Ever since I’ve known Egypt, I’ve seen street beggars and street children. Story after media story has been written about them locally and internationally. They are so commonplace most of us don’t give them a second thought. The children come from broken homes, or have run away from home, or are kidnapped from home, or are simply used by their parents and extended families as a source of income. There are large gangs of beggars in Egypt. It’s an underground society. I remember an Egyptian movie made about them in the 70s or 80s that depicted beggars who played the role of a deformed person in need of money during the day who went home to a nice, fully furnished apartment in the evening.
In Egypt, we know all about the beggars and their underground society. Yet we continue to indulge them. And they are allowed to roam our streets freely.
My current bout of road rage – Cairo traffic can bring that out of the best of us – had temporarily blinded my conscious self to these everyday scenes on our streets. As I’d drive through the streets of Cairo all I’d see in front of me were idiot drivers and meaningless bottlenecks and that little space just ahead of me that needed to be filled by my car so I could get that much closer to my destination.
Recently, I’ve been training myself to calm down while driving. I leave my house in the morning as early as possible to avoid the worst of the morning traffic jam and leave work before anyone else to avoid the worst of the afternoon traffic jam. While I drive, I put on some music and I might make a few phone calls – hands off the phone – to pass the time away. I’ve also been appreciating what happens around me more.
For the past three weeks, I’ve become more conscious of the street beggars. I started noticing that some of them are always on a particular corner at a particular time of day. I then started noticing that a couple of the women had sleeping children with them all the time. After driving past them a few days, it struck me as odd that these women always wore face veils, the children were always fast asleep, and the children’s faces were always covered with a small sheet or a hat.
I have seen this all over Cairo for as long as I can remember. But I’ve never really seen it. I found myself asking why these children are always asleep. They are always asleep. Every single day. And it hit me. These children must be drugged so that the women holding them don’t have to deal with the hassle of an active – or perhaps even objecting – child. And the women have children with them because it makes them look more needy. And many of these women cover their faces so that they cannot be recognized. And the faces of the children could very well be covered because they could also be recognized, which could mean that they are kidnapped.
When this thought occurred to me, I looked more closely at a “mother-child” team I saw every morning while driving to work. Under the Nasr El Din Bridge in the beginning of Haram Street I always see a face-veiled woman pushing a child in a wheel chair. The child, from his size, looks to be 5 or 6 years old. He is always asleep. Always dressed in a long, dirty white galabiya. His face is always covered with a blue cap. Upon closer inspection from my car window, the child is completely limp. He is not sleeping a normal sleep. He is also deathly thin. Deathly thin. And the only part of his face I ever see, his mouth, is open in a crooked, awkward sort of way. When I started noticing the child, I began to wonder if he wasn’t already dead. The only reason why this can’t be possible is that his body would have started rotting by now and would be worthless to the woman using him.
For two days, all I could think was that this child was kidnapped from his parents and is being drugged so that this woman could use him to beg. Or he might just have the worst mother in the world. Regardless, this was a child in trouble. And I was driving past him every single morning and doing nothing.
But what could I do? I briefly thought that I could jump out of my car, grab the child, and speed away to a hospital with him. But I knew that would only get me into trouble with the beggar gangs or with the authorities. Besides, what happens after I get him to a hospital? How do I make sure he’s properly treated? Where does he go afterwards for childcare?
I started Facebooking and tweeting to ask people what one should do when one sees a child in trouble. I learned, from friends in-the-know and from people I don’t know who work in NGOs that deal with street children, that children in Egypt are indeed kidnapped, rented out, and drugged for the purpose of begging. It seems everyone knows this.
A government hotline exists in Egypt for children in trouble. The number is 16000. I called them and reported the drugged child of Haram Street. They told me they would inform one of the NGOs they work with and that the matter would be followed up. I was given a report number so I could follow up. A day and a half later nothing had yet been done. They were still unsure of the location I had mentioned the “mother-child” team was working at. I explained it to them again in detail. It’s a main road. Anyone living in Giza knows it.
When I asked them what their plan of action was, I was told that a social worker would approach the woman to verify my complaint. This did not make much sense to me. You’d be tipping her off, I told them. She’ll know you’re on her track and she’ll disappear from that location and we’ll have lost our chance to save the child. I was told the social workers have their “special ways” of speaking with these people that doesn’t scare them off. And that if it is verified that this child is indeed in trouble, they’ll then take the next action necessary, and that would be sending a police team into the area to “crash” the beggar gang of the Haram area.
I have no experience in this area. None whatsoever. So I cannot claim to know more than the social workers do. But their logic worries me endlessly. The woman needs to be caught red-handed with the drugged child. She’s standing there, for God’s sake, for the whole world to see. She can’t be picked up without the police, though. And if she’s tipped off, she’ll move to another location. They do that all the time. And I’ll have lost this child. I’ll have lost this chance to save him.
Yesterday, while I drove by them, a big army tank was driving right behind me. 50 meters ahead of the woman was a traffic officer. Thousands of cars passed by them every day. And no one was doing anything to save the child.
I began thinking: what if, God forbid, a child of mine was kidnapped and then drugged and used for begging purposes. How would I feel if it came to my knowledge that his kidnapper was out in the public eye, protected by the army, the police, and the complacency of thousands and thousands of onlookers, using my drugged child for begging? I would die. I would literally die if I knew this.
I spoke with the traffic officer that always stands 50 meters away from the woman and the drugged child. “That child is definitely drugged!” I told him. “Please save him,” I begged. He simply told me that he had spoken with the woman before, telling her that pushing a child on a wheelchair in the midst of traffic was dangerous, but that she was a very rude woman and there was nothing more he could do. He then waved his hand at me to move along because I was holding up traffic.
I’ve thought about walking into a police station and asking for their help. But even during Mubarak’s regime when the police were actually out on the streets they never did anything. Now, it’s much worse. Egypt’s police have been throwing a hissy fit for 1.5 years because they were undermined by the Egyptian people on January 28, 2011 when they began shooting at and killing unarmed protesters. Barf on them. Barf, barf, barf on them and their perpetual uselessness.
I’ve been praying to God, night and day, to help me save this child. This one child. God, please help me save this one child. If this child is eventually taken away from this woman, he will require drug rehabilitation. He will require nutrition. He will require an education. He will require guidance. He will require a lifetime of counseling and help. We don’t have a proper system in Egypt to do this. There are attempts. I’ll acknowledge this. There are NGOs that are doing what they can to support and sometimes save children on the streets. But it’s hardly enough. And without a strong security force on the ground it’s almost futile. Almost.
This morning I drove past the same spot earlier than I normally do. Since I’ve called the hotline, I’ve hoped not to find them, thinking it could mean the child was saved, and at the same time hoped to see them there, because that would mean the woman was not yet tipped off and that I could still see that the child was alive. They were not there. It could simply be because it was too early in the morning. Or it could mean that the woman knows that someone is on her trail. Or it could mean that something was actually done.
God, please save this child and the abused children of Egypt. God, please save the children. Please.