A journey like no other: A chat with heroes of Al-Azeema rehab

Nesmahar Sayed , Saturday 28 Aug 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly visits a drug rehab centre two years after it opened


When the invitation came from the Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction (FDCTA) to visit Al-Azeema Centre for Drug Addiction and Rehabilitation, I hurriedly prepared for the trip.

It would be the first time for me to meet face to face with addicts, people that I always felt sympathy for but was disappointed by their weakness that put them and their families in such a tragic situation. Every time we hear about an addict or addiction, calamity is always at the heart of the story.

This wasn’t my first trip to Marsa Matrouh, but this time I wasn’t thinking about the majesty and beauty of this coastal city which movie star-singer Leila Murad crooned about in her black and white films, or the beauty and clarity of its calm waters. Instead, for almost four hours on the road trip there, I could only ponder how my encounter would pan out with addicts who are receiving treatment and rehabilitation as they prepare to reintegrate into society as healthy and upstanding citizens.

At the entrance of the city, I see the billboard for the You Are Stronger Than Drugs campaign. I smile, reassured by the smiling face of world-famous soccer player Mohamed Salah, the poster boy of the campaign, who always hits his mark. I am now optimistic and look forward to visiting Al-Azeema Centre which in July celebrated its second anniversary.

Several recovered addicts are being celebrated at the event. The tour begins in the basement, known as Half-Way, where several activities are underway. Table tennis, a music room, wood shop, literacy classes and billiards are among the activities. In another area is a mall where an instructor is teaching how to weave a carpet.

Al-Azeema (resolve in Arabic) has 130 beds, a large number for a drug treatment center, and is built on 8,000 square meters.

It is packed with youths of various ages, but all agree on the joy of recovery and the concern of failing in their journey to recovery. Since addiction has only two options, recovery or death, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, 31, who was an addict from 2008-2021, decided to break his habit. “I took the decision because I hit rock bottom. Addiction is a disease and must be treated,” Abdel-Aziz, who has a diploma in electronics, says emphatically. He was unable to handle his emotions after his fiancée died, and, like many, felt that drugs would extinguish his unhappiness.

Hassanein Ahmed, 27, also decided to quit drugs after a decade of addiction. “I decided to seek treatment for myself. I did not want to continue what I was doing,” Ahmed says. “Addiction is not a behaviour that is only related to drugs, but leads there.”

He spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about growing up in the slum area of Gheit Al-Enab which was developed into Bashayar Al-Kheir in Alexandria. His mother went to the clinic, found an advertisement for You Are Stronger Than Drugs and discussed her son’s addiction with the doctor who directed Ahmed to Al-Azeema Centre. Today, he is on his way to receiving a literacy certificate after attending classes at the centre and is determined not to go back to addictive habits which led him to drug abuse.

“Addictive behaviour for me took the form of lying and theft, and devolved into drug addiction,” he admits.

Mohamed Said, 26, said he began taking drugs at the tender age of 13: alcohol, then pills, then heroin. “After 13 years of addiction, I succeeded in being sober for five months now, and I continue on my journey and counting the days of staying clean,” he says.

Like Said, Islam Gamal, 30, tells the Weekly he has been sober for three months and 13 days. “I count them by the hour and the day. The longer I stay clean, the further I am away from the path of drug abuse,” states Gamal.

Ahmed Al-Sayed, 40, father of four, is also proud of the time he has stayed drug free. Al-Sayed tells the Weekly how he neglected his family for three years during his addiction, but after seeing footballer Salah’s anti-drug campaign in Bashayer Al-Kheir he began attending narcotics anonymous meetings. And today, he follows up at Maamoura Hospital in Alexandria.

“Since I’m a recovering addict, I must stick to the rules I learned during treatment,” confides Al-Sayed.

Ahmed Sami, 33, says that after 12 years of addiction and 36 days of recovery, he chose to learn carpentry through a work programme.

Sami is the father of two children, and believes carpentry will be useful in the future. “I took a path that I do not wish my children to take, and I advise everyone to stay away from smoking because that’s the beginning.”

Hamza Saleh, instructor of furniture classes, explains that although this is the first time for him to interact with recovered addicts, he does not find any difference between them and his regular students in school. “They ask the same questions,” he says. “This shows that the general perception of an addict as a lost cause is not true. Once they begin recovery they return to being normal people capable of work, productivity, comprehension and giving to society and their loved ones.”

Aam Ali Hassan, 58, agrees with Saleh that recovery restores a person’s humanity and erases the stigma of drugs. Hassan tells the Weekly he came to Al-Azeema Centre upon the request of Brigadier Hassan Al-Ansari, director of Azeema, to teach recovering addicts how to weave using a loom as part of the treatment through work programme. He said in 24 hours, one of the recovered addicts learned the trade and made beautiful products. “He has passion,” said Hassan.

Mohamed Rashad, 33, a talented loom worker, said he is a graduate of the school of Tourism and Hotels and works at a restaurant in Alexandria, but has chosen to learn the loom as a trade alongside his main job to increase his income. “In three days I will complete my 90-day recovery period,” declares Rashad proudly.

The question arises about the difference between an addict and non-addict if recovered addicts seem so well adjusted and energetic.

Al-Ansari said he had never met an addict in his military or social life until he came to Azeema. When operations began in phase two of Azeema, the detox phase, “I saw a woman wearing the niqab (face veil) holding an infant, with a man who looked very respectable, who asked me about the centre’s hours. I said from 10am to 2pm. I added that the patient must come in person, and was shocked when the man told me, ‘I am the patient’”. That day, Al-Ansari discovered that the stereotype of an addict, as portrayed in the media, is only when he is craving drugs or taking drugs or after ingesting drugs.

In this instance, the addict was a Marsa Matrouh resident and completed his treatment and rehabilitation at Azeema Centre. He was one of the first to recover, over one year ago.

Al-Ansari said that since Azeema opened on 22 July 2019, 564 patients have received treatment and thousands more are being treated in outpatient clinics.

Recovered addicts were feted by Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabaj, who is also the chairperson of FDCTA, in June 2021. Al-Qabaj said the success of Al-Azeema Centre is the result of hard and continuous work.

The campaign “Share Information on Abuse and Addiction: Save Lives” helped raise awareness of 6,400 students at Marsa Matrouh University and 32 youth centers. She added that application for treatment and recovery via hotline 16023 is strictly confidential and places no blame on the patient

“We only accept a dignified life for Egyptian citizens, and we congratulate all those who have recovered,” Al-Qabaj said.

Some of the problems facing recovering addicts during treatment is the constant hands-on care which means a large number of staff is needed. Al-Azeema Centre follows international standards, namely a supervisor and doctor for every six patients. “During treatment, addiction patients -- like any other patient -- feel weak and have low stamina,” according to Al-Ansari, “and always need kind treatment and good bedside manners. We are all happy to treat them and are very glad to see them return and visit us after being discharged.”

The youngest patient who received treatment at Al-Azeema was 18 years old and the oldest was 70, while the average age of patients is between 20-30.

A success story at the center is that of another Mohamed Said, 29, who decided to begin recovery after 15 years of a hashish addiction. Drawing on his own experience, Said, now recovered, advises families not to be harsh with their children. He was unable to deal with his mother because he said she was cruel to him, in order to compensate for the absence of his father. He could not talk to her, “even though all I wanted was for her to hold me, and I always felt I was lesser than my friends”.

To the contrary, Hussein Mohamed, 29, remembers he was a very spoilt child and got everything he wanted. Nonetheless, out of curiosity and wanting to have the same spending power as his peers, he began smoking like his friends and father. “I suffered from addiction for 14 years. I began by stealing cigarettes,” he says. “Thank God, I am fully recovered.” Mohamed adds the decision to go into recovery and stop his addiction was his own. Every recovered addict has his own reasons for taking this step.

One patient who prefers to remain anonymous said that after 16 years of addiction, he decided to stop even though he tried several times but relapsed every time for different reasons. Most recently, he tells the Weekly, “I stopped for 18 months and then one of my girlfriends asked me to buy drugs for her, so I told myself ‘I will take it just one more time’. But a thousand times is not enough.” He checked himself in at Maamoura Psychiatric Hospital and from there he was transferred to Al-Azeema Centre.

“The decision to go into recovery came after I lost a lot of money and felt lost,” he adds. “I got married and divorced when I was 20, and was involved in a near-fatal accident. After five years of addiction, I finally confessed to my family about my habit. They had no idea.”

This is similar to Essam Osman’s story. Osman, 35, an engineer, tells the Weekly he has taken all types of drugs and alcohol, adding that the easiest to buy is alcohol and the hardest is heroin. After 25 years of addiction, he fully recovered and left Al-Azeema Centre and returned to his wife and children. Osman advises everyone to stay away from any addictive behaviour in general.

Ahmed Mamdouh, 39, agrees with Osman that addictive behaviour leads to isolation and the desire to be anti-social. Mamdouh tells the Weekly an addict always wants to feel safe, and receive encouragement and acceptance. Accordingly, they imagine that drugs will fulfil these desires and provide them with social acceptance among their friends. After making a full recovery, Mamdouh is now trying to compensate those around him for the harm and hurt his addiction caused. He also participates in volunteer work. “I took the decision to kick my habit because I decided to live,” he says.

“After 18 years of addiction, I decided to go into treatment because I was a slave to drugs,” asserts Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, 31. “Once treatment began, I felt truly safe when I received messages from God during meditation. Treatment through work helps define a person’s goals, and in time trains them in money management.”

Fawzi Ahmed, a music teacher from Marsa Matrouh, says that musical instruments and singing lessons are very important for patients because they improve their concentration, strengthen their nervous system, and guide their talent and interests. Ahmed tells the Weekly that he began working with addiction patients since the start of Al-Azeema Centre, and meets with them for one hour three times a week. The goal is for patients to purge the negative energy within them, and convert it into a productive and positive one.

“I deal with the human in each of them, so they can find themselves again,” says Ahmed.

Among those who have rediscovered themselves is Ahmed Mohamed, 40, a recovered addict who now works as a supervisor at Al-Azeema Centre. More about him next time.


Nevine Kabbaj
Dr Nevine Kabbaj

Minister of Social Solidarity inside the FDCTA control room for treatment centres


As part of efforts to provide treatment services that meet global standards and quality, Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabaj, who is also chairperson of the Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction (FDCTA), visited the control room for treatment centers at FDCTA headquarters. Al-Qabaj was briefed on how the control room operates and monitors the Fund’s treatment centers which partner with Hotline 16023, amounting to 27 treatment centers in 17 governorates so far. The control room also monitors outpatient clinics in newly developed areas, or “alternatives to slums”, including Al-Asmarat, Bashayer Al-Kheir, Mahrousa and Port Said.

The control room also monitors campaigns for the early detection of drug abuse among state employees through surprise testing of civil servants in various government offices and institutions. The testing campaign is also applied to school bus drivers during the academic year, and bus drivers on highways in cooperation with relevant agencies.

Al-Qabaj gave directives to provide top care to drug addicts at treatment facilities, and continuous monitoring of outpatient clinics. She also ordered increased training and activities for recovered addicts at rehabilitation centers, and training them in trades needed in the labour market. Also, expanding funding for small projects for recovered addicts as part of the New Beginning initiative, in cooperation with Nasser Social Bank, to reintegrate them into society.

Amr Osman, director of FDCTA and Al-Qabaj’s deputy at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, gave an overview of how FDCTA’s control room monitors treatment centers and early detection campaigns for state employees. Osman said the purpose of the control room is for daily monitoring of all FDCTA clinics in “alternatives to slums” such as Al-Asmarat, Al-Mahrousa, Bashayer Al-Kheir, and other areas where the Fund is active in raising awareness about drug abuse and providing treatment for anyone there for free and in strict confidentiality.

He added that control rooms closely monitor operating hours at treatment centers and clinics, to ensure they remain open until the last patient is attended to. Treatment protocols are also monitored closely to ensure high standard service and the privacy of patients. The control room monitors the implementation of treatment programs according to set standards to ensure staff are doing all they can for patients, and that all health and safety measures are being observed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Osman added that the control room monitors FDCTA treatment centers around the clock to ensure that addicts are receiving the best treatment, and that treatment protocols are meeting standards. They also monitor sports and cultural activities, work treatment programmes, and training recovered addicts in trades needed for the labour market. It also monitors early detection campaigns for state employees in various government institutions and offices, through pop-up testing. This provides a comprehensive map of the campaigns, their numbers and location, which provides FDCTA with exhaustive information on these campaigns and periodic monitoring.

Nevine Kabbaj
A workshop for youth to correct misconceptions about drugs. Photo courtesy of FDCTA

“You Are Stronger Than Drugs” by FDCTA at youth centers to raise awareness about the harms of drugs

Under the auspices and directives of Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabaj, who is also chairperson of the Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction (FDCTA), FDCTA launched a campaign to raise awareness among youth and families about the harm of drug abuse. The campaign also targets children about the negative effects of smoking as part of the campaign “You Are Stronger than Drugs”.

The campaign uses age-appropriate methods and activities at youth centers in various governorates, in cooperation with the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

Al-Qabaj said several awareness events and training programs are taking place to inform youth about the harm of addiction at a number of youth centers as part of the Your Are Stronger than Drugs campaign, and increasing the role of sports in protecting against and preventing drug addiction. The initiative also trains youth cadres and corrects misconceptions about drugs such as misinformation that drugs help concentration and memory.

Sports activities are also a key feature of the campaign for children and youth at all youth centers, and training on life skills to prevent drug addiction and raise awareness to enable individuals to confront the drug problem.

FDCTA Director Amr Osman, who is also Al-Qabaj’s deputy at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, said the You Are Stronger than Drugs campaign targets all youth centers nationwide at a rate of 15 youth centers every month in all governorates for six months. Osman said that 720 youth centers have benefited from the campaign so far, with the help of more than 2,200 FDCTA volunteers.

The campaign includes workshops for youth, interactive games and sports competitions to correct misconceptions about drugs. It also includes performances and arts activities, colouring books and creative ways that are age-appropriate for children. Such as the Smoke and Ladder game, which shows that anyone who smokes cannot advance to a ladder, and instead slides down because smoking and drugs impact their health. On the other hand, a non-smoker can climb ladders, advance in life and achieve their goals. Also, that a non-smoker can think soundly and make good decisions, unlike someone who smokes.

Al-Qabaj declares: “30,000 FDCTA volunteer youth participate in planning and strategies to protect their peers from drug abuse”

As part of celebrations marking World Youth Day, the Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction (FDCTA) headed by Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabaj announced a number of initiatives and volunteer programs on the harm caused by drug abuse for everyone, with the participation of 30,000 young men and women who volunteer with FDCTA across the country. These initiatives target raising awareness among people of all ages and from all walks of life, including school and college students, workers and artisans. Also, raising the awareness of families in newly developed areas or “alternatives to slums”, by directly communicating with them about the harms of drug abuse and ways of early detection. Also, how to protect against the evils of drug abuse, avoid harmful peer influence, and raise community awareness, especially among youth and teenagers, and family education. The aim is to empower society to combat drug abuse.

Al-Qabaj asserted that her Ministry and FDCTA are keen on developing youth volunteering and building their skills to ensure their effective participation in development issues, especially anti-drug volunteer programs. She said that volunteer youth across the country contribute to strategies and planning by the FDCTA to prevent drug abuse, and participate in activities to raise awareness to protect their peers against drug abuse. Youth volunteers also organize various events, programs and activities decided by the FDCTA, as well as participate in all national and international celebrations.

Amr Osman, director of FDCTA and Al-Qabaj’s deputy at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, said that over the past year youth volunteers participated in implementing many initiatives and volunteer programs. These include “Choose Your Life” at 2,000 schools nationwide to educate students about drug abuse. The initiative was also applied in 750 youth centers, several universities and academies, as well as metro stations, railway stations and beaches on the coast.

Some 40 youth camps were also held to train volunteer leaders across the country on developing volunteer work and combating drug abuse through awareness activities and programmes that are suitable for different age groups. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: A journey like no other.

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