They ran away. Last Sunday, I found out that Sayid and Alaa, two of my favorite boys at Ana El Masri, snuck out during the night and never came back. Marianna, one of the coordinators at Ana El Masri, explained to me that some of the boys miss the freedom on the streets of being able to do whatever they want. I understood, but at the same time, I was baffled. They get free food, free shelter, free education, and most importantly, love, at Ana El Masri: would the children really sacrifice all of this just for the “freedom” of the streets?
I kept asking Marianna whether Ana El Masri had people looking for the children, and she said that they did, but had no luck. Over the past week, I’ve been crossing my fingers that our DukeEngage bus will pull into Ana El Masri and I’ll see Alaa running up to the bus with open arms, greeting me with a big hug, and that I’ll see Sayid come into English class with his slightly spiked hair and smile that instantly curbs all of my frustrations. Instead, I am haunted by images of Sayid starving in the middle of the desert and boys beating up Alaa on the streets. I know that Ana El Masri does not have any legal rights to force the children to come back, and I know that I can’t do anything. But how can I just accept that these children are probably gone forever, and that they might not survive on the streets, let alone ever lead a stable life?
It’s taken me a few days to figure out what I am feeling. Is it anger at Ana El Masri for not stopping the boys? Is it frustration that the boys didn’t realize that Ana El Masri was giving them an opportunity for a better future that they wouldn’t find by living on the streets? Or is it betrayal because they didn’t even say goodbye to me? I keep thinking back to all of the moments that could have warned me: all of the times that Alaa picked fights with other children or refuse to talk to anyone, and all of the times that Sayid would leave English class or not pay attention to the material. Could I have persuaded them to stay?
I am upset because this incident makes me feel helpless. I feel abandoned. But what most upsets me is that this Thursday, I will abandon all of the children at Ana El Masri. I will abandon talented Mohammed, who always eagerly recites, “My name is Mohammed and I am from Egypt.” I will abandon sweet Yusef, who always asks how many more days we have left. I will abandon adorable Mustafa, who asked me to take him back home with me. I will soon betray all of them when I leave and go back to the comforts of America: the comforts of having a family, food, shelter, and quality education.
I feel abandoned, and I also feel replaceable. Five children, including Sayid and Alaa, ran away but Ana El Masri received six new boys to comprise their new class of “reception” children, the children who just came from the streets. Yes, Ana El Masri can’t take care of the five that are gone, but the staff have to move past that fact and focus on the children still in the organization. The children seem replaceable and I, as well as this DukeEngage group, are replaceable. Every year a different group comes back, and every year, the kids form new friendships with the Duke students. The kids do not need us. The kids have the staff, who dedicate their lives to them. They have the Egyptian college students who volunteer to play with the children, and who can actually speak their language and see them regularly. They have each other.
This past week, I’ve harbored mixed, confusing emotions. But now, as we have three days left with the children, I think that I’m ready to move past these negative feelings and realize that despite the hardships and heartaches, I wouldn’t give up this experience at Ana El Masri for anything. My first blog post divulged my worries that this program would not help the kids substantially, and that Duke students would be the primary beneficiaries of this program. But now, I have to have faith that I, and this group, have had an impact: that our English lessons teaching “please” and “thank you” taught them good manners that will last a lifetime, that some of the kids felt inspired by us to stay in school, that they will remember us and this summer. These kids have inspired me to continue pursuing my passion for teaching and education, and I must have faith that we changed their lives just as much as they changed mine.