A child of Cairo’s streets, with a child of her own
She has a baby in her arms and another growing inside. She says she knows about love, says she found it on the streets, where boys fight with razors and a one-armed glue-huffer whispers the pretty things a girl yearns to hear before she curls and sleeps in the abandoned buildings that clutter Cairo’s heart.
Amira Osman Dakhly left the streets a few days ago, rushing past the new houses on the hill to the homeless shelter, the one with yellow walls and toddlers in the courtyard. She’ll stay, maybe until next month, or maybe until tonight. That’s the thing about Amira, she changes direction as quick as a starling in a winter sky.
But for now, the 13-year-old with the snug white blouse and gap-tooth smile will sit and talk, cracking her knuckles and squinting her eyes, narrow and thin, like shutter slats.
One of her love stories began after she quit first grade. Her mother left home to marry a rich man, and her father, a taxi driver with a drug habit, took up with women. Amira’s four sisters were divvied among family. She chose the city’s streets and alleys, wandering between broken cars and rubbish bins, pretending to be as glittery as moonlight. That’s how she felt in her new dress, the one she stole from a store a few nights before she met Ahmed, a 24-year-old waiter in a coffee shop.
“I love him,” says Amira, holding Randa, the 18-month-old daughter she had with Ahmed. “I had an affair with him four years ago. I love him because he protected me. When anybody bothered me, he’d fight for me, and when it got cold he took me into his house. I still love him. I saw him last Friday.”
There are reasons why there has been no wedding: They couldn’t afford marriage, he didn’t want to, she was too young, life plays tricks, and the streets, hard as they are, sometimes offer more comfort than a grown man’s bed.
Then there are the problems with Randa that can twist a street girl’s wiles inside out. Randa is a numberless child of a child; in the eyes of the state she doesn’t exist.
In Egypt, where Islam and tradition can intertwine at the harshest places, a single mother bumps against walls in all directions. Until 2008, the government stipulated that a child’s birth certificate and identity card could be granted only if the father signed the documents. Amended legislation allows mothers to register their children, but human rights groups say that in cases such as Amira’s, state officials are reluctant to grant birth certificates or have yet to be informed about the new guidelines.
“Our laws don’t deal with the rising phenomenon of new generations of street children,” said Adel Samei Labeeb, a social worker with the Hope Village Society, an outreach organization that helps about 9,000 homeless children a year and runs the shelter where Amira plots her next move. “Nobody knows how many street kids are in Cairo. But their numbers are growing. Every day I have a new case. Many of these street girls have no identity cards themselves, so how can they register their children?”
Street girls don’t go to “hospitals for medical care because they can get arrested. Some of them give birth on the street, under a tree or in a taxi,” said Abla El-Badry, director of the Hope Village Society. “Anyone can take the child from the girl, because she has no evidence that it is hers. These babies cannot get their vaccinations or be sent to school. . . . Egypt will face disaster in the next 10 years. The criminal rate will rise and the street will be full of children that nobody knows anything about.”
Amira sits, fixes her hijab. She rests her long hands on a table, moves them to her lap, then back to the table. She cracks a knuckle and smiles. Clerics beyond the shelter’s walls regard Amira as a stain against Islam in a country that prays five times a day. Even indifferent Cairo, a capital crowded with 17 million people, about 40% of whom live on $2 a day or less, groans at the prospect of another life born to the streets.
Amira has scars, and sometimes she hides in gardens.
A young man cut her face and arm with a knife when she was 10. He thought she was a prostitute, and when he realized she wasn’t, he got mad. Another man offered to buy one of her kidneys and sell it on the black market. He told her that young organs fetch the best prices; they aren’t damaged and can bring in about $16,000. Seems everyone wants a piece of a homeless girl. But Amira wants her kidney; just like she wants Randa and this new one pushing at her from the inside. She says they all belong to God, and you can’t sell what God has given you.
“A woman came to me once and offered 5,000 pounds for my baby” -- about $900 -- Amira says. “She said she couldn’t have children and that she’d protect my child. I refused. Once I was sleeping in a garden and someone tried to kidnap her while she was sleeping in my arms.”
Amira hasn’t slept in her own mother’s arms in years. “I never miss my mom because I hate her,” she says.
“She abandoned us to live with a rich man. She should have been content with what we had.”
Amira is not always content, either, although there was that night in her stolen dress, when she walked to Ahmed’s coffee shop and stood in the window until the waiter invited her home. “We exchanged glances,” she says, “and then he came to me and I told him that I could not find a place to sleep, so he took me to his hut and there I did it with him.”
She later became pregnant with Randa. She gave birth at the shelter. She left Ahmed and tried living in an apartment near her father, but one day she bundled her child and slipped back to the dust and grit, the noise and broken bottles of the streets, where glue fumes calm restless boys amid the smoke of grilled corn and the scents of subsidized bread.
“The streets are free,” she says. “You can come and go. I am loved by everyone on the streets. . . . We eat and sleep and go to the Arguda neighborhood, and I beg for 30 pounds. My boyfriend buys glue. I buy food.”
Her boyfriend these days is Tamir, a 19-year-old Christian Copt who lost one arm in a car accident and has a history on the street. She doesn’t love Tamir like she loves Ahmed. She likes him. He is adventure. He is her unborn baby’s father. They were married. Not a real marriage, an “urfi marriage,” a ceremony with two witnesses and a signed piece of paper, a temporary arrangement that circumvents Islamic law, like when rich sheiks from the Persian Gulf want sex partners during vacations in Egypt.
But for Amira and Tamir, it was a declaration of want and need, a way of letting other street kids know that two lives have tangled into one, and that though it may not last, it’s something to hold on to in a world of bartered kidneys and no running water.
Then Amira got mad at Tamir. Maybe it was his glue habit, maybe his wild nature. Or maybe it was because he beat her. She ripped up the false marriage paper and after a while headed to the shelter.
So she sits, cracking her knuckles beneath a Mickey Mouse dangling from a cabinet as if to say, yes, even a girl with a daughter on her hip and knife marks on her skin can still be a child. The shelter echoes with other girls, the gurgling of babies and toddlers. It is safe, she can bathe, clean her clothes, put bows in Randa’s hair.
Will she stay? Return to Ahmed? To Tamir?
The future. What can a 13-year-old homeless mother say about the future? She’d like to learn to sew, to work in a factory, to watch her children grow. But that’s just a girl talking like a woman.
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.
Previous Column One articles are available online.