Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2008
Issue No. 896
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mother against all odds

By Serene Assir

Arwa (not her real name) was eight when she fled her home. By her own admission, she cannot remember the exact reason why she fled, though she does recall that her mother used to beat her. Soon after she made the streets of Alexandria her home, a woman old enough to be her grandmother asked her whether she wanted to live with her -- and she accepted.

"But when I turned 15 or so, I decided it was enough. I wanted to be independent," Arwa told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Though the woman had been kind to me, I knew I could not live there any longer. I fled for a second time, making the streets of Cairo my home this time."

For four years, she survived on the streets "like all the other girls do. Sometimes we sell handkerchiefs, other times we beg, it all depends." As is the case with most children who spend time on the streets, she was also quick to make friends with other children. "We find safety in being with each other, and though we sometimes fight, the fact is that we become each other's family," Arwa said.

Also like many other street girls, Arwa faced violent abuse, including sexual abuse. Quietly, she tells of how she was once raped by a group of four young men who kidnapped her and kept her locked inside a flat for days.

"But it was not this suffering that broke my heart the worst," she said. "I fell in love with a young man, who seemed to be so wonderful to me. I moved in with him; we married secretly and lived together in a room which he rented. It is with him that I became pregnant with my daughter."

And although to begin her life with her new love was good, it turned sour when "he started to beat me. At first it was infrequent, but then it became too much to bear." Pregnant, she ran away, hoping she could somehow find safety elsewhere for herself and for the child she was soon to give birth to.

While she was always tough enough to brave the worst on the streets, "when you're pregnant it's another story altogether. I felt weak all the time. When you live on the streets, you sleep during the day because at night you need to be alert. But that was so hard to keep up when I was pregnant. I was falling asleep all the time. I couldn't take care of myself like I used to. It was simply too dangerous."

It was then that Arwa decided to seek shelter for herself and her unborn child. She found safety at one of the many centres for street children in Egypt and gave birth to her baby just over a year ago. "Of course I miss the streets sometimes. One could say the street is my childhood home. Sometimes it's difficult for me to adjust. But I know it is the best thing for my daughter to be here, and not out where anything could happen to us," she said.

Arwa admitted she has a long way to go before her life is to her liking. "I believe so deeply in love. I want to find the right man to be with, to marry and to raise my daughter with. We can't stay at the shelter forever. Maybe if I find love, I will be happy," she said. "And I will be able to give my daughter the love I lacked so badly."

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