Living in the streets as a child may be compared to life in a harsh wilderness full of predators. I work in a Hope Village ‘reception centre’, along with three other social workers, an educator and a nurse. The centre, which is located in one of Cairo’s poorest areas, is a day-care facility for children aged between 5 and 13 that also offers a remedial programme or rehabilitation services. My typical working day is spent either in the centre, or out on the streets.
Our purpose is to become well acquainted with street children in order to diagnose their individual problems and understand why they ended up on the streets. It’s a first step towards taking them off the streets. It usually takes a long time to gain their trust, and our first encounter with them is often on the streets, where we use special vans manned by four male and female social workers, each trained in the psychology of street children, in addition to a nurse. We go to assigned locations where we set up in the street, putting up a table and chairs to create a friendly and welcoming environment.
When I spot what appears to be a street child, I’ll start a casual conversation – these children are usually suspicious of strangers asking them personal questions – and then ask them if they’ve heard of a children’s club. We never mention the word ‘centre’, because in Egyptian dialect it refers mainly to a police station or something run by the state, and that would scare them off. I explain to the kid that children like him frequent this club to shower and wear clean clothes, have a meal, play games and have fun with other children, and have the opportunity to learn new things that make them smarter. I tell them that it’s free of charge, and that there is no obligation on their part.
When the children come to the van, they are examined by the nurse for common health issues and receive any required treatment. We seat them at the table and give them a meal. This is followed by a card game or another activity, which we use to keep them engaged and collect as much information as we can. Once the children agree to visit our ‘club’, we provide them with the location, agree to pick them up the next day, or take them along with us that day.
When I’m on duty at the reception centre my work starts at nine in the morning, when we begin to receive the children. We register newcomers and keep attendance records to follow up on their individual progress. We usually receive an average of 30 boys and girls per day in each of the Hope Village centres, but if only a few of them show up, we go out to the streets to bring more. Our daily programme starts with a medical inspection, followed by a shower. At 10am we serve them breakfast, followed by a workshop in basic vocational training. At 12pm, a child is either given a literacy class – for those who cannot read and write – or joins our remedial education class, the ‘friendly school’, which is held in coordination with the National Motherhood and Childhood Institute. This programme, which may extend to two years, enables the children to one day join mainstream school.
The children take their lunch at 2pm, and around 3pm we give them informal and friendly sessions, where we educate them on the various hazards and threats they face in the streets, and how to take precautions and protect themselves. The day ends with video games and other recreational activities. Throughout the day, but mostly during the advisory session, we take every opportunity to befriend children individually for two purposes: to gain insight into their situation, and to begin their psychological rehabilitation, which is one of the most crucial steps towards their reintegration into society.
Our ultimate goal is to find a home for these children as soon as possible, using a three-tier approach. The top priority is to get the child back into the fold of his or her own family or living with a close relative. The second option is to lodge the child in one of the Hope Village shelters, which currently house 235 children. The third possibility is accommodation with one of the childcare organisations we know.
Finding a home for a child according to this plan can take months; meanwhile, many of them slip away. Though we help thousands of street children to lead a normal life, our success rate does not exceed 30 per cent.
We want to do more. We are operating on skeleton funding of around EGP1.5m ($215,000), contributed by local donors and international organisations, such as the World Bank and USAID. However we have had to turn down some international funds because they wanted us to follow their own agendas, which didn’t fit into our programmes. More than two decades of working with street children has taught us where the priorities are and where we can be most effective. We just need the tools to do the job.