My name is Salwa and I am a teacher. I have always been passionate about ensuring that disadvantaged children have access to culture.
In 2009 I had the good fortune to come across Tapori – a friendship network created by ATD Fourth World to enable children all over the world to become friends with one another as well as to give them a platform on which to tell their life stories, and to make others aware of the courage that they show. It was Tapori that made me realise the importance for children of reading. Previously, I had worked in a French-language cultural centre and then in a French school. In both establishments the children came from comfortable backgrounds and were very receptive.
In 2012 I returned to teaching, in a small town in western Egypt. On my way home after work in the afternoon there were always kids playing in the street. The only library in town closed at 1.00pm. So I thought I would set up a children’s reading group, and went off to visit an elementary school. Other schools in the locality got to hear about it through word of mouth.
I arranged for the group to meet at the library which was opened up for us at the request of the director by one of the staff who lived nearby. It was a challenge because I was not a local, and the townspeople were very conservative. It was unusual for a woman to be going out on her own after work as the locals believe that a woman’s place is in the home. And they could not understand why I had volunteered to set up the group if I was not being paid for it.
I ran the group twice a week for three years. The children were typically aged between 6 and 13, plus the odd 14- or 15-year-old. Each session was split into three: history, art and games. In the library courtyard were a see-saw and a slide. The children always asked me to read them Joha stories – humorous tales of life and love which are well-known in the Arab world.
One of the children in the group was my neighbour’s daughter, called Aya. She would call for me and we would set off together. On the way she would tell me stories. Later I realised that these were stories that she had made up herself. To see how her spirit had been awakened by taking part in the group was most moving. Another group member was Ahmed, a lad of 15 with mental health issues who always annoyed the other children. But it would have been out of the question to exclude him. So to help him fit in I gave him little jobs to do: asking him to hand out the pencils, or to collect in answer sheets …… anything that would make him feel valued.
One day a child brought in a story that she had borrowed from her school library. By setting up the group I had sown the seed, but only time will tell what the future holds. I was keen to get my high school students involved, and had suggested that they come along to help me with the group, but it was difficult as they were in their final year, and had lots of work to do.
In 2015 I became a student again, in the department of education and culture. My specialist topic is “developing a taste for culture in the child”. My goal is to equip disadvantaged children with the means to appreciate their cultural identity.