Aya Hegazy could have had the wedding every girl dreams about since childhood. But she and her husband Mohamed Hassanein decided to spend the money on opening an NGO to help kids on the streets of Cairo live their own childhood. A dream came true at Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Tahrir Square, bringing about change to 20 lives. A dream short-lived, for three months later the couple was put behind bars.
The 29-year-old Egyptian-American came back to Egypt after she was done with her studies in the United States “to help the country,” her brother Bassel told Egyptian Streets.
Belady Foundation launched in February 2014, with the slogan “Looking at our children on the street in a different way”. Hegazy used to go up to the children in main squares such as Tahrir and Ramsis, telling them they had a place to stay if they promise to develop and learn.
“They loved … being treated with respect,” said Bassel. As soon as a kid was taken in, Hegazy informed their parents, he added.
Recycling workshops, arts classes, and even watching movies with the kids were all daily activities at Belady. The children, many who did not go to school, were also learning how to read and write at Belady.
However, things quickly changed when one day a man who was looking for his child, who had ran away from home, was taken to Belady. The man didn’t find his son there, but claimed to have found other children stranded within the NGO. Later that day, he came back with a number of ‘thugs’ to “free the children”.
Hegazy called the police several times, but only a conscript showed up. A while later, a police vehicle came and took her, her husband and two volunteers along with all the children away.
Locked up since 2 May 2014, the detainees have been charged with human trafficking, abduction, inciting homosexuality, and sexual abuse for pornography, among other accusations. The charges were denied by the forensic report on children inspected.
“Some children were tortured in police stations to give false testimonies,” one defense lawyer for Hegazy and her husband told Al-Shorouk newspaper.
Hegazy believes her imprisonment is a consequence of the country’s situation, her brother said in statements to Egyptian Streets.
“The country was going through difficult times, and Aya was a victim of this,” said Bassel.
One of Belady’s kids, Osama, went to visit Hegazy in prison, with a letter telling her that the injustice would be over soon. In the letter, Osama promised that they would soon return to “the island of humanity”, as the NGO was dubbed. Osama’s mother attended multiple trial sessions, attempting to give a positive testimony that would help Hegazy.
After more than 650 days in prison, Saturday marks the fourth trial session for Hegazy and five others.
Up to 25 Egyptian NGOs and human rights organizations have called on their release, including the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. The 25 organizations collectively condemned the “continued suppression of volunteer action and the quashing of youth and civil society initiatives.”
Despite Hegazy’s ordeal and short-lived assistance, the lives of some street children like Osama changed thanks to Belady.
“I listen to [what you taught me] and I do not beat my siblings. Take care of yourself and do not worry about me. I am okay”, Osama wrote in his letter to Hegazy. Perhaps Osama is doing better, but back in the streets, the other children may not be as lucky.