While orphans are much loved in Egypt, they can never
become part of society, find out Anthony Fontes and
Orphans are one of the country’s
favorite charitable causes, but can they one day join
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
reporting by Mohammed Abdel Hamid.
Issue 4 vol 8
Photograph by Anthony