I decided to focus on 14-year-old Hussein precisely because he looked more like a thug than a poor homeless child.
I was in Cairo shooting a story on Egypt’s street kids and Hussein wanted us to film him acting tough. He play-fought with other grubby children and strutted his stuff for the camera.
Hussein looked look more like a kid who would pick my pocket than break my heart. But his is a story of loss and misfortune that would devastate many twice his age.
There are between 600,000 and a million children in Egypt who either live on the street or are made to work outdoors to earn a living for their families.
According to Unicef Egypt, 17% of the population in this country live in poverty and millions have trouble meeting basic food needs. This means children are often seen as economic tools rather than rightholders who deserve care and proper schooling.
And to survive in this urban jungle, kids better be tough. They are routinely victims of physical abuse; they are made to drop out of school and beg or work long hours on streets and under bridges at an age when children should be learning and playing.
I first met Hussein in something called a “mobile health care unit.” There are only two in the whole of Cairo, operated by a small but admirable charitable organization called “Hope Village”. It’s a vehicle with a doctor and a couple of social workers handing out sandwiches. The kids are given creams to treat the type of skin disease and infection they catch from living in street slime every day.
I noticed his hands were badly burned. I asked him what happened:
“A fire,” he said laughing.
“Why is that funny?”
“Ha ha ha”.
Hussein was a tough cookie. But I’ve always liked a challenge.
As difficult as it is for boys, it’s worse – much worse – for girls. They are exposed to the worst type of violence and abuse.
“That includes everything from rape to molestation, “according to Unicef Egypt’s Simon Ingram.
And to numb the pain?
“Taking drugs like glue is like a reflex mechanism, it’s very freely available. It’s the first thing, in many cases, that they buy when they do manage to get a bit of money.”
I meet 14-year old Fatma in a dingy day shelter for girls… In the main room, social workers are helping kids pass time by stringing beads and making jewelry.. I almost trip over two girls fast asleep on the floor. I’m told it’s so dangerous for them to sleep outside at night, that some children fall from exhaustion anywhere they can during the day…
On the shelter walls, children can draw and write with crayons. I ask Fatma to write her name. She does. I write mine.
“Haala,” I say smiling, pointing at my name. She looks at me quizzickly.
“Haala,” I repeat.
Fatma, like more than 50% of Egyptian females according to a recent CIA factbook statistic, is basically illiterate.
When a social worker asks her why she ran away from home and sleeps in a bus station, she breaks into tears. Her dad is gone, her mother remarried.
“Family break-up is one of the biggest reasons kids end up on the street,” says Simon Ingram of Unicef Egypt. The father moves onto another wife and the woman cannot support herself and her children.
The problem of street kids in Egypt is not just tied to overall poverty, but a direct result of women not able to provide for a family on their own. If a man leaves, the woman is helpless. The children are a financial burden they simply cannot carry on their own.
We follow the loud and colofrul Hussein to a day shelter where young boys spend a few hours before heading out onto the streets.
I ask him to tell me more about the fire that burned his hands so badly.
He tells me there was a fire at his house when he was 7 years old. His mother, his aunt and two other family members died “one after the other in the hospital.” The same year, his father was sent to jail for ten years on drug trafficking charges. He now lives with his aunt and works on the street selling trinkets.
“Do you think about it often? The fire?” I ask him
He smiles: “It’s better not to,” he answers.
I’ve done my fair share of interviews and I know this one will stay with me for years to come. Hussein continues to smile as the memory of the fre that killed his mother creeps back into his mind. I don’t want to push it. I don’t want to make him cry. He forces himself to smile in the way people who hold back tears smile. It’s more of a grimace.
I know it took Hussein exactly four seconds to get a hold of himself because I twice counted the time down on the interview tape.
Tough Hussein doesn’t allow himself to act vulnerable for more than four seconds.
In some of the tougher neighbourhoods, we decided to film using a camcorder rather than our professional TV camera. Ashraf Abdel Monein, the Hope Village projects manager, told us it’s better not to attract too much attention, especially at night… From our car on the way back to our hotel, we’d find the same children in the exact same spots. We’re told organized gangs employ kids in prime tourist spots. A few yards from our hotel, the same two boys latched onto my car window throwing jasmin necklaces at me. One of them didn’t look older than six or seven.
We asked the government official in charge of women and childhood what was being done by authorities to help solve the problem.
Moushira Khattab told me the issue isn’t just poverty, but public perception. She says the overall Egyptian population must stop viewing these childrean as delinquents and pests, but as human beings with rights.
“We are training the police to treat them as such,” she added.
Don’t throw a 13-year old in jail for begging. Sounds obvious to some, but to others, it requires a true cultural sea change.
Khattab, who is also a UN ambassador, says she is pushing for a laws to change in Egypt. If a bill she is promoting passes, street kids will go from being “vulnerable to delinquency”, to “vulnerable to neglect”.
Before leaving Cairo, I wanted to see Hussein one last time. Armed with a camcorder, we find his trinket stand opposite the Saiyeda Zeinab mosque. He looks happy we’ve tracked him down, perhaps flattered by the extra attention we’ve given him.
Today, Hussein is a bright, funny boy with a tragic past. Where will he be in ten years?
( Inside the Middle East airs on CNN on Sunday July 2nd at 11.00 and 1730 GMT)