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In Cairo, hordes of street kids, but no longer ignored

The Egyptian government and nonprofit groups are stepping up efforts to help street children.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2008

Children in Cairo live among the garbage they recycle by hand. The government and nonprofit groups are doing more to help care for the thousands of street children in this city of 18 million people.




Kareem and Mustapha were little more than toddlers when their parents sent them onto Cairo's streets to sell mints and tissues.

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They had begun on the path trod by Cairo's growing thousands of street kids – sleeping on streets, joining gangs for protection, underfed and covered with the filth of a city packed with 18 million people.

Then Ahmed Sayid came along. The social worker found the brothers under a bridge, the kind of dark corner in which he often looks for children to bring to the shelter where he works.

Mr. Sayid, who works for the el-Ma'weh charity, used to search Cairo's dangerous streets alone, on foot. Now he rides in a van shared with workers from other charities at night looking for street children. It is a small but tangible symbol of efforts by the Egyptian government and non-profit organizations to reach the hordes of street children so long scorned.

New half-day centers, overnight facilities, and psychological services are being launched. They reach only a fraction of the tens of thousands of street children but the growth of the services is remarkable in a country where conservative estimates put the poverty rate at 20 percent and street kids have long been regarded by society and the government as little more than delinquents.

Just seven years ago, only a group called Hope Village Society worked with street kids in Cairo, and two groups worked in Egypt's next biggest city, Alexandria. Today some dozen groups try to help. While services remain basic, they have grown rapidly in the four years since the government first acknowledged the street kids' plight and a series of murders of street children shocked the public into facing what had been a taboo subject.

Now, three years after Sayid found them, Mustapha and Kareem spend most days in the half-day shelter. They can get two meals, a shower, clean clothes and a few hours of safety. Sayid hopes to give them a chance at a normal life if he can keep them away from gangs and in school as much as possible.

On a recent afternoon they bound through the shelter's door as Sayid opens it, barefoot and smiling. They chat with Sayid briefly then dash off to the recreation room to draw and watch TV with the other boys.

When they aren't in the shelter, the brothers work to support their family, but at night the whole family sleeps in the street. Sayid says the boys' parents are grateful someone is feeding and watching them in the mornings while they are busy selling coffee and tea at a nearby train station.

Until 2003, the government and society ignored children like these, fleeing abuse or poverty at home to wind up working for a gang in the streets. Under Egyptian law, street children can be locked up as "potential delinquents."

But when a new general secretary took over the Council on Childhood and Motherhood, she brought a revolutionary vision toward social problems, says Somaya al-Alfy, head of the street children section at the council, which is a government-run advocacy group.

"Do not say 'Everything is OK. We don't have any problems.' No, we will say the truth and try to solve it," says Ms. Alfy of General Secretary Mushira Khtab's view.

With lobbying by the council and UNICEF, Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt's autocratic leader, agreed in 2003 to put her clout behind an effort to change the law and protect kids. While the effort to amend the law has languished, acknowledgment of the problem opened the door for more charities to start offering services.