The past week and a half, the pungent smell of plastic adhesive glue, strong enough to mend furniture and lay down tiles, filled the nursery room. Amber and I had cut out what seemed like hundreds of paper fawanees, the traditional lanterns hung around the city during Ramadan, and decorated them with as many designs as we could think of. We then took colorful pieces of string, and dipped our fingers in the glue to stick the lanterns onto the string. We hung the strings of lanterns from every ceiling possible, covering the entire complex with fawanees. It was an incredible sight, seeing the designs and colors brighten the dusty, cold walls of Ana-El Masry, and as I walked away my last day of work, I couldn’t help but think of how this project was a beautiful metaphor for my entire experience in Cairo.
When I came to Egypt, I knew I was going to fall in love with kids we worked with. But I also had anxiety about abandoning them at the end of the summer, just like Amanda. Most of the kids have never had healthy relationships; they didn’t have families that taught them about love. I felt like I was going to form amazing connections with them, and then leave, sadly contributing to the hardships in their lives. The only way I knew how to cope with this problem was to shower them with more love and affection, and cherish my time with them. I have to believe that I changed the kids’ lives, just like they changed mine. The plastic adhesive glue, meant to stick things much stronger than just paper and string together, didn’t always work. The paper lanterns would fall off; there wasn’t always enough glue; someone would accidently step on them and mess everything up. But just like my solution with the children to give them more love, no matter how frustrating it was to glue lantern after lantern, I picked the string back up, slathered more glue on my finger, the lantern, and the string, and welded the two together again.
I would come in every morning the last week to see stacks and stacks of construction paper, scissors, glue, markers, and string, just waiting to be molded into the fawanees. By the end of that week, I was so sick of them, I didn’t want to make another one. At times, I felt the same way with Ana-El Masry. I got frustrated, upset, confused, angry, and felt helpless at points on the trip. Day after day trying to discipline, keep order, and work through disorganization can really wear on a person. But when I saw all the fawanees hanging, with the kids admiring them and smiling chanting: “Ramadan Kareem!” the frustration in making them seemed so small. On the last day of work, the kids all shared memories about the last two months and told us how much they loved us. Just like seeing the fawanees, seeing the kids appreciate and remember even the smallest things we did for them erased all the hardships, at least for that moment, and I couldn’t help but cry from sadness and happiness.
When the glue is applied, it’s a white, thick paste that is not aesthetically pleasing in the least. It looks sloppy at best, and does not look suitable to display. But when it dries, it dries clear, seamlessly suspending the paper lanterns in the air. They may be crooked, flopping around in the wind, or hanging upside down. But what matters was they were there, they were part of the string, on display for the kids to see. At work, there were days when things were sloppy. There was no order; the kids would run wild through the compound, wreaking havoc, beating us up, spitting on us, and kicking us. But today, at the end of 8 weeks, the glue has dried, and all I can see are their smiling faces. They all have their issues, hardships, and some were undoubtedly better than others, but they are all forever imprinted in my mind as beautiful little memories.
Naturally, smearing the glue with my fingers, I was bound to get a little dirty. Some days my hands would be covered with the white substance. The glue would dry as a thick, clear film on my hands. At first, I was relieved I could peel the glue right off when it was dry. But now that’s my biggest worry. Will the kids, the staff, and the Egyptians I have connected so deeply with the last 8 weeks just peel me right off their hands? Will I ever get to see their faces again? Will they even remember me if I come back? These questions are now haunting me, and I only anticipate that fear growing when I am back on American soil.
I know one thing for sure. I have to come back to Cairo; even just for a day. I have to see the kids who have changed my life again. I have to reconnect with the Egyptians who offered so much to me, who welcomed me into their homes and shared their thoughts, memories, and feelings with me. It simply wouldn’t be right to never come back. When I get back home, I have a feeling that there is going to be a hole in my heart. A hole where those kids live, where they laughed, cried, sang, and learned. I pray one day I can fill that hole. But until then I’ll be using the plastic adhesive glue to hold my heart together.