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The Children of Alexandria

By Caroline Park

            Throughout my travels, I have met children in all countries, many of them endearing themselves to my heart forcing me to love them.  In Egypt, I experienced one set of children who survived on the streets through stealing and another set of children from an orphanage who gave out love because they were loved and knew how to reciprocate it.  The two contrasting experiences made me think about how people become the people they are by the environment and circumstances they are placed in. 

            Almost immediately as soon as we stepped out of the train station in Alexandria, exhausted from our overnight train from Luxor, the five of us were greeted by a group of children around the ages of eight to ten.  They greeted us with accented hellos and as we looked around us in hopes to find our way back to the ship, they continued to stick close by us and uttered phrases and words in Arabic that we could not understand.  However, their gestures were familiar enough.  Rubbing their fingers together, by that time we all knew that they wanted bakeesh.  Instead of handing out money, we tried to be friendly and conversed with them for a while.  However, I realized these boys were not going to go away until they got something from us.  The more we tried to ignore them, the more persistent they became, grabbing our arms and poking our heavy backpacks.  They were no longer innocent children who were fascinated by foreigners in their neighborhood but little hoodlums who were scoping out an opportunity.  Then the attack finally came.  In a matter of seconds, I heard a rustle and felt a slight push.  From the corner of my eye, I saw my friend Mike stomp after one of the boys.  He came back explaining that one of the boys had attempted to grab and run off with a package I had in the water bottle compartment of my North Face pack.  Luckily he had not been successful but the suspicions that I had deemed too judgmental were confirmed. 

            I had another encounter with Egyptian children but one of an entirely different nature than the previous episode.  On the last day in the city I went on a service visit with SAS to an orphanage in Alexandria.  The SOS Children’s Village was a revolutionary break from the stereotypical orphanages I had heard about.  Rather than housing the children in one big prison-like structure, a group of six to ten children were assigned to a house and a “mother” who was responsible for their well-being.  The SOS Children’s Village was established on a commitment to “a family-centered child-care concept based on the four pillars of a mother, a house, brothers and sisters, and a village” (Wikipedia).  The children I met there seemed so full of laughter and love that it was almost impossible to imagine that these children had come from terrible losses and circumstances.  These very children who were so eager to share their toys, pictures, and their happiness could have been the “Oliver Twists” we had met at the train station, wandering aimlessly, resorting to desperate measures for survival as a result of the lack of the care and love of a family. 

Passing by all the different countries and meeting its people, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned the past three months is that people all over the world are surprisingly similar in many ways.  The major difference among us is that we are placed in different circumstances.  Although we are essentially the same as people, we are given different cultural, social and economic tools, and a vastly different environment in which to live our lives.  In the first part of her book The Hidden Face of Eve, Nawal El-Saadawi mentions the women who suffer sexual or mental distortion as a result of their traumatic experience in circumcision (9).  Similarly, could it be that the children who grow up with up in an environment without the love and support of a family group suffer later in life as social deviants and menaces?          

Leaving the children’s village in Alexandria, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is it this difference that drives us to divide into the “good” people and the “bad” people?  The people who have the means to achieve what they attempt to achieve, the people who are given the love and support return what they receive back to others, contributing to society as “good” people, whereas the people who are deprived of meaningful support and resources are given no choice but to resort to less desirable methods to survive.

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