Azza Abdelhamid’s Pioneering Work to Enhance the Quality of Life for Egyptian Orphans

Saturday May 20, 2017
By: Jaylan ElShazly

15301309_10154597184752891_1584077110_nAzza Abdelhamid, started her journey to serve the community and care for underprivileged children more than 20 years ago. In 1997, she founded Nida Society for the rehabilitation of children with sensory communication disorders and served as the chairperson for over a decade. Because of her efforts, over one thousand children with hearing impairment disorders have been integrated in mainstream education.

After 10 years working as a volunteer for Nida, Abdelhamid founded Wataneya Society for the Development of Institutional Homes “Orphanages”, the first NGO in Egypt to develop, apply and advocate for the Quality Standards for Alternative Care. Wataneya, which she also manages, has successfully participated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity to mandate the Quality Standards of orphanages nationwide.

Abdelhamid’s vision, pioneer solutions and contributions in the humanitarian field won her the Takreem Award for Humanitarian and Civic services in 2016.

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WOE: Can you give us a brief overview of what happens to the orphans after they enter into the system and how they transition into life outside the institutions, once they come of age?
AH: The journey of orphans, or children and youth without parental care, as they are formally called, is challenging. It starts with the initial trauma caused by the child’s separation from their biological mother due to poverty or loss of one or both parents, which leaves a profound impact on them. Children whose parentage is not known are first registered at a police precinct. All children are then transferred to a home run by the Ministry of Health. They live in these homes until the age of two, after which they are transferred to the institutional home – i.e. orphanage – where they would stay long term.

Forced to leave their foster mothers in the first home is yet another traumatizing experience. Fortunately, a recent change in legislation reduced the duration of stay at the initial home to only 3 months. According to the Egyptian Child Law, males stay in institutional homes until the age of 18, after which some are able to stay in half-way houses run by the home they grew up in, however not all homes are able to provide such support. Females stay in institutional homes until they get married.

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WOE: What are the standards for institutional homes that you are trying to implement?
AH: The international standards have 5 main pillars, the building and facilities, staffing, management and administration, professional practices and child care. In Egypt, we added a 6th pillar for child protection. One of the components of these standards that I would like to underscore is the children’s ability to determine their own path in life, and ensure that caregivers do not curb the children’s ambitions because they believe a certain education level or profession is not ‘good enough’. This unfortunately tends to happen often with orphans.

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WOE: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that the Egyptian society faces when it comes to orphans?
AH: One of the biggest challenges we face is with the caregivers and employees of institutional homes who often lack the professional training and skills to deal with children. Most of them come from rural areas and they bring with them a different culture and mindset, which negatively impact the children.

Another challenge we face is our society’s conflicting treatment of orphans. While orphans and donors are celebrated and cherished, parents often refuse to let orphans attend the same schools or interact with their children. Orphans wanting to marry non-orphans are often faced with blunt refusal. The society also tends to be ruthless and less forgiving when orphans make mistakes, not to mention that some caregivers feel ashamed of their profession. This, I find, to be a real shame, since we should honor such profession and give them the recognition they deserve.

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WOE: What are the most common misconceptions about orphans and institutional homes in Egypt that you would like to correct?
AH: Perhaps the most common misconception is that orphans growing up in institutional homes have behavioral problems and that they are born out of wedlock or came from broken homes. Children who are placed in orphanages are either lost children, orphans, children whose parents cannot afford to raise them, or those who are in fact born out of wedlock. We cannot hold them responsible for how they are born. The negative connotations surrounding the word orphan need to be eliminated.

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WOE: Lately, posts have been shared on social media exposing harsh treatment of orphans in some homes. How can our readers, within the context of their daily life, actively help to prevent and protect orphans form such incidents?
AH: People who witness such incidents should report them to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which has an emergency response team in place that has proven to be very efficient in dealing with these incidents. We urge people to be proactive when they see any issues with the homes they volunteer with or visit.

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WOE: Is there anything people can do to support your organization in ensuring quality standards in homes?
AH: On our Facebook page and website you can find some do’s and don’ts that will help ensure the volunteer does not affect the children negatively, an example of which is not to make promises to a child that a person is not sure they will be able to keep. People can also volunteer their skills and time to organizations like Wataneya and to homes.

It would be great if managers in companies can have internship programs to give these children the exposure and the development they need for their careers.

Finally, people can help us develop caregivers’ skills by sponsoring their training at Wataneya, which will help us ensure better care for the children in institutional homes.

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WOE: Tell us about an experience, positive or negative, that deeply affected you over the course of your work?
AH: One of the negative experiences that deeply affected me happened when I was volunteering at a home. I had been visiting the same children since they were infants. Around the age of three, I noticed their speech was slurring and found them lethargic and slow. When I inquired, I was told that they were suffering from depression and were prescribed anti-depressants, which I found deeply troubling. After this experience, I started observing homes and orphans with a more critical perspective than just of a volunteer.

Of the positive experiences that I am deeply proud of is the fact that Wataneya currently employs 3 individuals who grew up in orphanages. Nahla El Nemr, who has been featured on your Facebook page, is one of those inspiring people. It is a joy to see their dedication to improve the quality of life of orphans in Egypt, and I hope to see many more promising young men and women like them working with me.

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WOE: Lately, adoption has been emerging as a new phenomenon in Egypt. New in a sense that it is openly discussed not done clandestinely as in the old days. Kids are adopted by families and by single women. What do you think about this phenomenon? And do orphanages encourage it?
AH: The current direction is to encourage what we in Arabic call “Kafalah” meaning child fostering within the home since adoption per se is not within the religious teachings of Islam. Our current slogan is to provide a “family for every child”. But for this to happen, there need to be a cultural shift in Egypt so that families do not feel the need to hide the fact that a child is not biologically theirs. It should be something they proudly and openly share without shame or stigma.

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WOE: Can you explain to us the difference between adoption and fostering because the terms are a bit confusing to many? Where can people get more information about them?
AH: The guiding principles for fostering within the home ‘kafalah’ can be found on the website of the Ministry of Social Solidarity under the section ‘Alternative Families’. There have been several changes in legislation in recent years that have made it possible for single and divorced women to foster a child. Moreover, a comprehensive law governing this process is being developed by the Ministry.

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WOE: Can foster families give their name to the child? How does that differ from adoption?
AH: In Egypt, we currently follow a ‘Fatwa’ issued by Azhar for Muslims, which allows the fostering of a child in the home whereby they are given only the family name and retain their own given middle names. In the event of foster parent’s passing, the fostered child does not receive a share of the inheritance. However, they can be named in a parent’s will that governs one sixth of their assets according to the law. Other than these exceptions, the fostering family has all the rights and duties of the biological parents. When it comes to Christians, adoption is allowed as stipulated by the church’s rules and teachings.

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WOE: As a prominent woman in a leading role, what advice would you give our young female readers who are at the beginning of their professional journey?
AH: Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from my experience so far is to be passionate about your work. I urge all young people to find a career and a job they love. All the success that I have had with Wataneya is a result of our team’s passion for the cause. In addition to that, it is vital to persevere and have patience since achieving success does not come easily and cannot be rushed.

Finally, I cannot stress the value of hard work and dedication. No matter how small the task at hand is, one should never settle for ‘good enough’.

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WOE: Finally, what are the next goals you hope to achieve when it comes to the policies and regulations that govern orphanages and institutional homes in Egypt?
AH: I consider the accreditation of the quality standards in 2014 as the first step in a long journey. Now that we have standards to assess and measure the performance of institutional homes, our work is focused on propagating these standards so they can be applied and enforced in all homes. In addition to that, we would like to have an independent impartial institution that audits the implementation of the quality standards in institutional homes and submits the results of such audits to the Ministry of Social Solidarity for corrective actions.

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