Egypt’s homeless children hit hard by pandemic scourge

A social worker shows a homeless child the proper way to use a face mask inside one of the mobile units run by the Egyptian authorities in Cairo’s Abbasia district. (AFP)
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Updated 23 July 2020

Egypt’s homeless children hit hard by pandemic scourge

  • The novel coronavirus, which has killed nearly 4,000 people and infected around 83,000 more in Egypt

CAIRO: Wandering Cairo’s bustling streets, Zeinab was struggling to survive by selling tissues when the coronavirus left her even more vulnerable, along with thousands of other homeless people and street children.

The only good news was that, amid the pandemic fears, physical violence against the destitute has declined, Zeinab told AFP at a mobile shelter for the poor in Abbassiya, a working-class district.

“People attack us less because they are afraid,” she said.

But with fewer people in the streets, “we have less work and less money,” added the young woman, while keeping an eye on her 1-year-old son, Abdallah.

Young people and children who roam the streets are among the poorest and are regularly exposed to verbal, physical and sexual violence and exploitation.

The novel coronavirus, which has killed nearly 4,000 people and infected around 83,000 more in Egypt, has compounded their vulnerability, as the country battles an economic downturn and access to support is reduced due to lockdown measures.

“They are isolated, the population at large avoids them ... and their meagre income has been hit hard,” said Youssef Bastawrous, manager of the French civil society group Samusocial International, which works with street children in Egypt.

In 2014, authorities estimated Egypt had around 16,000 youngsters and children living rough on the streets.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) believes this a massive “underestimation” of actual numbers, said its communications head in Egypt Jonathan Crickx.

The problem of compiling reliable figures on street children is compounded because many are from families long trapped in poverty and without stable housing who may not be listed in civil status registries.

In 2016, Egyptian authorities launched the national program “Atfal bala ma’wa” (Children Without a Home) with the aim of “integrating” street children and helping them “abandon street behavior,” said Mohamed Shaker, head of the program at the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

The program deploys 17 mobile units throughout the country, providing a place to rest, food and games as well as medical, social and psychological support to street children.

“The aim is to build a relationship with the homeless children and help them build trust between each other,” said Salma Ismail, communications officer at a nongovernmental group Bannati.

At the Abbassiya mobile unit, Karim tentatively approached and grabbed a snack on offer.

He said he was 12 years old but staff cautioned that most of the children who use the services do not know, or prefer not to disclose, their real ages.

Karim said he sleeps in a local park and earns his living by cleaning car windshields.

He said he was attending a public school before authorities shut them down in late March as part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

“I come here to play,” Karim told AFP. “I miss school.

“Since it has been closed, I have forgotten everything. Before, I used to learn how to read and count.”

The economic impact of Egypt’s lockdown measures has stretched already overextended aid offered to street children.

With the financial crunch, some charities have concentrated efforts on health and sanitation to help children protect themselves against the disease.

“We make them aware of health issues, we distribute masks and explain to them how to wash their hands,” said Samusocial International’s Bastawrous.

The lifting of a three-month curfew in late June brought some reprieve for street children, who could again sell trinkets and tissues or beg for money as people returned to cafes and restaurants.

Restrictions have also been partially lifted on mosques and churches, which have long provided sanctuary for street children.

At some mosques, the bathrooms usually used by worshippers to perform their ablutions act as a one-stop shop for the children’s hygiene needs.

UN chief urges Yemen’s Houthis to grant access to decaying oil tanker

Updated 2 min 22 sec ago

UN chief urges Yemen’s Houthis to grant access to decaying oil tanker

NEW YORK: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Yemen’s Houthis to allow an assessment team to travel to a decaying oil tanker that is threatening to spill 1.1 million barrels of crude oil off the war-torn country’s coast.
More then a month ago Houthi officials said they would agree to allow a UN mission to conduct a technical assessment and whatever initial repairs might be feasible on the Safer tanker. But the United Nations is still waiting for formal authorization.
Guterres is “deeply concerned” about the condition of the oil tanker, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday. The United Nations has warned that the Safer could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.
“He specifically calls for granting independent technical experts unconditional access to the tanker to assess its condition and conduct any possible initial repairs,” Dujarric said. “This ... will provide crucial scientific evidence for next steps to be taken in order to avert catastrophe.”
The Safer tanker has been stranded off Yemen’s Red Sea oil terminal of Ras Issa for more than five years. The UN Security Council has also called on the Houthis to facilitate unconditional access as soon as possible.