Fathy, Ibrahim Salama, and Mohamed Othman, the discussion was moderated by Mariam Farag, leader of Al Amal “Hope” Program, a subsidiary of the Corporate Social Responsibility program at the MBC group.
“I dedicate this day to all orphans; all of those who are frustrated. Come see how the media will support you and how the drama will support you; and how you will be an asset for the nation. We are all together,” said founder of Wataneya Society Azza Abdelhamid as she launched the webinar.
Underlining the gaps between drama and reality
Initiating the discussion with some common mistakes in the portrayal of orphans in Egyptian cinema and drama productions, Khalil—who is a sophomore at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts and winner of Google Doodle Award in 2007—referred to the most recent example of Naglaa. “What happened is that [Naglaa] was portrayed as the weak link in the team. . . . The main emphasis was on her weak personality and how she was a reason behind the failure of the mission,” said Khalil, underlining a great gap between drama and reality. This gap, he explained, overshadows the real problems that orphans go through; and instead, sheds light on overrated or fake problems. “Any movie or series has a great subconscious and long-term impact on the public,” he stressed.
Khalil also referred to another famous series, Al Wasseya (The Will), which aired in Ramadan 2018. He singled out a scene which showed the orphan—played by Mohamed Farrag—holding a knife, explaining that this image sends the message that all orphans are thugs and must not be trusted, “although such messages are not intentional on the part of the actor or the director.” Khalil stressed the importance of bringing up the positive side of the equation, by showing successful models and examples. “This positive side is what we need to show; this is what will make people not afraid and what will make people willing to give the right support that we need.”
Another concern, Khalil noted, is the wrong terminology, such as over-using the word ‘orphanage.’ “Although the term is suitable, as a society, we have given bad connotations to it. Moreover, it gives the impression that there is no family. We actually use the term ‘house’ or ‘home’ because we consider ourselves a big family,” he explained.
Naoum pointed out that the two examples are of the comedy genre and that the character of the orphan was only a small part of the work which did not focus in its essence on alternative care nor was it meant to undermine it. “Comedy aims for entertainment, so sometimes there is exaggeration. . . . I do not want you to be upset or to consider it personal because it is not intentional,” she explained, adding that a line should be drawn between the role of media and that of drama, and that the latter is not always meant to be educational. Nevertheless, Naoum still noted that “drama is to blame when the project is social, built around this topic [of alternative care organizations]; yet, it does not do the work correctly and portrays it in a wrong way . . . in that case, I would agree that the makers did not do their job.”
Yassin, who plays the beloved Omar in B100 Wesh, also defended Naglaa’s character. “Every character had an issue. . . . If she [Naglaa] was not an orphan, she could have said the same sentence. My character for instance was brought up in a good neighborhood and good conditions but he is a scammer. It does not have to do with being an orphan,” he clarified.
On the other hand, Othman—who grew up in an alternative care organization in Saudi Arabia and is now a social researcher at the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development—noted that even if it is not the core idea of the work, the image and message sent about orphans can have a strong impact. Referring to a Saudi Arabian TV series, Othman said that it portrayed all orphans as “illegitimate,” which gives an over-generalized and untrue impression. He further shed light on the role of social media in spreading awareness about the cause and breaking stereotypes, noting a number of creative campaigns that he has been involved in.
The role of drama in promoting social change
A senior journalism student, member of Maestro Selim Sahab’s Egyptian children choir, and aspiring TV host, Fathy stressed that “drama and media are the most influential in changing the image of [orphans] in society.” Speaking from personal experience, she denounced the portrayal of orphans in alternative care institutions as “beaten and tortured” which helps cement that stereotype. “When I [tell someone that I am an orphan], all I hear is, ‘Oh are you beaten…?” Fathy says, explaining that she and her colleagues aim to change this image and to showcase that successful models among children and youth who grow up without parental care are not an exception. “Just as a thug can grow up in a home with a mother and father, an orphan can grow up and be successful in an alternative care institution,” she said. “We don’t need empathy. We need you to change how you look at us. We need you to let us work. We need the chance. An orphan is not only that broken weak person who can be nothing but a thug and cannot have a normal life or bear responsibility,” Fathy passionately maintains.
The smart, ambitious young woman touched the hearts of all attendees by recalling the personal challenges and tough situations she continuously goes through, from harmful remarks to the social barriers that come with the orphanage label. In a strong, confident voice, she concluded, “I am proud to be an orphan because I have achieved a place where I am not [ashamed of announcing it].”
Addressing Fathy and the other participating youths, Yassin noted that when it comes to the broader role of drama productions in the cause of “alternative care,” the missing link is the voice of successful models. He pointed out that it is a topic that has not yet been tackled. “It is not dealt with in a wrong way, as much as no one has looked at it as a cause,” Yassin explained, adding that no one would be against shedding light on such characters.
Similarly, commenting on when and if we will ever see an Egyptian movie or series that stars an orphan in a positive and inspirational light—like the famous Annie—Naoum said, “There is nothing to prevent it. . . . But it is about inspiration,” explaining that inspiration is always the starting point for any project. She further encouraged the participating youths to speak about themselves as positive models, in order to stand against the negative ones that we often hear about and see. “You are very strong and you are stronger than us,” she addressed them, adding, “We need a push from you to inspire us to work on the subject.”
Salama, a journalism graduate, also shed light on what they are doing to end social stigma through the power of drama. He explained that they organize workshops, shedding light on some issues that only an orphan would be aware of. “Such issues have a strong impact on the viewer,” he explained, adding, “I believe that we have a bigger role in sharing positivity; it is on us.”
Concluding the inspirational webinar, Naoum expressed how proud she was of the youth participating in the panel. “I see a lot of young people whose situation is much better than you, but they don’t have the same enthusiasm, nor the desire to realize their ambitions and help others realize theirs,” she told Khalil, Fathy and Salama, calling for them to remain resilient.
The webinar session was part of the third round of Wataneya’s “Beit Elhelm,” held under the auspices of the Ministry of of Social Solidarity. “Beit El Helm” Award is a cash and in-kind prize launched by Wataneya in 2015 in collaboration with Drosos Foundation and MBC Al Amal, MBC Group’s social responsibility arm. The award’s goal is to highlight successful experiences in applying quality standards in the alternative care sector. During this year’s ceremony, which was held virtually, Wataneya acknowledged individual and CSR efforts serving children and youth without parental care in Egypt.
Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages is an Egyptian non-governmental organization dedicated to improving conditions for children outside of parental care, providing them the safe and healthy environment they need to grow into successful individuals. To that end, Wataneya helps institutional homes improve the level of support they provide through the implementation of a set of standards for alternative childcare, which were approved by the government in 2014 to serve as the benchmark for quality service in the field.