This morning I decided to work in front of my open window, letting the breeze, sunshine, and birdsong inspire me as I write. But midway through the morning, I began to be disturbed by some of the grounds workers, lying on the grass about 50 metres from my garden. They were wrestling, yelling, and taking photos of each others, lying on the grass.
I started getting annoyed. I live in this particular area of the city because it’s quiet, and here in Cairo that is something precious. I pay good money to stay here, and these workers are hanging around like they own the place, disturbing the peace.
But before you go agreeing with my initial reaction, here’s something you should know. Most of these workers are teenagers, kids really. The economic climate here in Egypt means that even young people need to work to support themselves and their families. If these kids are playing around on the grass instead of working, it’s because they probably got up at 4 or 5 am, rode here in the back of a truck, huddled in a blanket, and have been working for hours while I slept in my comfortable bed.
At the school where I worked, the first thing I noticed when I arrived for my interview were two young boys, about the same age as grade 10 students, in blue worker’s uniforms, moving furniture from one room to another. At first I was appalled that these teenagers should be working in a school with kids the same age and older than them. But as I looked around, no one else seemed to be uncomfortable with this arrangement. As I began to work there, I realized that even the foreign teachers accepted the situation.
When I saw the cleaning ladies, I was again struck by how young they were. How do they feel coming to work every day, getting there before everyone else, and leaving after all the students had gone home- the same ones who complain when they have too much homework to do to hang out with friends at Starbucks that night? How does it feel to be patted down and searched each time they leave to make sure they haven’t stolen any markers, notebooks, or other small school supplies?
After school ended and the students had gone home, I would often hear the cleaners laughing and running up and down the halls and stairs, chasing each other. I wondered if they would get in trouble for being unprofessional. But they’re not professional. They’re kids doing the work of adults.
The injustices done to these workers, and to others at the school, was one of the many reasons that I decided I could no longer continue to work there. But I’ve come to realize that my very existence here in Egypt is built upon the backs of these very young people, whether it’s the gardens I enjoy on my daily walks, or the local restaurant where I eat Egyptian delicacies.
For a former Social Justice and Peace Major, this is a hard pill to swallow. I’m torn between rationalizing it as cultural, and railing against a system that makes it impossible for kids to be kids. On the one hand. until not so long ago, children in the West also had to work with their parents. My own father did work on a farm before and after school. But on the other, the economic situation that has caused these young people to seek employment is one that is entirely modern.
This is one of my few posts where I have no conclusion to leave you with. I have no lesson I’ve learned, or profound answer to my questions. It’s just one of those many dilemmas you encounter when you live overseas: coming up against situations where you don’t know which side is right- or if any is.