Nobody knows for certain how many children survive on Egypt’s streets. Estimates range from 300,000 to over 1 million. But dry statistics fail to put a human face on the suffering those youngsters endure. Although they are visible in every city — wiping windshields, running through traffic in the hope of selling tissues or flowers, or huddled together braving the winter cold — they are the unseen.
That is until the plight of an 11-year-old boy was taken up by the media. His story is sadly not unusual. Abdul Rahman attracted the attention of a journalist while busking with his canine “family” — five stray dogs — in Cairo’s bustling Talaat Harb Square.
Dubbed “Dancer with Dogs,” his poignant tale of three years on the street, captured on a Youm7 video, brought viewers to tears, eliciting many to offer him financial support, and in some cases a home. The authorities pledged to track him down so he could be looked after.
The child had only ever seen a photograph of his mother when he was very young. He does not know if she is alive. He and his 9-year-old brother Mustafa lived peacefully with their father until he remarried a woman who resented her step-children and regularly beat them.
He failed to defend his sons, and ultimately caved in to their step-mother’s demands. Abdul Rahman was the first to be thrown out of the house, followed by Mustafa. Neither knew where his brother was. Worse, once they were reduced to street living, they were banished by other members of the family.
Abdul Rahman’s adopted dogs were his protectors. Whenever a kindly passer-by gave him food, no matter how hungry he was, his pals were always given precedence. They love Kentucky Fried Chicken, he says. “I always give them the good pieces, not the leftovers.”
Abandoned, beaten and robbed of a meager 360 Egyptian pounds ($20) he once managed to save, he concluded that dogs are better company than human beings. “I’m happy to live with them,” he said. “They are kind and protective.”
Abdul Rahman’s poignant tale of three years on the street, captured on a Youm7 video, brought viewers to tears, eliciting many to offer him financial support, and in some cases a home.
Linda S. Heard
At a time when it has become fashionable to bash the media, kudos must go to Youm7 for not only pricking a nation’s conscience but also changing a life. Among those who came forward to offer Abdul Rahman their patronage was the billionaire tycoon and philanthropist Ahmed Abu Hashima.
“Dancer with Dogs,” who always dreamt of becoming an artist, has new clothes, a new haircut and is going to school. The government has issued him a birth certificate, permitting him to be legally employed when the day comes for him to start work. His once-sad eyes sparkle; he has rediscovered his smile.
Most importantly, he has been united with Mustafa, who was luckier than his elder brother. He was spotted by a shopkeeper crying on the floor outside his store. The man advised him to stop crying and go home. Once he knew the child was homeless, with his wife’s consent he welcomed the boy into his own family.
The brothers will now live together. All their expenses will be covered by Abu Hashima, who described how Abdul Rahman’s story stirred feelings and reached souls. “Let it serve as a motivation for us to focus on solving Egyptian society’s most serious problems,” he wrote, adding that the most serious is the waste of youthful potential that could be of great benefit to society.
According to the NGO FACE for Children in Need, tasked with caring for orphans and street children, “about 95 percent of street children in Egypt have families or extended families, but due to reasons such as poverty, family breakdown and abuse, they are forced into homelessness.”
“Dancer with Dogs” is intelligent, articulate and compassionate. He can go far in life. But what about all the others inside and outside Egypt, each with their own unique story that never gets heard? Governments need to do more, as do all of us. Donations are always needed, but even a hot drink on a winter’s night, a pair of new shoes or kind words can make a difference.
• Linda S. Heard is an author and columnist specializing in Middle East affairs.