My heart sank, when I heard the news, but I wasn’t completely surprised. We met Aya, an incredibly bright and curious 14-year-old, on our first visit to Cairo. Aya has been living on and off the streets since she was about 8. One of her favorite places to sleep was under the seats of the trains that she snuck onto from Ramses Station, Cairo’s main hub and a popular hang out for street kids. “I like to ride the trains,” she told us, “because every time I wake up somewhere new, I feel like I am flying.”
Aya had just arrived at the Hope Village shelter for street girls when we met her back in September while we were interviewing girls for the 10×10 film. One month before, she had been found by the shelter’s mobile unit after suffering a violent attack. Aside from forcefully telling the counselors that she had escaped being raped, “I let him hit me, but I did not let him take my honor,” Aya had not revealed many details about her family, or her life on the streets.
So we had no idea what to expect when she sat down for our first interview. The next hour was at once heartbreaking and inspiring for all of us on the 10×10 team. Aya had an intellectual maturity well beyond her years. She was inquisitive and strong in her opinions. Somehow this girl, who had faced hardship beyond what I can imagine, had a voice. She talked about everything from her first crush, “This boy in Alexandria was very nice to me, we walked along the water together, but his father thought I was bad because I lived on the streets,” to patriotism and politics. When asked who in the whole world she wanted to have dinner with, she answered “Mohammed elBaradei, [the Nobel laureate, and potential presidential candidate] because I need to tell him NOT to be president. He is one of the old men. We need a new kind of person in government.”
And when I asked how she knew so much about politics, she stared me down and said simply, “I read the newspapers…Don’t you?” It turns out that because Aya had only been to school for about a year when she was 7, discarded newspapers had taken the place of textbooks as she taught herself to read, and Tahrir Square became her classroom.
Aya’s happiest memory is being with “strong women” at the height of the Arab Spring revolution, so it is likely that the pull of the protests during the parliamentary elections in November was too much for her to resist. Despite the best efforts of the Hope Village mobile units, it has been two months since Aya disappeared.
I hope she took a train to Alexandria to see her crush, or maybe she is just hiding out with other street kids trying to avoid the police sweeps. But I can’t help but worry that she is one of the many anonymous children sitting in jail, or even in a hospital…a victim of the revolution to which she feels so deeply connected.
A week after the November unrest, when Cairo had returned to relative calm, I was sitting in the office in Los Angeles, trying to figure out what to do next, when I was struck by the similarities between Mona Eltahawy, our Egypt writer whom I wrote about yesterday, and Aya. Although one woman comes from a middle class background, is highly educated and well-traveled, and the other a street girl from Cairo with barely a year of education under her belt, they both intensely love their country. And they are both enraged by the years of injustice that women and girls have suffered there. Most importantly, their shared hope for a different future—a better future—pulled them both to Tahrir. And now, one is recovering from two broken arms and the other missing in action.
And so I arrive in Cairo today, where Mona will join me shortly, hoping that we can track down a 14-year-old street girl lost in a revolution.