By Jill Carroll, Christian Science Monitor
Published: February 23, 2008, 01:05
Cairo: 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 children – sleeping on streets, joining gangs for protection, underfed and covered with the filth of a city packed with 18 million people.
Then Ahmad 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.
Sayid, who works for the Al 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 organisations to reach the hordes of street children so long scorned.
New half-day centres, 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 per cent and street children have long been regarded by society and the government as little more than delinquents.
Seven years ago, only a group called Hope Village Society worked with street children in Cairo, and two groups worked in Egypt’s next biggest city, Alexandria.
Today, a dozen groups try to help. While services remain basic, they have grown rapidly in the four years since the government acknowledged the street children’s 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.
When they aren’t in the shelter, the brothers work to support their family, but at night the whole family sleeps in the street.
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 Al Alfy of General Secretary Mushira Khtab’s view.
With lobbying by the council and Unicef, Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt’s leader, agreed in 2003 to put her clout behind an effort to change the law and protect children.
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 centres for street children. Last year, four of them used Unicef funding to buy the van they drive through Cairo’s streets at night offering help to children.
By 2007, there were 24,000 visits to the half-day centres run by the five nongovernmental organisations Unicef works with, including repeat visits, says Nadra Zaki, project officer for Unicef’s child protection programme in Egypt.
Zaki says the goal now is to push through the changes to Egyptian law.
"The fact that the children are being handled by police is an abusive act," she says.
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.
But despite the dangers, many children are reluctant to leave the streets, says Zaki of Unicef. They fear abuse at home and find the street, with all its dangers, safer.
It’s Sayid’s job to try to break through that thinking. He learned to penetrate the gangs, making, he says, the necessary deals with the leaders.
He told them "leave those children 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."
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 tuk tuk, Kareem hops in. But wary Mustapha eyes the tuk tuk suspiciously and disappears into the crowd.