Sitting at The Littlest Lamb's Birdrock home for orphaned children, Sanabel al-Najjar shares a heartwarming talk with Dina Waguih about their fresh new approach of lovingly caring for the children and helping them fully integrate into society from a young age.
When I was little, my dad would wake me up when he gets home late and ask me to get dressed. We would then sneak out of the house and go to McDonald’s, which was an adventure to me. He would get me the glorious Happy Meal and ask me to go play in the play area. I wouldn’t, though. I would sit on a little table with him, listening with eyes wide open about every little detail of his day, absorbing everything. He would then go outside and sit by another table completely adjacent to mine with only the glass wall in between. He would smoke his cigarette and wave to me. Those were moments that will never be replaced by any other of happiness and contentment. That was the feeling of having loving parents who did everything possible to make sure their children are well and content.
For most of us, perhaps every little detail in our lives is nothing but a tiny bead placed after another, gradually and patiently building a bridge towards a certain end that is a journey in itself: parenthood. Seeing a father wrapping his small daughter on his jacket in a cold night, a mother brushing her daughter’s hair while the latter is occupied with her colouring book, or a couple cradling their newborn, smiling at their treasure despite being sleep-deprived for days on end - those are the typical images of parenthood in our heads.This image, however, does not always reflect a sound reality and is not always the case. For different reasons, parents are at times not able to provide for their children; sometimes the parents aren’t available anymore to take care of children. Sadly, here in Egypt as well as in different parts of the world, orphaned children are either not taken in or, if they are, institutions usually provide the bare minimum for survival. Many believe that by providing an ‘orphan’ with a roof, a bed, and some food, they are saved – or, even more so, that they should be grateful. Though those who put effort into providing the basic needs of children who otherwise would have been left for the streets are indeed doing something noble, maybe it’s time to start going beyond survival mentality and treating orphaned children the way children around the world ought to be treated.
Before we start passionately cursing this situation (especially in the Arab World), we should instead stop and appreciate the great effort a certain organisation is putting towards changing the stigma of the ‘orphan’ in Egypt, while providing their children with much more than the ‘bare minimum for survival’. The Littlest Lamb, a home for orphaned children that officially opened in October 2014, is a nonprofit organisation that provides a safe and loving environment for children who lost either one or both parents. The organisation provides the little ones with necessary tools for a full integration into society, ensuring them a bright future.Dina Waguih, Communications and Outreach Manager, invites me to the lovely Birdrock home to chat a little about the organisation and the issue of orphaned children in Egypt. Taking me on a small tour through the gorgeous home, Wagui shows me the dining area, the cosy little meditation room, the art, music, and play rooms, and then the backyard. After crossing the pool where the children would swim, she points to a green area in the distance where the children would plant mango, onion, eggplant, and okra to make Birdrock home self-sustainable. They would also have picnics in the summer by the pool.
It was then time for some real talk. For starters, Waguih friendly corrects the common mistake that I fell into (as probably did many of the readers) when I used the term ‘orphans’. “We refer to those children as orphaned children,” Waguih tells me. “They are not orphans; they are children who were orphaned. Orphanhood does not define them, but is only something that happened to them. This is exactly what we are trying to eradicate here in Egypt, this stigma about being parentless. We try to do so not only within our society but also in the minds of the orphaned children themselves, who should not be made to feel like they have no prospects or future. Instead, they will be organically integrated within society instead of being detached from it.”Waguih explains that, once the society sees this kind of confidence in successful individuals who were orphaned, their understanding of orphanhood and the way they view it is bound to change. This way, people in society will see beyond the situation of the orphaned children and into how well they have integrated into their society and are contributing to it. When I ask Waguih about why she thought orphanhood was stigmatised, she replies, “In our Arab societies, families are extremely important. It is the norm to ask questions such as ‘what family are you from?’ and ‘what does your father do?’ instead of ‘what do you do?’, ‘what did you study?’, what are your talents?’ and so on.”
However, Waguih expands on that and tells me that this is not necessarily a negative thing. On the contrary; Western societies lack the strong family bond that Arab societies are characterised by. The downside to that, however, is that whoever lacks that family bond will be alienated from society.
Birdrock home, Waguih tells me, surprisingly houses only eight children. “People come to us and say ‘oh what a beautiful place, and you’re only hosting eight children?’ but little do they know about how trust is built between us and the children," she shares. "We focus on the needs of each child. We want to make them feel safe and belonging to this place. It makes a difference when a child feels that this is their bed, those are their toys, those are their friends. This paves the way for a healthy attachment. Even though each would have their own small bubble, they’d know that their stuff will be never be taken away from them.”Despite its spaciousness, Birdrock home will never be allowed to get crowded. Each room has no more than two or three beds and no more than six to nine beds overall in an apartment. “We will never compromise this aspect, for the sake of our kids,” Waguih says concern.
Waguih tells me how the little ones end up in the loving Birdrock home: “Through our outreach to parents in simple communities and by gaining their trust, we are able to help them overcome the emotional dilemma and assure them that they are welcome to visit the home. We also asked such families about others who might be in need of the same, as well as other organisations working within this issue.”
What follows that are potential detachment traumas faced by the children. Curious to know more about how The Littlest Lamb attends to that, Waguih tells me, “That’s why we have an in-house child psychologist, Tamer El Kharrat, who is with them at all times and does not just drop by every once in a while. He even trains us and the caregivers on how to deal with each situation through baby steps, according to the phase the child is in as well as their age group.”
“We also shower them with love,” Waguih adds, smiling. “Showers and showers of genuine love. And so we approach it case by case instead of generalising all children and their experiences.” The children go to international schools and nurseries so that they’re fully integrated into society and have friends they can invite here. They can later go to college, work, or travel – whatever they decide – while still knowing well that this will always be their home and that they can stay however much they want after they’ve grown up.On the way back to the office from Ahmad Orabi, where the home is located, Waguih, who was kind enough to give me a ride back, talks with the warm reassurance of a loving mother about all the children at Birdrock. My heart swells as I tell myself there is still good in this world. Hopefully The Littlest Lamb will flourish and will be a great and genuine inspiration for all other homes for orphaned children, who need more love and support than any others.
Of course, helping out doesn’t mean you have to build a home yourself, as you can donate to The Littlest Lamb, which would definitely mean the world (literally) to some children.
Photo shoot by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photography by Mona Hassan.
Main image courtesy of The Littlest Lamb.