“I had an accident while I was working as an electrician. I fell, I broke my hip and I couldn’t work anymore. My sons took my apartment and everything I had, and they left me. They left me to live on the streets.”
Mohamed Abdallah’s story mirrors that of many Egyptians who end up homeless; those people whose seemingly lifeless bodies lie in indiscernible grey heaps on the sidewalks that criss-cross Cairo. Camouflaged against the caked grey city, their presence on the streets has almost been reduced to white noise. But local NGO Ma3ana: The Organisation for Rescuing Humans has taken a stand to insist that their presence does not go unnoticed; that their lives do not go ignored, as the initiative works to aid those who have been left to be consumed by the city, providing them with food, medical aid, shelter, and even psychological help. “We help those people who have no one at all; they don’t have families; we become their family instead,” says Mahmoud Wahid, Board Director at Ma3ana.
Estimates put the total number of homeless in Egypt at 12 million, but this includes those living in unofficial housing. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Solidarity claims that there are 16,000 people living on the streets. The actual number of homeless people lies somewhere in between, and while UNICEF calculates that there are approximately 1 million children living on the streets in Egypt, there are no concrete numbers regarding adults.
If these people are left on the street, their destiny will most definitely be death.
For over a decade, Ma3ana, comprised initially of a group of friends who felt passionate about philanthropy, has been working to get the homeless off the streets and provide them with a better future, focusing on adults, especially the elderly or physically weak. “One day, I stumbled upon an old man on the streets who was basically dying. And no one was helping him. As I attempted to help him out and got involved in his case, I discovered that no one in Egypt actually cares for adults on the streets,” Wahid says of Ma3ana’s inception.
While many NGOs in Egypt address the issue of street children, the country is practically devoid of those who seek to help older generations. “No one takes care of these people; because they are above 18, the state announces that they are able to care for themselves,” Wahid explains. Though Ma3ana works with cases from ages 20 all the way until 70, the majority of those they care for are over the age of 60. “If these cases are left on the street, their destiny will most certainly be death, so we are trying to do what we can; give them a good life and make up for their painful past,” he elaborates.
Before and after Ma3ana's rescue.
Ma3ana has dealt with over 240 cases over the past 10 years, and each one has their own uniquely sad tale. “Not all homeless people in Egypt have necessarily always been homeless,” Waheed points out. For some, as they grow older and sicker, their children begin to see them as a burden – one they cannot afford to bear – so they opt to abandon their elderly parents. Others have mental disorders; either their family can’t deal with the trouble anymore, or, in some cases, such as when they have Alzheimer’s, they simply wander off into the streets, never to be found again. For Mohamed Abdallah, it was the former.
The elderly man – who believes his age could be 79 but is not certain – worked as an electrician in Saudi Arabia for 35 years. Divorced, and away from his family for years, after an accident on the job, he was no longer able to work, and he returned to Egypt to his four sons. Who wouldn’t have anything to do with him. “I came back because I was tired and my sons were older and they took the apartment and everything I had. And they left me,” he says. “What could I do?”
Humans, animals, and insects stay away from homeless people sleeping on the street. Dogs bite their flesh.
Eventually, on a microbus ride, Abdallah was told about Ma3ana. “They told me they will take me to an institution where I could eat, drink, and get medical treatment. They told me they don't want anything from me.” After extensive care, and an operation on his hip, Abdallah now lives at Ma3ana, living out the rest of his days in relative comfort. And despite calls to his sons, explaining that they needed to provide nothing for their father, but could come and visit him at the shelter, no one ever came.
Abdallah’s story is just one of many, where circumstances larger than themselves force them onto a certain trajectory, where they remain trapped with no form of recourse available to them. Mansour Saeed, another man rescued by the shelter, lived in a slum until his area received a demolition order. “After the demolition notice, we asked the governor to give us an apartment or anything so we could live and die with dignity at this age,” the 55-year-old man recounts. “They asked for a utility bill and a rent contract. Of course we live in slums and we steal the electricity from the government's street light – we don’t have things like a rent contract. We didn't get any apartments, so we ended up on the street.” After several months of living on sidewalks, with winter approaching, Saeed, desperate, went to visit the Ministry of Solidarity to try and find shelter, and while in the waiting room, someone informed him of Ma3ana. “They took me in; I got to shower, shave, and change clothes and receive medical help because I was in a really bad shape – after which God gave me the strength to be healthier again. They dealt with me in a dignified way and I've been living a dignified life ever since.”
Though his life has taken a radically different path than had he remained another faceless statistic on the street, and Saeed now helps out at Ma3ana, he still encounters the difficulties of his past life daily, and recalls, with striking clarity, what life on the streets is like. “Now I use my health to give to charity and help at the shelter. We have a lot of very severe cases there; the blind, the paralysed. Humans, animals, and insects stay away from homeless people sleeping on the street. Dogs bite their flesh. God has blessed me with this place and I'm better now. But those of us who are still left on the streets, what do they do?”
Even if your families have abandoned you and left you on the streets, we won't leave you and we will always be with you until you are in a better place.
For now, Ma3ana is their sole form of potential help; working through a Facebook group, users send photos of homeless people along with their location so that the organisation may head directly to them, though Wahid clarifies a clear distinction between homeless and beggar. “Beggars are not our target because begging is their occupation; homeless people differ because they cannot move, work, or care for themselves, not only physically, but psychologically too,” he elaborates. “Most of our cases are completely unable to move. Besides that, they don't really value money; on a psychological level, they are unable to find meaning for money because of their apathy towards life in general. All they want is to eat, sleep, and wait for death. If someone gives them food, they eat. If no one does, they don't. They could eat from the garbage and not ask anyone for food. They don’t have bathrooms so they will regularly soil themselves. They have seen horrors in their lives and they have been hurt by so many people, so they prefer to isolate themselves, not deal with anyone, and remain on the streets. They live really difficult lives.”
Ma3ana is able to help some of them reintegrate into society, but those are few and far between as the median age is over 60. For those who have gone genuinely missing from their families, Ma3ana works to reunite them, and have brought 54 cases back to their homes. For the rest, they help them out as best as they can. “They've suffered a lot in their lives, so we exist to comfort them for whatever is left from their lives so they can live out their days in dignity,” Wahid says somberly. “Even if your families have abandoned you and left you on the streets, we won't leave you and we will always be with you until you are in a better place.”
Ma3ana are currently in the process of opening a secondary shelter in Egypt's Haram neighbourhood, with the overarching aim to eventually have a shelter in each governorate to accommodate the nation's homeless multitudes. “Aside from helping those on the streets, we hope our initiative has helped in reshaping society's perception of homeless people. Egyptians have always perceived homeless people to be mentally ill or extremely violent that they fear. We want to let people know that these are human beings just like us who just happened to be put in these circumstances and it's our collective duty to help them.”
This article is part of a campaign in partnership with MO4 Good.
To donate to Ma3ana, call 01011190304 / 01011190585 / 01011190249.
To inform Ma3ana about any cases on the street that could require a rescue team call 01140044886.
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Photography by Ahmed Najeeb