“Would you like some fries, Miss?” she asks me politely, her hazel eyes dancing in the sunlight as I look up from my meal. It is a warm spring afternoon in Cairo and I am relieved to be sitting in a cool, air-conditioned restaurant. I smile at the eleven-year-old sitting in front of me—her nine-year-old friend studiously tackling the six-foot sandwich she regrets ordering—politely declining as I sink my teeth into a deliciously marinated chicken breast.
As I reach for a sautéed carrot with my fork, I watch the two girls eat their burgers timidly, fixing their gaze on the flat screen TV in the corner, the animated racket of an Egyptian commercial drifting over to our table. They giggle softly as they offer each other a bite from their different side orders, the younger girl excited to be treated to a day out on her birthday.
To the untrained eye, the two girls with their identical pink-polished nails and liberally glittered faces look like they don’t have a care in the world. To the busboy who comes over to clear our table, they look like carefree pre-teen girls who could be my nieces; to the waiter who handles our orders for dessert, they look like they come from a loving home.
But when the girls’ eyes glaze over as they slowly devour delectable slices of chocolate cake, clearly lost in thought, I almost see the images playing through their minds. Sarah, a happy, playful young girl is haunted by images of being abandoned in front of an orphanage nine years ago, only a few hours old, in nothing but a black bin bag, in danger of being mistaken for garbage to be disposed of.
“This hasn’t changed since Sarah was found nine years ago,” the surrogate mother raising Sarah since she was found, along with four teenage boys in one of the several cottages scattered around the orphanage, once shared. “Every other day we find a baby, usually a few days old, dumped on the street in front of our gates, wrapped in nothing but a plastic bag.”
As I sip my deliciously cold glass of orange juice, I notice Sarah stab at her fries with her fork. I imagine her thinking about her biological parents if they remembered today was her birthday if they would be wondering how she was if they ever wanted to meet her and explain why they had to leave her. Although Sarah is a happy child, pampered by her many wealthy sponsors, her past is something that leaves a dark cloud hanging over her, once bitterly confessing, “I hate my biological mother, I’ll never forgive her for abandoning me. I hope she goes to hell.”
But Sarah is luckier than most of the children at the orphanage she has called home for nine years. As I talk to her eleven-year-old best friend, it is clear that her spirit is broken, gravity often dragging her gaze to the floor. As she absent-mindedly plays with the remainder of her food, I imagine Amal thinking about her over-crowded cottage, filled with the lives and drama of eight other orphans she fondly calls her siblings. Her shoulders are slightly slumped, and I imagine the burden she bears for being the eldest girl, her surrogate mother depending on her to be second-in-command. She doesn’t have wealthy sponsors pampering her like Sarah, going by with very little attention, financial support, and love.
She shares the embarrassment she shares with the children from the orphanage when they ride their bus to school, the orphanage’s logo plastered across its sides. She speaks of how they beg the bus driver to drop them off and pick them up a few streets away from their school, in constant fear of being found out by their classmates, wanting them to remain oblivious to where they came from, to ensure they wouldn’t start treating them differently.
As we finish our meal an hour later, I confess how I preferred winter and dreaded stepping out in the harsh mid-afternoon sun again, preferring the cool shelter the restaurant provided. This is when Amal quietly confesses, “That’s why I love the rain, because not only does it cool you down, you can also stand in the rain and cry and no one will ever suspect you were crying; you can just say the raindrops landed on your face.”
It’s a heartbreaking confession that leaves me incapable of forming words of consolation. Throughout the day I learn that Amal is a sensitive girl who needs constant reassurance that she is not bothering us. When I fall silent, admiring my surroundings, she will ask, “Are you upset with me, Miss?” And when I reassure her she winces at my exclamation, not convinced, believing that she is a girl unworthy of our attention.
But determined to lift the mood, it was Sarah’s birthday, I surprise the girls with a photoshoot at the park, knowing that young girls love to have their pictures taken. I watch the excitement leap out of their shy eyes as I explain that I would be printing out the photographs for them to cherish. They look at me quietly as though they couldn’t quite grasp the fact that someone who didn’t really know they wanted to take pictures of them. Record a memory for them. Prove- for as long as the photo-paper lasted- that they did indeed exist, even if their society often pretended that they didn’t, except for one day of the year when the country celebrated Orphan’s Day.
Walking steadily in the park, I am amazed at how much the girls relax. Like butterflies released from cocoons, the girls run around laughing, exclaiming, “Miss, Miss, take a photo of me doing this!” I smile behind my camera, quite impressed with their creative, confident, playful poses. I take photographs until the late sun casts shadows around us and we throw ourselves on a bench in exhaustion, devouring our vanilla ice creams under a tree’s cool shade.
But waiting outside a dressing room at the mall as Sarah tries on her chosen birthday-gift outfits, I acknowledge that although the girls had a fun day out, one day wasn’t going to be a quick fix to their lives. As I soothe Amal while tears run down her pretty face, upset because the jeans she tried on bent her nail painfully as she tried it on, I realize these girls needed frequent one-to-one attention.
Some sponsors, understandably overwhelmed with their lives, are only able to send their chosen orphans a monthly cheque, visiting them at least once a year on Orphan’s Day. But spending time with many orphans over the past year, I learned that although the financial support undeniably helps, it isn’t enough. These children need to be shown that they are cared for through personal visits or organized outings. On the other hand, there are a few sponsors will help their sponsored orphans with homework, or subjects in school they need help in, making the children feel valued.
Watching Amal sigh sadly as we make our way back to the orphanage, I acknowledge that I couldn’t expect to make a difference in just one day. I would be going back to my comfortable life while watching the girls enter their darkly-lit orphanage, secretly thankful they were protected under the cover of darkness, yet still worried that they might bump into someone they knew from school. They are afraid of being ridiculed, pitied, and even bullied for being different, and so are further pushed inside the red margin Amal and Sarah, and countless girls like them, doodle in whilst listening to the monotonous drone of their teachers at school.
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