“I learnt that a hero is a person who helps other people... a person who helps people live better lives… a person who helps them be happy… a person who helps them discover their skills… a person who helps them overcome problems… a person who helps them achieve success… You are that hero.”
This is part of a letter from Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian and international football player, to Omar, a character in the story Anta Al-Batal (You’re the Hero) published by the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s Fund for Drug Control and the Treatment of Addiction (FDCTA) as part of its awareness campaign Anta Aqwa min Al-Mokhadarat (You’re Stronger than Drugs).
It tells the story of Omar, a student who discovers that his friend and school mate Hassan has become a drug addict and sends Mohamed Salah messages to tell him about the problem. He is contacted by members of the FDCTA who show him how to help his friend. In the end he receives a reply from Salah who encourages him and calls him a hero.
It seems that heroes are not just characters in children’s books. They are working in real life to assist people in living better lives by helping them say no to the drugs that can destroy their lives. These heroes are the activists who do just that. The FDCTA has 27,000 of them on its books working hard across Egypt.
According to FDCTA statistics, the percentage of young people using drugs in Egypt is 10.4 percent, which is about twice the global rate of about five percent. 27.5 per cent of them are females and 72.5 percent are males. 36.2 percent of addicts use tramadol, a prescription painkiller, 26 percent use cannabis, 18.3 percent use heroin. Some 87 percent of all crimes can be traced to the influence of drugs.
To help combat drug addiction in Egypt, the FDCTA has established a network of young volunteers across the country to help raise awareness against its dangers. It has also published manuals that focus on enhancing basic skills and raising the awareness of two million young people in 9,000 educational institutions and youth centres.
It has other activities that include television campaigns featuring celebrities like Salah. The campaigns have resulted in the interaction of more than 60 million people through different social media platforms. They have increased the number of calls to the FDCTA hotline for treatment from drug addiction by 400 percent, and the organisation treated over 116,000 users in 2018. Forty percent of the former users that used the hotline were between the ages of 15 to 20. The Chinese Ministry of Public Security considers the campaign to be a model, according to a FDCTA report.
This year Egypt also took part in the annual Youth Forum, an activity of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Youth Initiative in Vienna in March. The event was attended by representatives of 32 states and was launched in January 2012 by the Drug Prevention and Health Branch of the UNODC to empower young people to become active in their schools, communities and youth groups to help prevent the abuse of drugs.
Since then, the UNODC has organised an annual Youth Forum in the context of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, hosting young leaders to exchange ideas and visions on how to better protect the health and well-being of their peers and advocate for substance-abuse prevention globally. The Youth Forum has given young people an opportunity to express their hopes, visions and commitments and to make these available to the governing body of the UNODC, according to a UN concept note.
Yomna Al-Deeb was chosen by the UNODC to participate in the Youth Forum as a representative of Egyptian volunteers in the field of combating addiction. Keynote speeches were delivered by executive head of the UNODC Ywy Fedotov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation Mikhail Uynov, Ambassador of Malta Ginther Granner, and UNODC head of prevention Gilberto Gera.
The event started with discussions about the importance of young people in making decisions to enhance their health.
It stressed the importance of interactive discussion to acquire knowledge and exchange it, setting goals for the protection of young people’s health.
Workshops were organised to help find the reasons behind drug addiction, the effects of addiction on families, and methods of preventing it.
Recommendations included establishing organisations for volunteers and campaigns with the help of celebrities. Al-Deeb demonstrated the Egyptian
experience in combating drug addiction through the campaign featuring Salah.
The forum praised the campaign, recommending that it be taken as an example by others. A further recommendation was to find effective methods in raising awareness and supporting volunteers in their mission to combat drug abuse. International groups should be organised to discuss developments in the issue, the forum said.
“As soon as I knew there was a fund in Cairo specialising in drug control and the treatment of addiction, I wanted to volunteer because I thought it was one of the most important working in this field in Egypt,” Al-Deeb explained of her work as a volunteer. “I’ve been volunteering for three years now,” Al-Deeb, 16, a student and handball player from Alexandria, said. She is also a volunteer for the international NGO Caritas and was an organiser at an affiliated organisation to the FDCTA.
In Vienna, “we discussed several topics, including the reasons and consequences of addiction on addicts, their families and communities. We also discussed solutions. We shared ideas about the problem of addiction from an international perspective. At the end of the forum, we recommended the importance of engaging youth in the policy-making process because ideas that come from youth are usually more effective,” Al-Deeb said.
Aya Selim, the FDCTA representative at the event, said that “when the fund received an invitation to the Vienna meeting, we organised tests for volunteers across the country. We then shortlisted them and tested their English-language and voluntary skills because the criteria wanted young people aged from 13 to 18 years old who were pioneers in the field. Yomna was chosen because she had been working as a volunteer for a long time and because she was an exceptionally excellent and strong one.”
“The forum aimed at enabling youth to become active in terms of exchanging ideas and perspectives in the field of combating drug abuse and protecting young people. It was a wake-up call to prevent drug abuse on the international level and a chance for young people to learn from each other. 32 countries from around the world participated in the event, which was an opportunity for exchanging ideas and knowing what goes on in these countries in terms of activities and policy-making in combating drug abuse,” Selim added.
On the second day of the forum, the young people attending wrote statements including their ideas to be sent to the ministerial meeting of the UNODC.
They split into two groups to discuss the issues and wrote solutions form their point of view. “Yomna gave the Egyptian experience in the field by demonstrating the You are Stronger than Drugs campaign in Egypt led by football player Mohamed Salah, which set an example to others because one of the recommendations was to have celebrities take part in awareness campaigns and this is what we have been doing,” Selim said.
“We filmed advertisements with him and organised a campaign about him since he is a role model for youth inside and outside Egypt. This was clear in the reactions of young people to the hotline service. The campaign’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages now have 60 million followers,” she added. The international media like CNN and the BBC have recommended that the campaign be taken as a model by other countries.
Esraa Refaat, head of the FDCTA volunteer unit in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya, talked of her experience as a volunteer. “I started to volunteer 12 years ago. I knew about it through a workshop organised by the Ministry of Youth through a joint protocol with the FDCTA. It was called Ekhtar Hayatak (Choose your Life).”
Refaat, who now works as a lawyer in Minya, had taken part in many other initiatives since, as she wants to give back to people from her governorate both by working with the FDCTA or by herself. She has even started her own initiatives, like a campaign entitled “No to Addiction”. She has represented Egypt in events in the US, and her job as head of a volunteer unit is to organise events for the FDCTA and to train young people in Minya.
“I now try to appear on talk shows on national television to raise the awareness of youth. I also use social media to spread ideas between young people on a page which is also translated into English to give a positive impression about the country,” Refaat said. “I was the first to come up with the idea of interviewing the volunteers to be, to make sure that they take the matter sufficiently seriously,” she added.
Manager of FDCTA preventive programmes and head of volunteer units across Egypt Ibrahim Askar explained the framework and functions of the volunteer units. “They have been one of the most important functions of the FDCTA since 2014. We believe in this role because we believe in the role of volunteers in conveying issues of society, especially drug addiction,” he said. “Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali has been eager to have a volunteer unit in each governorate to raise people’s awareness about pressing social issues.”
The volunteer bodies were formed in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth, with those involved being carefully selected and trained at special training camps in Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor and Aswan.
“In 2014, we had about 15,000 volunteers, and by 2018 the number was 27,000. We have a sort of operations room in which we monitor the activities of our volunteers, contacting them if need be,” Askar said, adding that the volunteers, known for their hard work, are supported by a body that organises and guides them. This includes the head of the volunteer unit in each governorate, the co-coordinator, and the technical and support units there. The volunteers receive some financial support.
However, most rewards are moral. “Every year we organise a Volunteers Day in which ministers give awards to volunteers. We invite some new volunteers and some who have been working with the FDCTA for a long time so that the first can see how the second are appreciated,” Askar said.
“Our volunteers have visited more than 21,500 schools across the country and organised more than 225 interactive meetings with 500,000 workers in all the governorates.”
Some of the ideas for initiatives come from the grassroots level, including from target groups and communities.
“Last month we launched an initiative called Tewesal bel Salama (arrive safely), which was originally an idea from one of the drivers at one of our events. In this initiative we targeted more than 450,000 drivers, the idea is to raise awareness about drug abuse by meeting them directly in the streets. Some of the ideas we have put in our annual strategy also came from volunteers,” Askar said.
A competition was also organised among the volunteers for the five best ideas that could be carried out in a three-month timeframe. The top five volunteers who presented the ideas received awards of LE5,000, and the ideas were later implemented.
The FDCTA has partnered with 11 ministries in its programmes. One example is the partnership with the Ministry of Education that has enabled volunteers to target schools and raise the awareness of three million students. With the Ministry of Youth, it has organised more than 50 events that have included cultural and sports events like marathons that have targeted more than two million young people. Some 106 sports events have been organised across the country, starting from Negrig, the home town of Salah.
Volunteers have visited informal housing areas to organise sports competitions, and the FDCTA has partnered with the Ministry of Manpower to reach 500,000 workers. It has partnered with the Ministry of Religious Endowments to work with Friday preachers to raise people’s awareness about the dangers of drug abuse, reaching some two million citizens.
Other initiatives have included Ewaa Tegarab (don’t try them) and Khadaouk Faqalo (they’ve tricked you) held in 60 universities and schools across the country and reaching more than 750,000 students, and Bebalash (for free) intended to raise people’s awareness about drug abuse. “Our volunteers took to the streets in various cities to raise people’s awareness about the dangers of drugs, and in doing so they reached an additional one million people. By changing the settings of the campaigns, more people benefited,” Askar commented.
He believes that volunteers do not face problems while working. “We asked our volunteers about any problems they face through social media and about what they need to work more effectively, and we found that what they wanted was more moral appreciation like more awards. The last thing they thought of was money. So, we organised events in each governorate to reward them,” he said, adding that the volunteers already receive the permits and the kit they need to carry out their activities.
Askar said that a younger audience was targeted and that volunteers working for a longer period of time were preferred. “We have launched the Little Volunteer Club programme for school children to participate in raising the awareness of their peers, for example. This starts with children enrolled in the first year of preparatory school to those enrolled in the second year of secondary. We see what hobbies a child has and then ask him to use them to help others. For example, there was a boy who had photography as a hobby, and I asked him to take photographs of our meetings with the children. The designs of the brochures are also done by volunteers, 20 percent of whom are teenagers.”
FDCTA legal advisor Hassan Harak commented on the legal side of the issues. “The FDCTA was established to implement the country’s drugs law, which says that a fund will be established, financed from money confiscated from drug-dealers, to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs. Egyptian lawmakers were the first to come up with the idea of using money confiscated from drug-dealers to spend on decreasing the demand for drugs,” Harak said, adding that while the police were responsible for cracking down on drug-dealing, the FDCTA’s role was persuading people to abandon the habit of working with other parties including the ministries of religious endowments, education and youth.
“The vision of the FDCTA is to decrease the demand for narcotics and drugs, as well as providing preventive and therapeutic services of high quality based on the best scientific evidence,” Selim said.
“The national plan to eliminate drug-dealing and abuse are updated every five years. After the Beheira incident in 2014, in which a school bus driver was on drugs while driving and caused an accident that killed many children, the FDCTA has also started testing for the abuse of drugs,” Harak said, adding that it also helps with rehabilitation and employment.
In collaboration with the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University and the UNODC, the FDCTA offers a diploma for those who want further training in the field of combating addiction, and this has been internationally recognised. The first diploma class has graduated and has been honored by the minister, Selim commented.
“I think the FDCTA has accomplished many successful campaigns. Its strongest ideas are engaging youth in the awareness programmes, as well as providing the hotline service for addicts which is free and confidential,” Al-Deeb said. “I would particularly like to thank Minister of Social Solidarity and Chair of the FDCTA Ghada Wali and Manager of the FDCTA Amr Osman for their continuous support and for giving me the chance to enhance my experience and see the drug problem from an international perspective,” she added.
“I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity they gave me to represent my country.”
“In the past, the community I lived in did not give girls the opportunity to become volunteers, but now this has changed. I am now able to convey my experience to others. I used to show the content of my presentations to my family so they could be sure about what I do. Now they encourage me in my work,” Refaat said.
“All age groups attend our lectures. They like to listen to real-life stories that have a great effect on them. I would like to spread the awareness campaigns among tourists visiting Minya as well in the near future,” she said, adding that they needed more support to do the job effectively, including transportation to remote villages.
Al-Deeb said that people in her home town had reacted positively to her work. “Alexandrians generally respond positively to the awareness campaigns by asking about the services that the FDCTA offers, especially the free and confidential hotline,” she said.
“This hotline, available by calling 16023, provides services for free in complete confidence 24 hours per day and seven days a week. We have 22 centres across the country, and we are opening more in Fayoum, Minya and Marsa Matrouh this year. The services the hotline offers include consultation, therapy, and rehabilitation and social inclusion. People can also call in with complaints, for example if they think a public servant is abusing drugs,” Selim said.
The hotline received some 78,520 calls in 2018, and it plans to deliver further prevention services in the future.
“In the near future, we will conduct research about volunteerism in the FDCTA. We also intend to unify the skills we train our volunteers in and produce a guide on training volunteers,” Askar concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Towards a world without drugs