Monday, September 30, 2013

Letters from Egypt: Working to Support the Family at Age Nine

This is Abdo and he’s nine-years old. A normal nine-year old would be in the third or fourth grade, heading off to school each morning and coming home to do chores and/or play with friends. I would jump off the bus from school and play with Polly Pocket, ride my bike and wait for my dad to come home to either crank my go-cart or play basketball.

Not Abdo. He wakes up early and comes to my office, making coffee and running errands for the staff for the fee of LE 300 a month (around $43). His mother is alone working as a bowaba (door woman) spending her day washing cars, cleaning flats, hand-washing carpets and any other errands from building tenants. Each day Abdo comes into the office with a smile on his face, and that smile doesn’t fade throughout the day. He has one small brother and I always see him helping his mother even after he’s done at the office.

Some of you may think it’s horrible to employee such a young boy at our office, but that’s the way things are here. I think it is very naïve for many of you to judge the way things are in other places failing to remember that places like the US, once upon a time, also had children dropping out of school to work to help support their family. My father, who would have been 80 this year, was one of them. Luckily, things changed for us.

The UK’s Chatham House released a report, “Education in Egypt: Key Challenges”, detailing the problems that are facing the sector after the 2011 revolution. The lack of priority in Egypt’s education system trickles down into numerous other problems, including unemployment rates which currently stand at around 12%.

Surprisingly, Egypt actually developed an education model that many Arab countries followed. Former president Gamal Abdel Nasser mandated free education for all Egyptians and later extended that into higher education institutions. And in continuing Nasser’s great ideas without any thought to the long-term effects, the president promised employment to all university graduates. Obviously this led to a substantial increase in university enrollment figures and shortly after, there weren’t enough jobs available for the graduates. So what did Nasser do? He created three jobs for one position which parlays into yet another reason why many locals are lazy and wages are low.

Demand rose past the level of state-available resources which caused the deterioration of the public education system. So there is a significant gap in teacher/student ratios, and many schools continue to operate in shifts because of over-population; however, most students only attend school for a part of the day (from around 10 am-1 pm). And I will be the first to admit that the public schools here are absolutely horrible, something is better than nothing (please read my blog “My Trip to Cairo’s Public Schools”).

Abdo was originally hired to work during the summer, between school years, to give his family a little extra money. We hadn’t noticed that all of the public schools had already started. His mother pulled him out of school because the office salary was more important than an education. At nine-years old, this little guy is already carrying the financial burden of his family on his shoulders. Sadly, this is commonplace.

We are currently trying to find out which school he previously attended, the school fees and will offer his mother the LE 300 with the stipulation that Abdo attends school daily (in addition to paying the school fees which usually cost less than LE 200 or under $30). But this is only one child, there are so many more that need help. If you know a child that is not attending school, I encourage you to try to do something – particularly if you are Egyptian because this is your country after all. Do not give money to the parents for the school fees because many will just keep the money for their household needs. Pay the school directly. Buy books, help people learn how to read. But whatever you decide to do, just try to do something.

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