Homeless after all
The Future Generation Foundation says it is harmlessly cleaning up, the slum-dwellers say they're being made homeless. Confusion, argues Hadeel Al-Shalchi, is the one consistent refrain
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"Yes to Mubarak, for life," reads the grafitti on Abu Saree's house; an old citizen watching the changes taking place at the neighbourhood; preparing for the iftar; a resident of the shanty houses; Ragab's children and their remaining furniture; some of the residents' belongings gathered in the alleyways
It's mid-afternoon, and a hint of the winter to come sweeps through the neighbourhood of Old Agouza. A fresh breeze picks up dust from the ground, sprinkling the hair of the children screaming as they skip around the latest addition to their neighbourhood: two medium-sized, white buildings with teal shutters: the Future Generation Foundation's first residences. Walking through the neighbourhood, it's hard to believe this is actually a slum, full of shanty homes and some of the poorest people in Cairo. Cleaning efforts are in full swing as scrawny Upper Egyptians in orange suits sweep and collect the dust -- in vain -- bearing abuse from supervisors and dodging the water sprays of a monster cleaning truck. It muddies the ground and dirties the courtyard even more. Banging and hammering sounds echo on and on while a white tent is erected in front of this new building. Overweight women lean over their windowsills in nightgowns to watch. The white material of the tent flaps in the breeze; men carry burgundy chairs and carpets inside, hauling chandeliers up to the ceiling.
Two weeks ago at Agouza, everyone was getting ready to host Gamal Mubarak for an iftar during the last week of Ramadan, part of the gathering organised by the Future Generation Foundation (FGF). The FGF was established in 1998 under the auspices of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, with the goal of upgrading community development in Cairo's new satellite cities. Funded by the government, the private sector and personal donations, the organisation boasts seven buildings across Cairo as well as health and community development centres. In 2003, the organisation's focus shifted to the slums where it was felt that much work needed to be done. According to FGF itself, Old Agouza was chosen as the pilot project specifically because it has spare land on which to build new houses, not to mention that, with a population of no more than 800, it was deemed manageable.
Studying the preparation efforts from behind the FGF buildings, outside their mud home, Magdi Abu Saree', 28, and his sister-in-law sit, their heads in their hands, not sure what to make of all the banging and hammering. Their dirty, dilapidated houses used to be painted green, but graffiti is now sprawled across their façades; it reads, "Yes to Mubarak. We pledge allegiance to Mubarak." They know the people now living in the shiny new building all owned shanty homes like theirs, homes that were demolished. But almost as many families are now spending the night on the street, with their furniture either destroyed, stored away or hidden by other family members. "I have no idea what's happening," says Magdi. "I don't know if we'll get a new home or not; they don't tell us anything. I just want them to remember Allah when they come for us."
The FGF began work in the slum of Old Agouza by sending out a Health Caravan to dispense free medical check-ups, eye examinations and other services. Executive Director Mireille Nessim says the foundation took the opportunity to collect information on the inhabitants. Social workers entered homes and recorded the requirements of people; the foundation also consulted the governorate's database of real estate ownership. By 2005, construction of the two buildings started alongside some community development work -- a programme called Girls' Dreams, for example -- at a cost of three million pounds. In October, people were moved into the 35 units, with the 36 converted into a community health clinic. Once the families were in their new apartments, the old homes were swiftly demolished, the street opened up to make way for new construction.
Residents have a rather different version of the story, however, with bulldozers arriving under the protection of heavy- handed security officials to storm their neighbourhood on the second to last Saturday of Ramadan. Soldiers, police, and other officials entered homes, telling them they had an hour to collect their belongings before evacuation. Protesters were swept into a truck and taken to the police station. Khaled Ragab and his wife were told to come out to meet the governor. They were to sign forms of their new apartment contract, but they were transported, along with their three young children, to the Agouza Police Station. "We sat there for three days," Ragab recounts. "They didn't do anything to us, but we had no idea what was going on. We came home to find our house demolished; our neighbours had to hide our furniture and belongings."
Their stuff now sits in two wagons in the alleyway. Broken bits of couch, chairs, tables and chests of drawers already past their prime piled on top of each other. Mohamed and his family are now staying with his mother-in- law -- in a one-bedroom mud hut with a queen-sized bed and a broken TV. Dozens of flies curtain the dank, crammed hallways and the stench of overcooked lentils lingers in the air. "The clothes on me right now -- that's all I own. I'm so depressed, I get no sleep," Ragab says, his eyes bloodshot. "I haven't gone to work in a week and all I do is try to sleep because I can't get any sleep during the night; it's just too crowded in this house."
Nessim admits there could have been "a brutal reaction" to protests by the police, but explains that apartments were only given to people who were known to be residents of Old Agouza: "When people found out that new apartments were being handed out, some of those who have houses elsewhere moved back to this area to claim a new apartment." Nessim said the FGF investigated and was told by community leaders that many of those complaining of being thrown out were not in fact residents of Old Agouza and had moved in after hearing about the new buildings. "In whose interest would it be to have these people living on the streets?" Nessim defends herself. "My NGO is in the business of housing... We worked to find out these people's needs... Logically why would we leave these people on the street?"
Shibreen Mohamed Ahmed, a mechanic who lives in Ard Al-Liwa, says his family now sleeps on the street because the family home in Old Agouza has been destroyed. On the morning of the iftar preparations, he couldn't find his furniture -- nor, for that matter, his aunt. He says he thinks she was taken to the police station but has no way of finding out, and complains that there are many people in the new buildings that he knows who own apartments in other parts of Cairo, like Qattameya, where many were given apartments after the 1992 earthquake. Ahmed says bulldozers came and "cleaned up" the street. "I just want to sit with the FGF, and ask them about what is going on here. I don't mind being cleaned up, I just want to know what's going on." Many families disappeared overnight, he says, in preparation for the iftar.
According to Nessim, the only thing they could do is to push the governor to listen to the grievances of those claiming they were thrown out. "But if the governorate finds out some people actually own apartments in other places in Cairo, or do not actually live in this area... that's not in my control," says Nessim. With all the commotion that went on the day of the iftar, a resident like Magdi Abu Saree' at least still has a roof over his head. In front of him stand the two beacons of hope he wakes up to each morning, while homes continue to be floored all around. When his turn comes, he won't know beforehand. And until the day a man in a bulldozer tells him to leave.