Beloved outcasts

While orphans are much loved in Egypt, they can never really
become part of society, find out Anthony Fontes and Faye Wanchic.

Orphans are one of the country’s favorite charitable causes, but can they one day join society?

The Children’s House Orphanage in Zeitoun is a large, dusty villa nestled behind a verdant garden at the end of a bustling avenue. Green metal charity boxes with small padlocks line the nearby cross streets, inviting those passing to donate to the orphanage. And the donations come—the boxes are regularly filled by innumerable, anonymous donations stuffed through the slot in the top. Orphans and orphanages are perhaps the most popular charities in Egyptian society. In fact, as part of a national campaign in support of orphans, Egyptians are being urged on television to visit their nearest orphanage on 2 April.
Many Egyptian Muslims feel that “giving to an orphan is like taking a stairway to heaven” said Aziza Helmi, a longtime member of the board of directors of another Cairo orphanage.
The kids of Children’s House can be heard singing and playing behind the wrought iron fence surrounding the grounds. Nearby, a small scuffle has broken out between some masons at work on an adjacent building. Insults are exchanged, and the older of the two men yells a parting shot, “Masalama, ya laqeet!” The younger man looks as though he is about to retort, but instead mutters something under his breath and returns to his work. Roughly translated, the word laqeet means “child of no parentage,” or “foundling,” and is considered a profound insult, denoting rudeness, mistrust and worthlessness. The word attacks a person’s heritage and family origin, cutting to the very heart of Egyptian perceptions of identity. Orphanage volunteers, directors and potential foster parents do not use the word to describe their charges. Still, until several years ago, an abandoned child who was picked up by police would have laqeet written on their birth certificate before being transferred to an orphanage.
The unsubtle dichotomies of the words used to describe orphans, whose numbers, according to experts, have increased sharply in the last two decades, is emblematic of their peculiar status in Egyptian society. As revered as they are, orphans in Egypt do not have the hope of eventually becoming part of a new family like they do in other countries. Adoption, in the sense of making an orphan child part of your family and giving it your name, is forbidden in Egypt and the Middle East.
Without that all-important family name, orphans, no matter how well cared for they are in institutions, still carry social stigma.
Foremost among the reasons that Muslims believe a child should not be adopted, in the Western sense of the word, is that it denies that child their right to their own heritage—their name. “A person’s name is important in Islam because many social rules like marriage, inheritance, custody, provision and punishment are contingent upon blood relationship,” Hussein Al Hussein wrote while head of the Standford University Islamic Society.

In Egypt, a growing number of infants are left abandoned—usually in front of hospitals or near police stations. Social workers point to rising poverty and “unserious marriages” as the causes for the burgeoning multitudes of orphans left for the Ministry of Social Affairs to process and relocate to one of the scores of Egyptian orphanages.
Almost none of these children will be adopted through legal means. In accordance with the tradition of the Prophet, Egyptian law explicitly states that no child can have his or her name changed in order to become part of another family. Thus, adoption, in the literal sense of the word, does not exist in Egypt.
This is not to say that Islam does not allow its practitioners to take in and care for orphans. To the contrary, Islam encourages supporting orphans as a most blessed and generous endeavor. According to the hadith reported by Al Bukhari, the Prophet said ,“I and the guardian of an orphan will be in Paradise like these two fingers and he joined his two fingers.”
The Egyptian government uses the edicts of kafala, which mandates how individuals or corporations are allowed to provide for an orphaned child, as the basis for its laws on adoption.
Basically, kafala dictates two avenues for helping orphans. The more commonly practiced mechanism is through donations to the institutions charged with caring for orphans, and the other is a form of foster care.
Egypt’s sprawling network of orphanages, of which there are 26 in Giza alone, are funded primarily through private and corporate donations that come from a broad cross-section of society. The Awladi Orphanage in Maadi receives 90 percent of their funds through these donations and says that the majority of the money does not come from the rich, but from the middle class. While individual and corporate generosity helps orphanages to provide education, medical care, basic physical necessities and sometimes even dowries for girls of marriageable age, it is not a consistent source of income and the state of different orphanages can vary wildly.
Donations are clearly one option for a Muslim who wants to help orphans, but there is also a form of adoption, perhaps more closely resembling foster care, that is legal in Egypt.
Islam differentiates between two different kinds of adoption. The first—adoption in the Western sense—is when a child takes the name of the adopted parents and legally becomes part of the adopted family. Sheikh Atiyya Saqr, former head of the Al Azhar Fatwa Committee, was quoted in the fatwa bank of Islamonline—an online site dedicated to Islam—explaining that “the second kind of adoption, which is strongly recommended in Islam, includes that a person raises a boy or a girl and takes care of him or her as a real mother or father would do to their child, while keeping in mind that the child should be named after his/her biological parents.”


In theory, the kafala system sets up a structure that encourages Muslims to care for orphans and allows for children to be raised in loving homes while retaining their biological identity. In practice, however, very few children are actually taken by parents to be raised outside orphanages.
The reasons for this gap between the theory and practice of Islamic adoption include the immense amount of bureaucratic red tape blocking would-be parents and the social stigmas that surround couples interested in adoption.
Islamic adoption, as allowed under the rules laid out by kafala, can only be practiced in Egypt by following a long, labyrinthine process set up by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The laws of Egypt dictate that an orphaned child may be available for foster care up until the age of 4 in most orphanages. Only married couples are allowed to bring a child into their home. They must prove that they cannot have children of their own (either through a medical report or by failure to have a child after 5 years of marriage), and a government social worker from the Department of Motherhood and Children must perform an in-depth background check on the couple to ensure that they are “suitable” for parenthood.
In two separate investigations, the government and orphanage staff try to ferret out any potential for child abuse or exploitation, explained Helmi, who is the director of the foster care program at Awlady Orphanage. She added that, under Egyptian law, foreigners are explicitly disallowed from becoming foster parents to Egyptian children. “It is the law,” she shrugged.

Once a foster family is approved by both the government and the orphanage caring for the child, they may take a orphan into their home. Helmi, who has worked for years to fine-tune the parent selection process for the Awlady Orphanage, emphasized the importance of ensuring that the extended family of a couple hoping to become foster parents are informed and consulted.
In order to combat any chance that the child will feel isolated, she makes sure that a simple story is concocted. The entire family is to pretend that the foster child is the offspring of distant relatives who died, leaving the child in the care of his or her surviving family. When the adopted infant is grown, he or she will never know that they were taken from an orphanage. Helmi exacts promises from members of the foster parents’ families that they will maintain the fictive cover that has been drawn over the child’s origins.
Samiha Bahgat, a trained psychiatrist who has worked closely with orphans for more than two decades, explained that the deception underpinning the child’s status within their foster family helps dispel any sense of isolation the child might feel.
Within what she called, “the extended family system,” which is utilized far more in Egypt than in Western countries, she argued that such an explanation of a child’s origins would not be questioned. “It does not happen that the foster children find out that they are not related to the parents that raise them,” Bahgat commented, tapping her cigarette in a porcelain ashtray. “The need does not arise to dig up the original parents—a child never loses attachment to the ‘family’ they believe they have.”
Clinical psychologist and assistant psychology professor at the American University in Cairo, Nancy Peterson, disagrees, however. She asserts that most children are tremendously sensitive to changes in their parents’ affect and behavior, and are likely to sense that there is more to the story than they are being told.
Baghat would only say that if there is an “inheritance issue” and “someone [in the biological family] is malicious,” an orphan’s true origins may be revealed. Indeed, she says that conflicts over inheritance may be one reason for the extended family of a couple to oppose the taking in of an orphan. Still, she insists, in her many years of experience, she has never heard of this occurring.
Peterson sees the potential for harm if a child inadvertently discovers the truth enough of a reason not to make up a story like this, though. She says that if a child finds out that their parents lied to them about their origins, it could permanently damage the child’s trust. Instead of a fabricated story of the child’s history, Peterson urges parents to engage in an open dialogue with the child, starting with basic, truthful information and building on it later, in line with the child’s growing capacity to understand.
While going through the application process can certainly be harrying, it is made even worse by the social stigma that would-be adoptive parents endure. “The impact of the restrictions on adoption don’t just affect the child and the child’s identity, they also affect the parents,” Peterson explains. “Even in the cases where parents want to tell the child the truth about their history, they feel like they constantly have to choose between hiding it from the child or subjecting the child to potentially harmful societal rejection.”

Though several orphanage administrators indicated that demand for foster children has risen sharply in recent years—Helmi pointed to lowered fertility rates in men because of pollution—the vast majority of orphans continue to be raised in orphanages. The Awlady Orphanage, which is “known for providing children for foster parents,” said an ambivalent Helmi, had only two of their 330 children put into foster care last year.
Many orphanages simply rule out the option of allowing their children to be raised outside the orphanage. Egyptian law leaves the choice up to each organization to decide of their own accord whether to allow foster care or not. Many orphanage administrators share the belief that few childless couples are better equipped to care for orphans than they are.
An administrator at the Bint Masr Orphanage in Heliopolis, which refuses any requests for foster care of their children, expressed doubts common among orphanage workers, “how can we know if a family can provide for our children as well as we can?” For better or for worse, such distrust of the capabilities and willingness of couples who desire to care for orphans may be one of many reasons that very few Egyptian orphans are ever placed in foster care.
Considering the influx of money that many orphanages receive from the full spectrum of Egyptian society, some orphans may count their blessings that they must remain in these institutions. Those lucky enough to find themselves in a well-to-do orphanage enjoy benefits that some observers may find surprising.
The Awladi Orphanage, for instance, located in one of the richest suburbs of Cairo, cares for 330 children between the ages of 2 and 21. Its grounds are wide open and clean and there are children at play seemingly around every corner. In addition to providing education through the university level for all of its children, the Awladi staff have recently added a small computer lab and new instruments for the musical classes. Staff and volunteers, many of whom were orphans raised at Awladi, are proud to show off the spanking new facilities being built throughout the complex.
The Awladi board of directors has recently won a jurisdictional fight to keep all of their children under their care until they are finished with university, or, in the case of many girls, until they are married.
Several orphanage directors noted that a major flaw in Egyptian orphanages is the habit of shifting children in and out of different orphanages according to age and gender. Peterson explains that it is very important that children have consistent primary care-givers with whom they can form a solid bond. It is through the relationship with the primary care-giver that children develop relationship patterns that can last the rest of their lives.
If children are constantly moved or an orphanage has a revolving door staff, they are not able to form a strong attachment with a care-giver. Peterson was also quick to point out, though, that consistent care by one person is not enough—children also need a care-giver who is involved and responds appropriately to their needs.
Awladi’s has avoided the possible problems associated with constant movement of the children. The boys who would normally be shipped to one of several other orphanages in Cairo at the age of 12 will now stay under the watchful eye of Awladi staff, some of whom have worked there for nearly 50 years.
Once the girls are of age to marry, the Awladi orphanage provides each one with a dowry of LE15,000 as a down payment on a flat which is bought in the girl’s name. Boys who are old enough to leave the orphanage have access to a savings account that was established upon their entrance into the orphanage. They have the orphanage and its resources to fall back on if they find themselves in financial trouble, Awladi staff explained.
The Awladi Orphanage encourages a continued relationship with their children. Grown orphans come back once a month for a “family dinner” as Bahgat put it. She emphasized that, should the orphans need them, she and the rest of Awladi staff would always be available for love and support.

Most Egyptian orphanages, however, cannot lay claim to anything like Awladi’s vast resources. Melissa (not her real name), a Western woman who has worked with Egyptian orphanages for 10 years, has seen up close the disastrous state of inadequately-endowed institutions.
A few years ago she was approached by orphanage staff who begged her to take in a two-year-old orphan suffering from Hunter’s disease, a congenital syndrome that usually kills the victim before they reach their teens. The orphanage caring for the boy had neither the funds nor the expertise to help him.
She took him in illegally, but was unable to provide more than temporary comfort. The boy died four years later at the age of six, the rapid decline in his health unstoppable.
Some of the orphanages that Melissa has worked with have been unable to buffer their charges from the effects of what many experts see as the social stigma of children whose parentage is unrecorded and unknown. Melissa angrily contradicted the claims that orphans are esteemed by Egyptian communities.
“Culturally speaking, orphans are nobody. They have no heritage... and they are not respected.” She said, citing as an example the harassment experienced by an impoverished orphanage for handicapped children. Neighboring children threw rocks at orphans who ventured outside, and the orphanage was eventually moved because of the hostility of the local community and the terrible condition of the site.
Apparently, Egyptian orphans live somewhere between paradoxical extremes, at once the central focus of much of their society’s charity and yet objects of ridicule and scorn because of their rootlessness. Though many orphanage staff are hesitant to confront it in conversation, Egyptian orphans do seem to inhabit a unique, if confused, position in their society.
As one experienced volunteer at Egypt’s Daughter Orphanage admitted somewhat shyly, “There is a certain stigma [for orphans] in society—so orphanages work to put children on equal footing with ‘normal’ children.”
One might think that the wealthier the orphanage, the more it would be able to buffer its orphans’ from being made to feel “substandard.” The provisions for orphans’ futures at Awladi are certainly impressive, and not many orphanages in Egypt could boast a more dedicated staff. Yet, despite the vast resources of the Awladi orphanage, many of the children turn away from its benevolence. While detailed sociological studies of orphans in Islamic communities are not available, it is clear that many try to escape the communal judgments that their “unknown parentage” might elicit.
With a final flick of her cigarette, Bahgat said, “...they never find sympathy lacking, and they are never lacking assistance. Still, some of them don’t want to be branded [orphans], and so they cut off all connection with the orphanage.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abdel Hamid.

Issue 4 vol 8
Photograph by Anthony Fontes
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