Farah El-Akkad goes back to basics
“I, Nadia Fahmi, a 24-year-old Egyptian graduate in English literature, being perfectly sane and in my right mind, declare that I will continue to educate street children and will do my utmost to support them in becoming productive individuals until the day I die.”
It is with this declaration that Fahmi starts telling us about how she came to start working with street children, and how the kids had been drawn to her in the first place.
Like many Egyptian youth, Fahmi could not immediately find a job after graduating. At the same time, she could not help but notice that more and more street children were congregating in the square across from her home in Maadi. “My frustration grew each time I saw these children,” she says. “I wanted to do something about it.” At first, she has simply informed the NGOs that worked with street kids about the issue in the neighbourhood. But it soon became obvious to her that this was not enough. After all, even when the NGOs did intervene, the kids would usually end up back on the streets again before too long. So last September, Fahmi decided the time had come to take action herself.
“After giving it some thought, I decided that the first step was to find a way of attracting the children to me,” Fahmi confides. Children, after all, are children, no matter how much circumstances may alter their looks or influence their behaviour. There are always glimmers of childhood to be glimpsed behind the scars and the outward bravado. So Fahmi set about grabbing their attention by going out to paint in the square.
“I’ve always had a great passion for painting,” she tells us, “and I am really good at it.” So she set up camp in the garden on her square. “I just took all my painting tools and started drawing”. After a while, the children noticed her and were intrigued by what she was doing. It only took about a week for them to befriend her. Fahmi would give them sweets and balloons, and also brought them paints to use themselves. “They became really close to me. We started to paint together, and they were very proud of what they learned to do,” she adds.
The next step was to introduce numbers and letters from the Arabic alphabet into her paintings. “Their response was outstanding,” she declares. “They showed marvellous signs of intelligence and were very fast learners”. However, Fahmi still had one potential obstacle to confront — the children’s parents. Her neighbours were constantly telling her that her initiative would get her in trouble sooner or later, either with the parents of the children, or with “those who exploit them”. Indeed, many predicted she would find herself harassed, and the bond she had forged with the children would be broken.
“Many people told me that it would be best to let an NGO deal with the children, now that I’d put them on the right track, and that my role was over,” Fahmi recounts. But despite these warnings, she refused to follow this advice and, instead, trusted her instincts. After an experiment with making a Facebook page (which turned out to be a huge flop), Fahmi decided to go out and directly engage others in the project, on her own terms. “So many initiatives have been going on to support street children, but I wanted to do something different, something unique — something where the children willingly choose to take part.” So Fahmi started promoting the project to her family and close friends. The results were exceptional. “My friends told their friends, and they told others,” she recalls. Soon, the circle around her had grown to involve more than 100 volunteers, working with some 84 street children.
Fahmi’s motto for her project is borrowed from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. She and her team have managed to rent a garage where volunteers can teach the children the Arabic alphabet and basic mathematics, as well as running sessions devoted to art, music and movies. And the project is still growing: “I am getting a lot of support now from different NGOs, as well as many volunteers, and we are looking to expand the project by including computer lessons.” Professional psychiatrists and psychologists have also offered to help counsel those children who have been subject to violence. Fahmi stresses that her work is completely self-funded, with most of the financial support coming from close friends and relatives. She is currently in the process of forming an NGO that will be named, “We Make Our Own Destiny”. For once the name seems well deserved, for her own story is the perfect example of the spirit she seeks to inspire in others.