Last month Egypt became the twentieth country to join London 2012’s International Inspiration programme to help countries improve their sports provision. Ian O’Neill, from the Legacy Team at the Government Olympic Executive, travelled to the country to find out more about how sport can help the thousands of children trying to eke out an existence on Cairo’s streets.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity of joining the International Inspiration scoping team on their visit to Egypt, the 20th and final International Inspiration country.
International Inspiration is London 2012’s answer to the promise made during London’s bid for the Games to create a legacy for children and young people around the world. It helps countries to improve their sports provision working with governments and their sports agencies. Since 2007, International Inspiration has supported the training of more than 136,000 teachers, coaches and young sports leaders. The programme has reached more than 12 million young people around the world.
Egypt is a country in the midst of transition. Egyptians are very proud of their revolution and collective efforts to remove the previous regime. They have started on the longer and more difficult journey to create a new Government and systems that will enable the country to realise its full potential. This will not be easy as the country – which is home to 80 million people – faces a number of major challenges. An important litmus test will be improving the lot of the 10-20,000 (maybe more) street children who try to survive on Cairo’s streets.
Among the swirling crowds of Cairo, you hardly notice the small figures of the children who call the streets their home. Many of the children are completely estranged from families, though not all. Some escape to the streets to avoid violence at the hands of families; others are sent out by families to avoid being a financial burden, surviving as best they can. There are also orphans who turned to the streets with nowhere else to go.
Most of Cairo’s street children look much younger than their actual age, a result of their years of existence on the streets. They are at risk of exploitation and violence and band together for friendship and protection.
One of the projects that the International Inspiration team visited during its scoping visit was a UNICEF-supported programme run by a local NGO: Egyptian Association for Societal Consolidation (EASC). This provides a refuge and care centre provides a range of support including education, skills training and psychological counselling and medical assistance.
The programme also provides an outreach service to find and make contact with street children in areas where they congregate. This includes Tahrir Square where large numbers of street children congregate and who are at risk of getting caught up in violence during political protests. Last December, the local press reported that two children were killed, 10 were wounded and 73 were detained in clashes in Cairo in a single week.
During our visit we had the chance to meet some of the street children and talked to them about their lives and experiences. Some of the children were clearly traumatised; one had bruises from a recent beating. The refuge uses football and wrestling (a big sport in Egypt) to help children integrate with society and with communities who see the street children as a menace.
Membership of sports clubs gives the young people them a real sense of worth and achievement but provides practical benefits since a membership card confirms their identity (as their families often withhold this) and means they can access public health and education services.
We later saw some of this work in action at a football centre next to the River Nile. I lined up for shooting practice (and scored) but was completely out-skilled by some of the boys. The EASC would like to expand this small programme, partnering with other NGOs to create more opportunities for more street children to join football and wrestling clubs and to participate and to support clubs who commit to working with and integrating young people.
We left as they were about to start a match. For the next couple of hours they would be playing with other children and feel – for a short time at least – part of Egypt; welcomed and loved.