A shining star in the community, Banati has been a pioneer in addressing one of the most visible issues in the city, that of vulnerable children being exposed to life on the streets. Showing courage, vision and resourcefulness, Professor of Pediatrics and Clinical Nutrition Cairo University, Hanna Aboulghar set out to find a solution, through establishing Banati Shelter for Girls in Cairo.
CWM: How did the idea of starting Banati come about?
The idea started with a letter I sent to AlMasry Alyoum newspaper in response to a negative media campaign covering the issue of children at risk on the streets of Cairo. The letter was published and I got a phone call from Eng. Samih Sawiris who pledged the land and buildings, and the Sawiris Foundation gave the running costs for us to start operating (followed by many other partners without whom Banati would never have happened).
Banati was established with a group of founders of various backgrounds and expertise, each an important addition to the board, and a growing number of staff members, some with long experience in the field, and a big family of volunteers and supporters.
What are the key aims of Banati?
Banati was established with the aim of protecting children at risk, with a particular interest in girls in street situations. We strive to work with the girls and their families mentally and socially, hoping to reintegrate them into their families if that is safe and in their best interest. If the family is unable to change the current conditions (abuse, neglect, broken families, extreme poverty, exploitation), then we provide her with shelter at our Haram City permanent residence where she will continue her rehabilitation program together with education, workshops, arts and sports.
We study case by case and a program is set for each one of the girls by a team of social workers, psychologists, legal consultants for papers, and our education department. The girl is a member of the team and the program and timeline aims at her graduation from the foundation when of age, well equipped to face society. We aim to continue helping more girls, with a special focus on reintegrating them into their families. We hope we can one day set up an endowment fund that would cover key financial expenses, thus securing the future of Banati.
How did you manage to garner such a high level of community support?
This has not always been easy, children in street situations are seen by society as “a danger to others”, “they choose to leave their families”, so are generally viewed as “bad”. Girls are abused sexually more explicitly and aggressively than boys and in a society that looks harshly at girls with such a background, it’s hard to change people’s minds.
It’s much easier to gain empathy for orphans, for example. As the problem grew, and more people are working in the field, with many voicing their concerns, and especially with all the success stories we’ve shared, people have become aware of how great the impact of kindness and solidarity is on these girls, and what wonderful achievements come out of their hardships.
To what extent do your supporters and partners offer opportunities for education and employment for Banati children as they grow up?
We have examples of wonderful supporters like the DEO, the German school in Cairo, which for the 5th year now is supporting the training and salaries of 4 teachers who work fulltime at Banati to support the girls’ educational program. We have had training programs with the Ritz Carlton hotel for a group of girls in their kitchen, one of our girls worked for a year with Novotel in the housekeeping department, one girl is currently working at Zooba, Gourmet and Azza Fahmy have at various points helped with the training of our girls in cooking and jewelry making.
Ubuntu gallery is supporting the cultural development of our girls with recurring art workshops. These are only examples of many wonderful people and entities that support our girls and give them a chance to reintegrate in a respectful and positive manner into society.
Has your own upbringing influenced your personal path?
Both my parents are very aware of the importance of social responsibility, and this has always been part of our culture at home. I think it’s impossible to be happy and content whatever your good fortune unless you live in a society where people have basic needs fulfilled and there is a certain degree of equal opportunity.
At what stage of your life did you become aware of a need to become actively involved in helping within the community?
In 2001 my daughters were starting school and I was overwhelmed by motherhood and the responsibilities that come with it. There were two families with young children that had started roaming around the building where I lived in Dokki. I saw them in the traffic dangerously navigating cars, trying to beg for money, and at night they’d sleep alone on the pavement in winter, with no adult supervision.
I started reading and studying the extent of the problem and I was led to an organization that worked with children in street situations, mainly boys. We collaborated and started a reception center for girls, and I was elected board member. In 2008, I left and together with the wonderful founders of Banati we opened our doors in 2009.
Can you tell us about the people who have made Banati possible?
Samih Sawiris donated the land and the buildings and Mrs. Yousriya Sawiris was the first Chairwoman of the Board. Mrs. Mona Fayek the first Secretary of the Board, contributed immensely to the development of our projects department. Dr. Iman Iskander is the one behind our strong education department. Mr. Adly Toma is our current Treasurer and has been able to secure our financial situation by developing the financial department even further since it was originally established by our previous treasurer Mrs. Sahar ElSallab, who is currently a Board Member with great contributions to our financial direction.
Ms. Rehan Bashary is our current Secretary of the Board and legal advisor. Each and every member of the board contributes time, effort, expertise and networking to Banati, the passion and love with which each one works is the main reason behind our success. It is a driving force for our wonderful team, some of whom have worked with us since day one.
What have been the challenges?
Funding is always a challenge, to maintain a high standard of mental health care, education, rehabilitative activities, and provide alternate mothers is very expensive and if it were not for our partners it would have been impossible to expand. Individual donors are, and have always been, a very important source of support through donations in money or in kind, volunteering their time and helping out as a true big Banati family.
Raising awareness and empathy within society is still a great challenge, our girls are still being bullied at school and at work for their background, and many of them carry psychological scars that truly affect their self-esteem.
What steps would you like to see take place to improve the treatment of children and the more vulnerable women in our society?
I believe that the rights of children in our society in general are compromised, our society loves its children warmly but its concept of parenting is built on the unfair belief that our children are ours and they are here to fulfil our dreams. This in addition to the traditional rigid parenting techniques that often involve physical punishment.
I have a great passion and dream that the next generation of children will have parents who love them unconditionally, support them to be the best of what they want to be, and safeguard their childhood from stress, be it school, competitive sports or social and peer pressures. There is no way we can change the future of any society without happy, healthy and safe kids.
I think the true empowerment of women lies in their financial independence, for that to happen investing in education of women is probably the single most rewarding investment any country can do. We have seen examples of how investing in the education of women in the south of Italy led to the development of the society, they went on to get jobs, had less number of children who in turn were better educated and the whole community was lifted socially and economically.
Looking back, is there anything you might have done differently?
Banati is my dream come true, I’m so grateful that I got the opportunity to be part of it, I’ve met lots of wonderful people, I’ve learnt so much from my colleagues, our supporters, our employees and especially from the girls. There have been times of great distress, worry, even fear, there are days that it feels like a burden, but then I get a picture of one of the girls learning something new or having fun and the smile on her face is enough to make it all worthwhile.
I love children, I’m a pediatrician by profession, I’m a mother of two adult daughters, and I think investing in children in a country where 40% of the population is below 18 is the best investment I can make for my own daughters’ future if I want them and their generation to live happily and safely in Egypt.
Prof. of Pediatrics and Clinical Nutrition Cairo University,
President of Board of Banati Foundation for Children in Street Situations.