Wednesday August 14 2019 By: May Allam
Hanna Aboulghar’s childhood dream was to become a pediatrician. After graduating from medical school, she established her own practice and has been passionate about treating children since. Her passion to help children grew after she came across an article in a newspaper about a child living in the street who sought warmth under a truck, to end tragically under its wheels.
This tragic accident propelled her heavy activism in the field of children in street situations, and those who have been deprived from parental care. She worked for many years in an organization that dealt with this issue, and later co-founded Banati Foundation, an NGO that provides shelter, healthcare, social and psychological support and education, amongst other activities for girls in street situations.
Banati (My Girls) Foundation shelters more than 250 girls, and reaches out to thousands in need through Banati daily care center and its mobile unit.
Hanna also does research on parenting, child psychology, and the core components of childhood and upbringing. She writes articles about the topic amongst other ones, raising awareness about the most stigmatized issues.
WoE: As a pediatrician, how do you find the health of the girls living in the streets?
Hanna Aboulghar: The physical health of girls on the street varies according to their age and how long they’ve been on the street. I co-published a paper in Cairo University Medical Journal 15 years ago, looking at 100 girls in street situations, and the incidence of all these disorders were high: malnutrition, infectious diseases, skin diseases, respiratory disorders such as asthma and other pollution related illness, gynecological infections and health problems related to teenage pregnancy, as well as accidents; falling from heights, traffic accidents, electrocution, etc.
WoE: Where and what kind of medical care do you offer these girls? Do you also give them advice on health and nutrition?
HA: Elbasma Clinic, established in 2007, is the first clinic devoted to children in street situations. It is located in and part of the Center for Social and Preventive Medicine CSPM, Cairo University. It was an initiative by myself, being a Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Director of CSPM at the time. It has been functioning since then, with access to all hospital facilities and with a staff of doctors and nurses trained by the MDM (Medicin du Monde) on protocols of management for these children.
Children are either treated from all physical and mental health ailments at this clinic, or we refer them to specialists at Cairo University. This includes treatment of malnutrition. In addition, we raise their awareness to proper nutrition, advise them about healthy low cost solutions they can find in the street, instead of the processed snacks. This awareness is presented at Banati reception center to both the young mothers and girls living on the streets and to those living with us at the Haram city and Imbaba shelters.
WoE: Do you have prominent sponsors for “Banaty” from inside or outside Egypt?
HA: We have national donors like Sawiris foundation, foreign donors with legal permit to work in Egypt like Drosos, Plan International and others. We also cooperate with corporate and development bodies like the Corporate Social Responsibility Department (CSR) of Vodafone, Gourmet and Rotary Zayed, and many others. In addition, we depend on individual donors who make up a rising percentage of our income and whom we hope to invest more time and effort in communicating with and expanding.
WoE: Would further media exposure enhance more sponsors?
HA: Media exposure in a positive way, presenting our girls’ strengths and success stories is good. We try not to compromise their confidentiality or make them re-live hardships. The more people become aware of the problem and understand that these girls didn’t ended up in this situation by choice, but because they suffered greatly before they met their fate on the streets; The more they would support the cause, including support of Banati, and of course of they would change the way they treat children on the street in general.
WoE: At Banati, you also teach the girls English. How did that come about? How is that affecting their learning process?
HA: We teach the children English as part of their curriculum at school. We provide support classes run by teachers and volunteers in certain subjects mainly Arabic, English and Maths. I personally think English is hard for them given they don’t master the written Arabic very well. We must remember that these are girls who have been in and out of the schools many times during their lives, usually missing out on many years of education, in an education system that is already burdened with inappropriate student: teacher ratio and limited facilities.
WoE: Would the girls be able to continue their studies in public schools and universities after receiving their education at Banati?
HA: Most girls already receive their education in public schools, some get alternate forms of education at the foundation, but we try to keep them all enrolled or at least attached in a legal manner to the formal education system, to keep all their options open.
WoE: Has the foundation kept you from practicing medicine at full potential? How do you balance between the foundation and your practice?
HA: I practice medicine fully both at Cairo University where I’m a professor – I teach, see patients and share in research – and at my two private clinics in Mohandessin and Zayed and at a private hospital.
Being a Pediatrician is something I’m grateful for every day. I love my job. My work at Banati and my clinic both fuel my passion for children’s rights and welfare. The balance is hard. It’s more of “just keep going no time to stop mode”, it’s occasionally frustrating, but Banati is definitely not a single person’s work. It’s the combined effort of a Board of Trustees of seven, all with just as competitive and difficult jobs who give their time and effort, as well as a management team that’s passionate and willing to work against so many odds. Banati is also such a wonderful source of love and pride and hope that makes it worth all the frustrations.
WoE: Do some of the girls at Banati create problems?
HA: Each girl comes with a story, a family and a very unique situation. Most of them have PTSD with all its symptoms; anger, anxiety, hesitation, social problems, difficult committing etc., so of course there are problems, but solving them is the true reason we’re here at Banati.
WoE: What about dealing with the Egyptian red tape and bureaucracy, do they hinder activities of “Banati”?
HA: Dealing with paper issues, legalities and permits is never easy anywhere, but we found that when we show transparency and follow the legal procedures diligently, most issues are resolved, with minor problems.
WoE: What are the criteria for accepting the girls who live in Banati shelters?
HA: The girls who are eligible to join Banati are the ones between the ages of 7 and 18 who are at risk of or already live on the street, and have no adult in the family who seems reliable or safe to take care of them. We admit them in the shelters once we’ve done a psychological and social assessment of the girl and after securing the space and the funds for her. So, you see, many factors play a role but we try to provide our maximum all the time.
WoE: What are your dreams for “Banati” and the future of the girls?
HA: My ultimate dream is for us not to be needed, maybe one day we don’t find any girls left to serve and we could start serving elderly people instead. But since this is not going to happen soon, I wish for every girl to reach her potential. I wish for us to be able to show each girl there is no ceiling for her dreams except her own ambitions, hard work and talent, and we provide her with the love and security of a true family.
For Banati, I wish for stability, I hope we can work on a trust fund that would support our basic needs regardless of the economic situation of the world or the country. I wish we would have enough trained high caliber staff members to run Banati for another generation to come. I also aspire for a new generation on the Board of Trustees to join as mentees, so when the time comes for us to handover the foundation, the girls’ sense of family isn’t compromised. I want for the girls to feel that it’s all a continuity, just the way it is in any three-generation family, one handing over to the next.
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