By Emily Ardell
“I worked every single day of the week begging for money and selling tissues on the streets near our house,” says Layla, a six- year-old Egyptian girl in Alexandria. “When I didn’t make enough money during the day, they would beat me as punishment, to get me to work harder. I was always so tired.”
Layla comes from a poor family. She is one of ten children who grew up with their mother in a two-room apartment in one of the slums of Alexandria. Her father left after she was born and her family lived in extreme poverty. Her brothers and sisters who could find work did, but those who were too young to work instead begged on the streets to help the family survive. Neither Layla nor any of her nine brothers and sisters had ever attended school.
“We worked from sunrise to sunset, and sometimes even later,” Layla explains. “Often people on the street would kick us or push us aside because they thought we were thieves. Almost no one would look us in the eye.” Layla points to the multiple scars on her face to show the physical abuse she has suffered both at the hands of her own family members as well as strangers.
Layla’s situation, although difficult, is not uncommon. Alexandria, as in other Egyptian cities, is plagued by forced labor and human trafficking, and forced child labor including begging is often the primary source of income for extremely poor families. Egypt’s intense urban poverty is one of the main factors contributing to forced labor and trafficking of children, along with weak child protection and law enforcement mechanisms. Most children in forced labor see no other choice but to endure these situations until they’re old enough to either escape or contribute to the family income with jobs in the legitimate economy.
Fortunately, Layla has found a way out. Through a Catholic Relief Services project in Alexandria, she connected with a social worker who brought her, with her mother’s consent, to a shelter for girl victims of trafficking and forced labor. At the shelter, each girl receives intensive one-on-one psychological counseling as well as remedial coursework to prepare them to enter (or re-enter) school, skills training, opportunities for outings and social activities, and medical care.
“I love living here. I feel safe and they make nice food that tastes really good,” Layla happily says. “Before, I used to use some of the money I earned to buy a sandwich when I could, but here they eat three times a day and it’s always a full plate of food.” She also enjoys the opportunities for healthy social interaction. “My favorite activity is swimming in the [Mediterranean] sea. Before I came here, I never swam at the beach before. I didn’t even have a swimsuit. Now I go there with my new friends at the shelter and we have so much fun.”
With its Egyptian partner organization Al-Hurreya Association, CRS provides a safe place where these girls receive the assistance and support they need to continue their lives in better circumstances. Although reintegration back into their families can be challenging, staff at the shelter work closely with each girl to assess her options and create medium-term life plans that are both safe and feasible. This approach ensures that these girls, even as they enjoy the respite from the harsh realities they left behind, focus on their futures.
At the young age of 6, she should just be finishing first grade. Instead, Layla has already endured more than anyone ever should. Unfortunately, the human trafficking and slavery industry is widespread, well-connected and continues to grow each year, and not only in Egypt; thousands of girls just like Layla are having their childhoods stolen from them, forced to work to feed other people’s greed. Listening to Layla’s story, I struggled to understand why the world here in 2011 is still fighting – a losing battle, it sometimes seems – to end modern-day slavery. Slavery should be a thing of the distant past that children today read about in history books – not experience themselves all over the world, every single day.
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