Society’s permissive attitude to domestic abuse is also a contributing factor to a child’s decision to run away. There are laws to deal with abusive parents, and hotlines to report them. But in a culture where many feel parents should have the right to deal with their children how they like, legislation isn’t always followed. “A man could beat his son to death in front of a police officer in the street,” explains Shaimaa, an in-house psychologist at Hope. “But nobody would intervene because it was his son.”
As a result, the street may literally become the only avenue left to abused children. And once there they become fair game for adults other than their parents.
It is 9.30pm and long past dark. Shaimaa, the psychologist, is in northeast Cairo, walking the streets of an upmarket suburb. Wealthy locals sip coffee at tables lining the pavements, or queue to buy ice cream from one of the city’s fanciest parlours.
But Shaimaa is not here to meet them. As she often is, Shaimaa is searching for a missing teenager. Sarah was abused by her parents, became a prostitute, and ended up sold by her pimp to men from the Gulf who kept her in a flat in Cairo. Somehow she escaped, and later started turning up at a drop-in centre, where Shaimaa first met her. But now Sarah has disappeared again, and Shaimaa wants to find her. Some of the other street girls said she might be here in Korba.
It is often dangerous work, doing what Shaimaa does. Founded in 1988 by an expat Brit, Richard Hemsley, Hope Village now runs several day-centres and long-term shelters that aim to gradually rehabilitate street children back into mainstream society. Many of the girls Shaimaa coaxes into the shelters can’t stand the imposition of a routine – so, like Sarah, they sometimes disappear. One of Shaimaa’s jobs is to find them.
But finding them is tough. Coaxing a girl back to the shelter might disrupt a prostitution ring. In any given area, Shaimaa needs the blessing of the local street leader – otherwise she might get attacked. “If I’m going out to get a girl that I know is being used by a group of men, then I’m a target,” Shaimaa says. “I’m taking a source of income from them.”
Sometimes the attackers come to the shelters themselves. At one drop-in centre, four men once entered with machetes and said if a certain girl wasn’t returned to them, they’d cut everyone’s heads off.
And, occasionally, the threat comes from the girls themselves. In a fit of self-loathing, one teenager staying at a shelter stormed out of a group meeting, took out a blade and began to cut herself, slashing Shaimaa when she came near. As a matter of course, Shaimaa and her colleagues at Hope Village have bi-annual check-ups and immunisations against various diseases. Some of the girls they work with are HIV positive, or suffer from hepatitis C.
In such a thankless job, many of those who work at Hope Village have particular memories that keep them motivated. For Shaimaa, it is the image of one of her first patients: a nine-year-old who came to a drop-in centre after being gang-raped on the street.
“All these years later, that girl is still what keeps me going,” says Shaimaa, who thought the job wasn’t for her until she saw the nine-year-old playing at the centre. “I can’t forget her sitting so innocently on the swing as she was still bleeding from the rape.”
Madeleine Kulab grew up by Gaza’s glistening blue sea, watching the waves crash into the strip’s 25-mile Mediterranean coastline. But at 13, when her father, who suffered from a form of palsy, could no longer fish, Kulab took the helm and became her family’s breadwinner.
Now 21, she says becoming Gaza’s first and only fisherwoman was not easy, both because she is a women and because she lives in a society whose dysfunctional relationship with Israel takes a daily toll. “Even the sea isn’t free here,” Kulab says. “People always looked at me and teased or scolded my dad … they didn’t take me seriously. But we ignored them.”
Today, one year after last summer’s war with Israel in which 2,100 Palestinians were killed — most of them civilians — vast devastation can still be seen across the Gaza Strip’s scarred landscape.
For many, Gaza is a cemetery of aspirations never realized. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world — home to about 1.8 million Palestinians, roughly a third of whom live in UN-funded refugee camps. The territory is riddled with poverty and its local economy strangled by a blockade which Israel imposed in 2007 to weaken the Islamist Hamas government.
UN figures show about 80 percent of the population receives aid.According to the World Bank, unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the world at 43 percent. Youth unemployment hovers over 60 percent. Few ever obtain the proper permits to travel through the territory’s tightly controlled borders.
Since Israel imposed its land and sea blockade, families have suffered. On the water, if fishermen exceed a six-mile limit imposed by Israel, they risk being shot at by the Israeli Navy. “We are given small swimming zones to fish where there isn’t any good fish,” Kulab says, noting her boat has been shot at in the past. “It’s a cage.”
Zakaria Bakr, head of Gaza’s Union of Agricultural Workers, says Kulab is one of the best on the sea. “Living in Gaza taught her to be brave,” he says. “Both physically and mentally. This isn’t always easy here … few men are as strong.”