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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

IRUSA team: In Helwan

Children study at the Early Intervention Rehabilitation Center in Egypt. Photo by Reem El-Khatib

IRUSA communications specialist Reem El-Khatib offers a first-hand account from the field in Egypt about ongoing programs supported by IRUSA in the region.

June 27-28—Helwan is a city whose history starts as a recreational destination for jet-setters and the rich. After it was converted to an industrial area, the area began to take a turn for the worse as the pollution spewed out by concrete and iron manufacturers drown the city in dense haze and toxins.

Today, as we discovered during our journey through and discussions with the people of Helwan, its children suffer from genetic disorders and deformities that have been attributed to its conversion.

We first stopped at EIRC, the Early Intervention Rehabilitation Center, a program that started in early 2000s to assist children who need special attention due to psychological and physical conditions that include autism, speech delays, Down syndrome, and mental challenges. The center provides each admitted child with a personal therapist who assists them according to their particular needs, and offers art therapy, family sessions and income-generation projects that help the mothers of EIRC’s children.

Dr. Mansour Yousef, the head of one of the departments, introduced us to so many wonderful children and staff members, including Aya Khaled. Aya is in her last year of assistance at EIRC—the program only follows children until they reach 8 years old. She is mentally challenged, and has difficulty understanding concepts, expressing herself and controlling her hand movements. Five years of help at EIRC has turned Aya, once destined to be dependent upon others for daily life, into a very independent young lady who is able to match pictures to concepts; to respond to her aunt’s requests to bring her “lebene from the refrigerator”; and she now uses her hands to signal certain answers, such as “thank you.”

“The program has made a huge difference in Aya’s life,” says her aunt and guardian Muna. Muna takes care of Aya because her mother, who has twins at home, cannot afford to. Muna relays that she is so thankful for the program and for all of the wonderful therapists that have helped Aya grow—but what’s next, she asks? Aya has met her term, and now, Muna, Aya, Aya’s therapist and Dr. Yousef all wonder if the progress that she has made will stick with her or will fizzle away as her weekly one-hour sessions do.

This is a common concern that I heard throughout our time at EIRC—what is next? When I asked Mohammed’s mom if she has hope for his future, as a child with Down syndrome, at first she wasn’t sure, and then she said, “yes, so long as he continues to progress with the help of EIRC.” Amin’s mom had the same hopes for him, as did Samah’s mom and the mothers and aunts and therapists and families of the 134 children who were in EIRC and the hundreds more who were waiting to get in.

There was another commonality that the children at EIRC shared with me—smiling faces. Every child smiled, despite his or her condition. Smiles abounded, and they were warm and sincere.
Those same smiles met us as we traveled with staff members Rasha, Hind and Iman to visit several families throughout Helwan. These families were among Helwan’s 30% of extremely impoverished who are going to soon be receiving financial assistance, food parcels and health care support during Islamic Relief’s one-year sponsorship program.

Suad, Samira, Sameer, Mustafa, Iman, Mohammed, Ro’ayah, Ashraf, AbdelRahman, Salma, Zainab, Ziad, Nurihan live in extremely—extremely—poor circumstances. Although from separate families, the contents of their collective households would likely fit in one closet of ours. Dwellings were so tight and consolidated that they had bathrooms in kitchens; kitchens separated from bedrooms by one torn and tattered curtain; and typically one bedroom that would be shared by 5 or 6 occupants. Sometimes, the bathrooms wouldn’t be in the house at all—Suad tells us that 17-year old Samira (engaged to be married) has to stand guard at the outdoor bathroom, holding the curtain shut, so that no one can see or go in while it’s in use. Samira demonstrates how she does this and literally steps about 4 feet to get to the eggplant that is burning on the stove because of our lengthy set of questions.

And when we first walked into the room that Salma, who was left by her husband who married another woman, we all tried not to look so puzzled when we noticed Zainab, a former EIRC participant, sitting in a green bucket. Our puzzlement turned to heartbreak when we learned that she sat in the bucket because her wheelchair was broken. Zainab was immobile and did not even have the assistance of a wheelchair to help her move about. What's more? The setup of the space that Salma lived in was constructed in such a way that the bathroom is four steep stairs up; the kitchen is three stairs up; and the exit is almost a leap down—definitely not an accommodating space for someone with a wheelchair, let alone a paralyzed young lady whose wheelchair is broken. Salma told me that she has to carry her 12-year-old daughter or ask for assistance any time she wants or needs to move Zainab somewhere; that is likely why you'll find Zainab sitting in that green bucket most of her day, every day. Salma is older and weaker and just can't muster the strength to move Zainab regularly.

There is so much we want to know, but sometimes the pictures and the experience of being there and meeting children like Samira is more than any word can describe. Insha’Allah, IRUSA will bring you more information about Samira and her family as well as the wonderful families we met throughout Helwan in following days—in both words and pictures.
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