When I signed up for DukeEngage I was expecting to change the world, or at least my assigned corner of Cairo. I expected to go to Ana El-Masry and teach art to the next Van Gough or Kahlo. While I have no doubt that we have had an impact on these kids this summer, my expectations were not reality. I love these kids, and I hope that I taught them some life skills, but I doubt they learned a lot about art except perhaps how to better express creativity. However, I have learned so very much from these kids and instead of changing their lives, they have changed mine.
In America we expect the right to pursue happiness, but we abuse that promise everyday by pursuing things that we think will make us happy eventually but make us miserable in the meantime. On the other hand, the future of all these children is uncertain beyond the fact that they will someday rejoin society as contributing members, but their pasts are heartbreaking realities. In spite of the uncertainty of their futures and the terrible realities of their pasts, they are happy. They are fun-loving, energetic, and always smiling and laughing. In their faces I am reminded that thankfulness is a key in happiness. While Amanda mentioned that some kids miss the freedom of the streets and run away, others are thankful for the shelter, food, clothing, and love they receive at Ana El-Masry which was unattainable on the streets.
Generosity is a virtue. Even in a land of abundance like America, generosity gives way to suspicion and greed, but these children give so much. When we arrive in the mornings they are eating breakfast, and even though we have all eaten already and a croissant is all they will receive for this meal, they all insist on sharing some with us. The children rip of pieces and hold them to our faces until we take them and eat them. Today, our last day, they gave us all hand-made bags that they sewed for us in their sewing class. Their selfless generosity is truly inspiring!
Brilliance can be born out of any situation. At Duke everyone is expected to brilliant, and many have had an environment which nurtures this brilliance. In contrast, these kids have literally been living on the streets, and yet many of them are incredibly smart. Many of them have come out of seemingly hopeless situations like rape, families with addiction, abuse, death of their parents, but they thirst for knowledge. They love to learn and so eager for knowledge in ways that I can never remember being as a nine or ten-year-old.
Sometimes words just aren’t enough. For someone who is an aspiring linguist, it is hard for me to admit that words aren’t always necessary for communication. The tone of a person’s voice matters so much more than the actual words. Also gestures, body language, and hugs are just as competent modes of communication. While I have taken some Arabic, it was still very difficult to communicate with the children in the Egyptian dialect. In spite of this language barrier, I have connected with the children in truly meaningful ways created relationships that I value so very much.
Today, as we drove away from those precious smiling faces for the last time, I thought of how much they have truly changed my life in the way that I value things and the way I look at the world and life. While I may be sad now to leave them, I am so happy to have this opportunity and I know that I can always find a way to see the bright side of life like these kids have. The founder of Ana el-Masry said to me “These kids have something special which other kids don’t have because they have seen the worst. But they are still children and because of that they are precious and they are happy and smart in ways we cannot imagine.”