Originally Published at http://www.wazala.org/2012-07-egypt-blog/#February-2013
“Bayaeen” is the commonly used term in Egypt meaning a ‘seller.’ It is used to describe people who set up little shops on the streets, on carts, on the metro system, in the entries to buildings, corners of intersections, or beggars who sell small items. As the Egyptian economy has stumbled and slipped over the past two years, the number of bayaeen in Cairo and likely other major cities have increased. Streets that used to be major roads through downtown Cairo have become shopping centers with a slow trickle of cars squeezing in and out of the pedestrians and racks of clothing being sold. Although illegal, this informal economy is currently thriving.
Omar Salah was one of these many Egyptians who has survived life in a city of 20 million through this informal economy. He, however, was 10 years old, and likely working to help support his family. His job was to sell sweet potatoes off a car to passersby and protesters in Tahrir Square, until just a few days ago when he was shot dead by a military policeman. His body was hid behind the American Embassy, but later delivered to the police station. The Ministry of Interior announced the ‘accidental’ killing of a ‘seller’ but failed to say that he was shot twice accidentally and failed to mention that he was ten years old. Of course his identity remained unknown for days as many of these kids on the streets do not have identification or birth certificates. He was finally identified when his family discovered his cart in Tahrir, traced him to the police station, and identified his body in the morgue. Up until now, this is most of the information I have found on his case.
Another innocent life gone. Another family devastated. A child, killed.
Egypt is home to tens of thousands of street children, with some estimates close to 3 million. In a UNICEF survey in 2000, 86% of the participants identified violence as a major problem and in another survey 50% had been exposed to some form of rape. I give these facts to show that as devastating as Omar’s story is, he is actually one of many horrifying stories.
Recently, lawyers and activists have reported that over 120 minors have been arrested off the street and sent to adult detention centers where they were physically, emotionally and sexually abused in one way or another. Laws that exist for these kids protection are frequently violated, and often times the kids’ greatest enemy are the enforcers of the law themselves.
After hearing endless stories of abuse, rape, violence, and aggression against these children, I cannot help but wonder why. Are they so much of a pest that the Egyptian security forces must try to stamp them out? Even the trash on the street is left alone.
When you talk to these kids, when you sit with them, when you buy a bottle water from them off the street, you see the core heartbeat of humanity. They smile, they play, they breathe and live, but they are a portion of society that is a constant target and a daily victim. I feel a fool to grieve the difficulty in my life when I just stop and think that he is still sitting on that corner without a hope in the world, or that she is always afraid that she will get raped again. I scream and shout and protest against the harassment I receive on a daily basis, but I forget that no one is screaming for them. I forget that the victories we win for women’s rights, in fact, any social or political victory, even if tiny, we gain in this ongoing revolution will not apply to those children. May God have mercy.
However, this too is only the tip of the iceberg. If we took a few moments to look at our schools and education system, the ways we raise our children and the values they receive, female genital mutilation, child marriages, child labor…we would see the how damaging our society is for our children and youth. Think about these 3 million street children, who are subjected to violence, rape, poverty, and fear on almost a daily basis. It is no wonder we have thugs, crime, gang rapes, and sexual violence on our streets. We are stuck in a perpetual cycle of violence.
I do not want to end this on a negative note, despite the fact that many of the activists, social workers and lawyers are exhausted trying to keep track of the violations and the abuses against children and generally in the society. The hope lies in the small victories; the children who make it to shelters, the children released from prisons, the media that holds the police and the society accountable for their crimes. A long road is ahead of us, and a lot of work is needed, but to stop now would only add onto the wrongs our society does to it’s children.