Alwan wa Awtar: Transforming the Lives of Children

By Rehab Saad

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In 1992, Cairo inhabitants faced a shattering earthquake where many lost their homes along with their humble possessions. Among those were the inhabitants of El Hadaba El Wosta in Mokattam. The government at that time provided them with accommodation in return for low rent. However, they still suffered harsh living conditions, like unemployment, poor access to education plus lack of health services.

Children and youth were among the sufferers as they were deprived of receiving proper education. In this regard, the non-profit organization “Alwan wa Awtar” was established in 2005 in Mokattam to serve the marginalized children and youth. In October 2016, I visited the organization and was impressed by the work they do, the support they give to the children and the impact they have on the surrounding area.

 

“Alwan wa Awtar” targets marginalized children and youth aged 7 to 20, with the aim of promoting basic learning and enhancing their creative thinking and culture. The mission is to encourage artistic senses through visual and performing arts through a team of dedicated art professionals and volunteers who interact with the youth to practice a variety of activities including handcrafts, music, photography, painting, writing and languages, among other activities.

I met with Mrs. Azza Kamel, founder and chairperson, who strives to develop the children’s skills, values and principles through practical learning, using art as a tool for social development. Mrs. Kamel has a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the AUC and has worked in UNESCO and other international development agencies, as well as being a fellow of Ashoka, a network of innovative social entrepreneurs. She was also honored with numerous awards for her work including the UN Women’s Guild Award, Pan African Award for Entrepreneurship in Education, Takreem Award for Innovation in Education and AUC’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

In 2001, Mrs. Kamel was part of the Mokattam women’s community of Fat’het Kheir, a volunteer organization that focuses on progress through empowerment and self-development. She says that the idea of establishing “Alwan wa Awtar” came to her when a French delegation visited the Mokattam area and met with some of the children. They used simple activities like puzzles and masks to entertain the children who expressed great enthusiasm and showed interest in learning different types of art.

“We started ‘Alwan wa Awtar’ in February 2006 with four volunteers, a secretary and an office manager, in addition to 30 children and a couple of mothers in a small flat. Activities included origami, crochet and coloring, amongst others. Today, we have a larger space equipped with all the necessary tools, 4,000 children and youth and more than 30 staff members and volunteers.” She adds, “The learning system here is different than traditional education as it is based on art, active learning and non-formal education, which is the momentum for self-development designed to enrich and inspire the children’s experiences, providing them with tools that develop their thinking skills.” She continues, “We believe that the trainer and children are partners in the learning process, enriching each other through their own unique experiences, abilities and skills. It is all about skill development, communication improvement, critical and analytical thinking, respect of differences and social responsibility.” Mrs. Kamel went on to say, “Our vision is to build a free society with responsible and creative individuals encouraging them to engage in continuous self-development.”

According to her, the learning system is not based on books. “If we want to provide children with general information about rationalizing water consumption, we give them an activity to provide them with information in a more simple way. For example, we distribute sweets to the children and have them count how many each has at the end. The number differs from one to the other, and we ask if they ate all the sweets they had and if their friends did not eat any, and compare it to what happens when someone keeps water switched on for a long time without using it; their neighbor would not have enough water to use.” This free discussion does not only provide children with information in a simple way, but also allows them to brainstorm.

All activities practiced in the center are based on developing teamwork, to respect each others’ ideas, and to develop self-confidence and technical skills.

We also help children understand other cultures through story-telling and teach them English through listening to songs and translating the lyrics for them. Other activities include recycling, drawing, crochet, acting, cooking and learning physics through craft-making. The center also provides space for them to spend free time.

Through theatre and music, “Alwan wa Awtar” builds children’s confidence. Children also participate in simulation models of international organizations like the League of Arab Nations. Some of the projects implemented by “Alwan wa Awtar” allows youth to be trained through a number of artistic workshops including creative writing, photography and graphic design, that enables them to produce their own play, hence encouraging them to express their feelings and what they go through in their daily lives.

Another project is encouraging the youth in community participation with the help of The Coptic Evangelic Organization for Social Services (CEOSS). The project aims at embedding a sense of tolerance towards their community and becoming proactive members.

The art curriculum qualifies the youth to find work easily. Many of them have found work, travelled and learned new languages. Sometimes, we have the opportunity to employ some of them in our center as teachers to the next generation.

Volunteer teachers first get to know the children’s hobbies, personalities and what they mostly like and what they do not. Volunteers attend a three-day training workshop on “Non-formal Education”, giving them an insight on how to set session objectives suitable to kids’ needs, while foreign volunteers expose the children to multi-cultural knowledge and develop their acceptance to differences.

In an interview with Ms. Asmaa, the Program Coordinator, we visited the various units in the center; the art center is where the children are allowed to practice art in different forms and the community library helps them become exposed to different cultures and learn computer skills and story-telling. Free trips are conducted to places like Fagnoun and the Townhouse Gallery. Recently, the children went to the Cairo Opera House to attend a musical performance.

Ms. Asmaa mentioned that there is also a “Live and Learn” program as an enhancement to what the children are offered at school that tackles the likes of geography, science and mathematics through interactive and analytical activities.

She explained how she keeps track of the children’s progress by discussions with the project staff to come up with strategies for improvements. Normally, there is a weekly schedule for the activities, however, children and youth get to choose what activities will run, and after group discussions, new activities are made available.

Ms. Asmaa added that “Alwan wa Awtar” also supports mothers by bringing a psychiatrist to help with problems.

Parents found it difficult to accept “Alwan wa Awtar” at first, as they were not fully aware of what the center will offer to their kids. Learning by using artistic tools and methods was unfamiliar to them, however, when they visited, they realized that it is similar to a school program, but with focus on behavior and character building.

I also concluded from my experience that for any NGO to be professional, it needs proper funding to recruit professional staff and use advanced technology in implementing the system. However, “Alwan wa Awtar” focuses more on virtuous goals, such as building a sense of community, promoting civic engagement and upgrading unprivileged children and youth, to be useful to themselves and the society.

Moreover, Mrs. Kamel and her team support children who have experienced some form of abuse — physical, psychological or sexual — so the center is not only a place where they gain skills, but it is also a safe haven to enable children to come into terms with some of the things that they have experiened, build their confidence and trust in others.

Last January, the center inaugurated its new premises in Mokattam, a 20-minute drive from the old one. It is a three-floor villa with a garden. The first floor contains a large classroom for children aged 3–6 that matches with the Montessori concept of learning. The second floor is especially for newcomers, to make them feel at home. It also includes an open kitchen and two restrooms designed in particular for children below three to enable them to use it independently. Moreover, there is a space for children to rest or sleep in a separate room as well as offices and a clinic. The shaded roof has a kitchenette and a bathroom.

Mrs. Kamel said, “The old premises has been running for about six years now and I believe that each child has a great aptitude to learn if they are provided with the proper environment. Having this in mind, we decided to expand as we have a lot of children who wanted to enroll. With the new space, we can include around 45–55 children for the first year, and reach 60–75 children in the following two years. She added, “We decided to base the education system on the ‘Montessori Concept’. Accordingly, we designed classrooms to match the Montessori program, i.e. children from 1–3 years share the same learning space and children from 3–6 share the same. Ms. Marie Therese Bishay, who has a diploma from Montessori Educational Programs International (MEPI), conducts the Montessori course for teachers and parents on one hand, and for the children on the other.

At “Alwan wa Awtar”, all the children are distinguished, so no certificates or scholarships are provided, however, the school is an MEPI Silver Member, so the center offers school internships for students who will become Montessori class directors.

Mrs. Kamel concluded, “Our main goal is to continue serving as many children as possible. Also, mixing privileged with underprivileged children reflects the equality concept. However, marginalized children are accepted without paying any tuition fees, but the privileged normally pay whatever they can afford. In parallel, we continue to work with children who have already graduated and gone to school, if they want to continue with us.”

“We are also supported by parents who usually supply the school with food items, vegetables, fruits etc., and some help in the maintenance of the premises,” Mrs. Kamel added.

“We still have more ambitious plans for the future as we are looking forward to inviting school children to join us in an afternoon program. We are also hoping that we will be able to use the space we have for different workshops to support new and developing programs that go along with ‘Alwan wa Awtar’ concepts.”

As for the new law regarding NGOs, Mrs. Kamel said, “Civil society organizations are the backbone of a functioning society. They exist alongside the government, and are not to be seen as a competitor or threat, because they play a major role in reaching out to communities that lack basic services and delivering the needed services. I hope that the state would reconsider minimizing the role of NGOs, at least for those who play a significant one in development and education.”

It is worth mentioning that the recognitions and awards given to “Alwan wa Awtar” are : second best show at the Egyptian Child Festival in 2010, Coming Up Taller Award, granted by the US President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2009 and the Women’s Guild Award, United Nations Organization, in 2008.

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