Ahead of FIFA World Cup, a team of Egyptian street children play in their own tournament in Russia and demonstrate their potential in the sport. The football tournament held in Russia targets street-connected and homeless children from 20 countries.
Like his football idol Mohamed Salah, 15-year-old Egyptian Mahmoud Yehia is also playing in his own world cup in Russia this summer, alongside over 200 other street-connected and homeless children aged 14-17 from around 20 countries.
“It is an amazing feeling to be here. I am really proud to represent Egypt,” says Yehia, smiling broadly as he watches the semi-final match between Pakistan and Burundi with his teammates.
Yehia, who hopes to be a professional footballer one day, used to live and beg on the streets of Cairo with his family before an NGO helped him into a shelter and enrolled him in school. This is the first time he has left Egypt.
Egypt is the only country from the Middle East taking part in the Street Child World Cup 2018, a tournament that aims to shed light on youth homelessness and give street-connected children a chance to demonstrate their potential, as well as challenge negative stereotypes.
In the stands of the stadium of newly crowned Russian Premier League champions Lokomotiv in Moscow, players from the Egyptian boys and girls teams are taking a break in the shade as they watch seven-a-side matches between other teams from countries including Brazil, Indonesia, the US, England, Russia, Pakistan, Nepal and Tanzania.
The Egyptian boys’ team reached the quarter finals before losing 1-0 to Indonesia, while the girls left the competition at the group stage. Pakistan and Uzbekistan will face each other in the final of the boys’ tournament on 16 May, and Brazil will compete against Tanzania in the girls’ tournament.
The teenagers’ Russian adventure takes place in parallel with the Egyptian national team’s preparations to compete in the World Cup next month for the first time after almost three decades.
The return of the Egyptian national team has not only excited millions of football fans nationwide, but has also inspired young people in some of the most marginalised communities in Cairo and Giza who are at risk on the streets and who depend on football as a tool of survival.
“Of course, being in the World Cup is the driver for everything in Egypt, not just football,” says Karim Hosny, founder of Nafas, the social enterprise that has brought the teams to Moscow for the Street Child World Cup, organised by the UK charity Street Child United.
The event in Moscow is the third edition of the Street Child World Cup, which is held every four years ahead of the FIFA World Cup. The first one took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2010 and the second was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All the teams have come through frontline organisations working with street-connected children.
A safe space
Many of the Egyptian squad, including eight of the nine boys and seven of the girls, lived on the streets before local NGOS helped them move into shelters and attend school.
Unlike some of the teenagers from the other teams, many of the Egyptians already had birth certificates, but all were issued their first passports in order to travel to Russia.
Hosny founded Nafas after he helped put together a team of boys for the last Street Child World Cup in 2014 in Brazil, when he was part of a smaller NGO. With its main football pitch and a youth centre at Al Abageyah, Qism El-Khalifa in Cairo and several smaller pitches around the area, the Egyptian social enterprise helps children at risk in Cairo and Giza.
“We saw the impact of the experience in Rio on the boys and when we went back to Cairo we founded Nafas for children who are at risk,” says Hosny, whose initiative collaborates with NGOs by using football to engage with hard-to-reach young people and encourage them into shelter and education.
But Nafas, which means “breath” in Arabic, is also about giving children a chance to express themselves in a safe space, as well as giving society a fresh perspective on vulnerable young people who are often stigmatised, he says.
“We now have a league of 400 teenagers. Every fortnight we have ‘match day’ on pitches in Cairo and hundreds of kids take part in the games in a really positive atmosphere.”
In 2017, Nafas also took teams to the Homeless World Cup in Oslo, Norway.
The initiative runs bi-weekly training sessions and employs coaches who are former street children, culminating in fortnightly match days. Initially, only boys took part in the sessions, but in 2015 the programme was extended to girls, and Nafas has a policy of turning no one away.
“There are now around 60 girls in the league. I wouldn’t say there was resistance to girls playing but perhaps at the beginning it seemed a bit strange. Now we find that as more people see girls playing on our pitch, others start to join in,” he explains.
One of those girls is 13-year-old Donia Shebab, who is one of the nine girls playing in Moscow. Like Yehia, Shebab lives in a shelter in Cairo after being helped off the streets and into school. Shebab, who looks older than her 13-years, listens attentively and grins when she is asked about football.
“It was hard at first to play [football] because girls don’t get the chance to learn the skills, but then we were introduced to a coach who taught us everything,” she says.
“Football has made me feel more confident and overcome problems in my life. Playing calms me down,” she adds.
Shebab has only been playing with the Nafas programme for a month, but according to Hosny she is already showing so much potential that she could achieve her dream of playing professionally. For now she is enjoying the spirit among the Egyptian teams on their 10-day trip to Russia.
“For me the best thing about coming here has been the spirit of cooperation within the Egyptian squad.”
The squad has been accompanied to Russia by 18-year-old Abdelhalim Ezzat, one of the boys who took part in the competition in Rio in 2014, and who is training to be a chef at the Hilton Hotel in Cairo. He has come to Moscow to encourage the next generation of players and speak out on children’s rights.
“That experience [in Rio] helped the direction of my life. When I went to Brazil I met a lot of wonderful people who treated me in a very friendly way.
“To me, football means being in a group. We have to play together to create something special. It’s about team work,” says Ezzat, who lived on the streets when he was younger.
There are an estimated 16,500 children living on Egyptian streets, according to the Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali, although these official figures are often called into questionand are estimated to be much higher.
Poverty, the breakdown of families, child abuse and neglect, are some of the leading causesfor Egypt’s problem of street children. Harsh economic conditions have forced families to place their children in circumstances that have pushed them to leave their homes.
At locations across Moscow, the teenagers from Egypt are also taking part in an arts festival, including drumming, singing and painting. All the children will take part in a congress and general assembly, where they will present a manifesto calling on governments to uphold their rights.
Nafas also took a team of young people to the Street Child Games in Rio in 2016, ahead of the Olympic Games in the city. They were joined by other teenagers from nine countries to formulate a resolution calling for the right to education, protection from violence and an identity. The Rio resolution was recognised by former UN envoy on youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, and it became a blueprint for participating teams’ demands to their national governments.
This time the squad will also return to Cairo with a share of a $200,000 legacy fund raised by the global Vitol Foundation to help participating teams engage with more young people at risk of homelessness. They plan to use the money to expand their base in the heart of Cairo.
“I want street kids everywhere to know they should not be embarrassed and that they have to keep trying. I want them to know that no one is better than anyone else and everyone is equal,” says Ezzat.
As football fever builds at home, the Street Child World Cup can be seen as a forerunner to the FIFA tournament in June, say organisers.
“Many people around the world don’t realise that Egypt is such a huge football nation because we haven’t been in the World Cup for so many years, but the passion is as strong in Egypt as it is anywhere,” says Hosny, laughing off the notion that other teams at the Street Child World Cup, like Brazil and England, are from nations with a stronger football history.
As for Mahmoud, he will be watching Salah and the rest of the Egyptian national squad in every match on the TV at the cafe next to the shelter in the 6th of October district, west of Cairo, where he lives.
“I can’t wait,” he says.