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

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

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.

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.

A year later, reports surfaced of a gruesome string of murders that shocked Egyptians, raising the profile of the issue. Ramadan Mansour, a man in his mid-20s, was arrested and convicted of raping and killing dozens of street children.

By 2004, local charities like Ma'weh and Touflti and Caritas, a Roman Catholic charitable network, started establishing half-day centers for street kids. Last year, four of them used UNICEF funding to buy the van they drive through Cairo's streets at night offering help to kids.

By 2007, there were 24,000 visits to the half-day centers run by the five nongovernmental organizations UNICEF works with, including repeat visits, says Nadra Zaki, project officer for UNICEF's child protection program in Egypt, and there were about 1,000 new visits.

Zaki says the goal now is to push through the changes to Egyptian law and offer advanced support like psychiatric care.

"The sheer fact that the children are being handled by police is an abusive act," she says.

UNICEF is funding some of those initiatives such as one at the Ma'weh shelter, which is using art therapy. Recently half a dozen boys from a gang that sleeps near one another for protection on a busy four-lane road nearby, scribble with pencils on orange paper. Azouz is the proud artist of the group. He says he learned to draw at the shelter and now can sketch any animal on demand.

Last year, an art therapy expert taught the staff that it could draw out the feelings of the children, who are deeply distrustful of strangers, through such creative expression.

Most children end up on the streets because of violence at home, say social workers. Once on the street, the boys and, increasingly, girls, fall in with a gang led by a teenager and sell odds and ends, and beg or steal to bring back the day's quota of earnings. The hardships of their lives leave not only psychological, but physical scars.

It's also haircut day at Ma'weh and the boys line up, each with specific styling instructions for the barber. Sayid admits quietly that the goal is to prevent lice. Kareem opts for a buzz cut. Mustapha hides. One boy is fighting to keep the fringe of hair he grew long at the nape of his neck. But the barber's clippers have revealed more than the boy's vanity.

"This is from fighting. They all have this under their hair," Sayid says discreetly noting the white scars on the boy's head.

But despite the dangers, many kids are reluctant to leave the streets, says Zaki of UNICEF. They fear abuse at home and find the street, with all its dangers, safer.

"Those that stay for a long time, they have their own life. They have their friends and relationships," says Zaki. "They want to have a job and an independent life. They don't want to go back to the misery."

It's Sayid's job to try to break through that thinking. He quickly learned ways to penetrate the gangs of street children in Cairo, making, he says, the necessary deals with the devil – the gang leaders. He told them "leave those kids for me in the morning to give them food and clothes, and I will leave them for you at night so they can work for you. Services for services."

As Kareem and Mustapha leave the shelter, the boys' bare feet pound down the dirt road choked with taxis, mini-buses, and hordes of children neatly dressed in school uniforms heading home.

Kareem and Mustapha will return to the train station where their parents sell coffee and tea the same way they always do, Kareem says, by hopping onto the back of a passing truck and clinging to its sides.

When a visitor offers them a lift in a passing golf cart-like vehicle called a tuk tuk, Kareem hops in. But wary Mustapha eyes the tuk tuk suspiciously then turns and disappears into the crowd.

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