Three extraordinary Egyptian women talk resilience

Yasmine Wali, Thursday 21 Mar 2013

Ahram Online speaks to three mothers who fought against society's prejudices to provide for their children

Dr. Sohair Abdel Hafeez
Dr. Sohair Abdel Hafeez with her husband and two of her sons Ahmed and Karim (Photo: Dr. Sohair Abdel Hafeez)

Across the Arab world, 21 March marks the day for honouring mothers. Ahram Online talks with three Egyptian women who share their stories battling against the odds to secure a better future for their families.

"I dedicated my life to developing new ways to help the deaf, like my sons, communicate," Dr. Sohair Abdel Azeem, mother of five and specialist in deaf-blind disabled children  –  Mahalla, Gharbiya governorate.

I am a mother of five sons, people refer to me as 'Um El-Regal' [a complimentary title literally meaning 'mother of all men' given to strong people].

Two of my children were born with a severe hearing disability. When I knew my eldest son Ahmed was essentially deaf my heart broke for the first time.

My husband and I knew nothing about this disability. So, I made the decision to dedicate all my time to my children. I used my bachelor's degree, specialising in psychology, to help bring the boys up.

My whole life revolved around my boys until they finished their education, after which I was able to do my masters with my thesis subject being psychological pressures mothers face dealing with children with hearing disabilities. I then went on to finish a doctorate in creating a communication system for deaf blind population. It has become a lifelong battle for me.

I think what makes our family story special is because Ahmed and Karim finished normal school education, not special needs. They managed to finish off their university education as well. Finally, both my boys are independent and fully integrated into the communities they live in. As a family we did not stop.

The boys and I did everything together.

We used to stick pictures on the furniture, identifying its name. I used to read them many visual stories. I started by making the boys learn a word, and then it became two words. I played cards with them but in a special way so that they could communicate. It is true whoever exerts effort, reaps in turn the rewards of their efforts.

At the time, I didn’t know where we were going, but I insisted that they receive normal school education. I didn’t like the outcome of the special needs schools in Egypt. Most of the children with disabilities are illiterate when they graduate, and their abilities are not developed – often they come out worse than when they entered.

In every way possible, we tried to hide their disabilities at school because if the ministry of education found out, the boys would be transferred to a special needs school. They had to be more clever than their peers just to stay in school.

Instead, my husband and I taught the boys ourselves until they were 14 years old. I used to study the syllabus of all the subjects a day, in advance, to make sure that I don’t teach them a wrong piece of information. I learnt speech therapy for them. 

Imagine what it is like to perform school duties at such a crucial stage of development? There were so many subjects to explain that I didn't know, such as mathematical problems, it was hard. We made Ahmed's brother, who is well, study with him at home, so he didn't feel like a special case.

At some point Ahmed, when he was around nine years old, sat normal exams at the Egyptian embassy, as we were living abroad. Ahmed’s school failed him during the dictation exam, he was clever but he couldn't lip-read the teacher who wasn't pronouncing the words clearly. They could have brought pictures for children with hearing disabilities and he would have written the word.

When technology came into our lives, there was a significant shift. Ahmed's computer helped his linguistics develop. It even helped the two boys learn foreign languages; they speak English and some French because of the Internet.

Once they had moved to high school, they needed private tutoring. Every time they had a lesson I sat with them to ensure the communication process between them ran smoothly. Sometimes, I would ask the tutor to write the words he was saying, if he spoke too fast. 

It is impossible for them to enter a public university, so we enrolled them in private universities. The professors, fellow students and friends help them. Our friends and neighbours have also been extremely supportive.

I think the most important thing is that we love them and accept them just as they are, while being especially attentive to the areas that they could excel in. It was very clear that Ahmed is interested in Art; we encouraged him to join the Applied Arts Faculty, now he is an artist. He was the lightning manager of prominent preacher Amr Khaled's Ramadan TV show last year. 

Karim decided to study computing and is now finishing a specialised course in programming.

The disabilities changed my life and it has been very hard. It is difficult when a child asks you, why can't I hear anything? While your other child, who is well, says they wish they couldn't hear so you would love them more.

We struggled to deal with the issue of the public mocking them for their disability. The staff at the university office, when my sons enrolled, told me to be grateful because they were walking on their feet. Without special needs facilities in Egypt, people with disabilities are deprived of their right to learn and address their needs, while facing societal sarcasm.

"I went against societal norms, to build a business and better future for my kids," Aaleya Mohamed, mother of four and family breadwinner – Old Cairo district.

My story started when I was married with two boys and two girls, living with my husband in one room. We were very impoverished, our situation more unfortunate than I could ever describe.

I had a very tough life; my mother died when I was six years old and my father re-married. I knew that no one would help me.

I severed ties with my father and moved to the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira to stay with my cousins.

My whole family believes I should live with whatever my husband can provide us since he is the breadwinner. However, I told myself it is not wrong to help my husband because his financial capabilities were limited; he earns very little.

It is not wrong to want a better life for my family, my children and me.

One day the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, an NGO, opened right behind my house.

At the time, my kids were very young: my eldest was around 10 years old. I went to the NGO, became a member and took a loan of LE300 to start my own business.

I kept this a secret from my family because they are against a woman working. Since we are from Upper Egypt it is shameful and a scandal if a woman works.

I bought a sewing machine with the LE300 loan, learnt how to sew and worked in a clothing workshop.
At the same time, I decided to increase my knowledge by reading books, which I also kept quiet.

My neighbour used to help me hide my books and notepads. In particular, I wanted to learn how to write up my finances, so that no one could take advantage of me.

My day would start with me dropping my children off at school; I would then go on to the Cairo districts of Attaba or Ghoreya to buy my materials. I would prepare food for the kids and wait to pick them from school. While they did their homework, I would sew and make sure they were keeping up with their studies.

I initially started making and distributing bed linen. I gradually improved which is when I made clothes for my children.

I also worked on a production line to sew and tailor school uniforms. They used to give me a batch of 100 to 200 uniforms to do at home. I sewed, ironed and packed them and kept the commission.

Step by step the business grew. I expanded and managed to tailor abayas (traditional black robe) and blankets.

After the NGO saw that I was progressing they offered me a larger loan of LE5,000 and so I expanded my work to help brides with their bridal needs, supplying them with everything from clothes to china, from fridges to house accessories.

Thank God I also invested in informal savings associations [a collective community savings scheme].

Through informal savings associations I was able to afford my own three-storey house. I live in one apartment and I collect the rent from the other apartments.

It was a very hard time for me, a period of torture and tears. These decisions resulted in a three-year war with my family. No one would help me secure a better future. However, I succeeded and I am better off now. I proved my worth and that I was the one in the right.

My four children are married. Both my daughters graduated with business diplomas and are married. While my sons continued education until eighth-grade and then they paved their own way. One of them works in construction and the other owns a car and rents it. They are also both married.

I also have a nine-month-old granddaughter; she is the most beautiful thing in my life. I am thankful to God.

I didn’t stop working towards what I was trying to accomplish because I was thinking about my kids every step of the way.

"I applied what I learnt from my handicapped daughters, to help others," Nani Saleh, mother of four and founder of the Right of Live Association - Cairo 

 I am a mother of two handicapped daughters, the story of the Right To Live Association began when I had my first handicapped daughter. She is thirty-five years old now. I have two other boys and they are very proud of their sisters. As a family we are happy. 

When I gave birth to my first daughter, who was handicapped I was very upset – I didn't want to get pregnant for another four years afterwards. The doctors told me her handicap was a one-off, assuring me it would not happen again.

Then I gave birth to my second daughter, who was handicapped as well. I was devastated. But I didn’t want to give in to my despair; I had to feel that I was on my feet. Instead of collapsing I had to help my two daughters.

At the time, I searched for any services to help but I couldn’t find anything in Egypt. This was the 1980s. I looked for a way out so I sent my daughter to a boarding school in England when she was three or four years old. I started observing how they interacted with the handicapped. I watched closely and learned.

I remained moving between England and Egypt for many years. During that time, I was introduced to other people in Egypt who also had no idea how to look after their handicapped children. We decided to do something about it – "we were carving in stone" – as the famous Egyptian saying says.

I remember the first TV show where I came out and said I have two handicapped daughters - my family were angry with me for doing this. However, I received 100 telephone calls after the show from people who were in a similar predicament and were seeking help.

Once you admit there is a problem, this is when you can try to find solutions for it.

We had no money, no land, no resources, nothing, but along with nine other mothers, we managed to secure a loan to open a centre that offered three classes to help the handicapped.

I applied what I had learnt abroad with my own daughter. When the demand increased, we opened a bigger centre.But we faced a problem: we couldn't find the calibre of teachers to deal with the special needs.

In Egypt, psychology students study the theories regarding handicapped children but when it comes to practice they don’t know how to deal with them.

At the time, Egypt was about 30 to 40 years behind the rest of the world on this issue. I started searching for educational programs for the handicapped. I contacted Oslo University and arranged that their 10-month programme be taught to Egyptian psychology students, so that they could be qualified to deal with special needs children.

This is when our centre really developed and grew. The Right to Live Association helped other similar institutions with educational programs. In turn, this helped other NGOs working on special needs children. We also assisted with other centres in other Egyptian cities, like in Nile Delta cities of Zagazig and Idku, as well as Upper Egypt.

We managed to find jobs for those with special needs on production lines, so that they could earn money just like normal employees. We have students who won medals in the Paralympics last year.

We also managed to convert the centre to allow for handicapped people to stay overnight, for example when a parent dies.

The centre also supports new mothers, who are devastated and overwhelmed, who don't know how to deal with their handicapped infants.

Now the centre supports 187 mentally disabled youth from between the ages of six and 21 years old. Those with disabilities have the right to live and to be acknowledged. This is what made me preserve with my journey.

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