Cairo’s street children dream of a better future

A week after the revolution and Cairo is gradually absorbing the momentous change that has occurred here over the past month. Amongst the young people who packed into Tahrir Square to protest against the government, there is a sense of pride – and a little disbelief – at what has been done.

But not far from the square, in the lively streets that surround the spectacular Sayyeda Zeynab mosque, a very different group of young people gather. They are Cairo’s street children, desperately poor and incredibly vulnerable.

They too took part in the protests in Tahrir Square, attracted by the festival atmosphere and lure of a free meal, as well as the chance to register their discontent with the way they are treated.

Now they are hoping that in the so-called “new Egypt”, life will improve for them. “I want a president who will be kind to us, someone who can feel the suffering of the people,” says Mohamed, a smiling boy wearing a head-band in the colours of the Egyptian flag.

He says he is fourteen, but he looks much younger, and estimates he has been living on the streets for five or six years, cleaning cars to eke out a living after his father beat him so badly that he fled the family home.

Danger all around

Children like Mohamed face enormous challenges. Alone on the streets they are vulnerable to commercial and sexual exploitation; Save the Children has confirmed reports of girls as young as thirteen giving birth. Many use drugs as a way of escaping the grinding realities of life on Egpyt’s streets.

All the children I meet here say they were caught up in the violence that erupted during the protests. Karim, who doesn’t know how old he is, but says he has lived on the streets for the past 11 years, tells me how his friend, Ismail, was shot dead during the demonstrations.

“He was just walking up Khairat Street and was hit by a bullet,” he says. “I heard that the whole country was in trouble, that everyone was dying, and I thought I was going to die.”

Living in the shadows

There are an estimated 50,000 children living on the streets of Cairo, though no-one knows the exact figure. They are a lost generation, locked out of basic services like education and healthcare because they are not registered with the authorities.

None of the children I speak to have an official ID or a birth certificate and because proving their identity is difficult, it is next to impossible for street children to register themselves with the government.

But without identification, they are subject to suspicion, regular arrest, and are effectively condemned to a life living in society’s shadows, scraping a living in any way they can.

Ask them what they want from the future, and their answers are humbling in their simplicity.  “I hope that one day I can get an ID, a birth certificate, a place to live and a family,” says Karim. When set against the lofty ideals of the Egyptian uprising, his dreams don’t seem too much to ask.

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