CAIRO–Art education may seem like an odd focus for a charity working in a Cairo slum overrun by poverty. But Azza Kamel, founder of the Egyptian non-profit organization Alwan wa Awtar, believes that it is a very powerful tool.
“When we first started out, people would constantly ask “Why art when people are starving?” she says. “Today, these same people are our staunchest supporters.”
Over the past ten years, Kamel has witnessed first-hand how art, crafts and informal education can develop Egyptian children with little to no education in one of the Egyptian capital’s most destitute slums.
Her organization teaches art, music and crafts to a students ranging from primary-school age to high school graduates. The organization uses experiential learning, games and community work and provides facilities that are free and open to youth, including a library and an art center. For most, if not all, of these children, Alwan wa Awtar gives them their first experience with art.
“Art is not just for the privileged,” Kamel explains. “It’s therapeutic for these children as it gets them off the streets where you have drugs, violence and fundamentalist movements, and it develops many social skills and their self-esteem. We use art to attract them, engage them and turn them into proper human beings.”
A 2014 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Egypt ranked last out of 148 countries for its quality of primary education. That means an estimated 17 million students in Egyptian primary and secondary education will receive arguably the worst education in the world.
While a complete system overhaul depends on the Egyptian government, Alwan wa Awtar tries to make difference in one neighbourhood. It says it has worked with around 4000 children and youth in the Cairo slum area of Mokatam, which has an estimated population of 136,000. The organization has won awards from multiple organizations, including the UN’s Women’s Guild Award and the U.S. President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities
“A&A’s students live in this [social] structure where everything is wrong or immoral, and we want to give them a space that they can explore their potential,” Kamel says. “That’s the beauty of art; there’s no right or wrong in it. It’s giving them a space where they can grow without anyone breathing down their neck.”
The students have had little or no education; some participants as old as twelve can barely read or write after having completed six years of school.
“You need to understand that these children hate education. The kind of public education they receive at school would make anybody hate it,” Kamel says. “We believe education doesn’t have to come in a book or a classroom, and we encourage the idea of learning from each other, from their community and from our environment.”
She believes children can be catalysts of change. “They are not yet responsible for bringing money into the family,” she explains. “We develop them so that they no longer need the [financial and food] hand-outs that we give.”
“The good thing about working within the community is that these children change their parents and not the other way around,” she adds. “So when the parents see how their children’s manners and social skills have developed, they like that and they start changing with them.”
Experiential learning was first defined by psychologist David Kolb as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”
Alwan wa Awtar students learn through simple games and play, taking in their experiences and others’ perceptions, as well as through expressing their own conclusions. The learning method also helps them interact and develop relationships with one another. While research into the effectiveness of experiential learning remains inconclusive, Kamel believes the program’s graduates are a testament to the program’s success.
A 2013 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“Art for Art’s Sake”) found that music education strengthens a student’s IQ and academic performance, while visual arts strengthen geometrical reasoning, drama enhances empathy and theatre education strengthens verbal skills.
Some Alwan wa Awtar students have gone on to become teachers and project developers themselves. Save The Children hired three of the program’s graduates as activities coordinators for its Egypt-based projects. A fourth student, 22-year-old Ahmed Fakher became a private music teacher instead.
“I have found a space that respects me and people that respect me,” he says. “I get recommended as a teacher by others because they see my potential and how good I am at teaching. I never thought I’d speak English well; but now I’m good enough to give guitar lessons to foreigners.”
As the youngest child of a poor family in Mokatam, Fakher felt frustrated with his inability to express himself.
“Everything I experienced at [A&A], I wanted to apply at home,” he says. “I learned a new type of conversation with my father that doesn’t have to end in violence. This has completely changed my relationship with my family and my life.”
23-year-old Asmaa Ashry participated in an 18-month UNICEF-Nahdet El Mahrousa training program, which tries to develop “social entrepreneurs,” and won a grant of 4,000 Egyptian pounds (about $536) which she reinvested in Alwan wa Awtar.
“We realised that there were many children at Alwan wa Awtar so we decided to teach them ourselves and we used the grant to provide them with the tools and resources,” she says.
Today, she teaches reading and writing at Alwan wa Awtar, and is grateful for the self-confidence and skills that the program helped her develop.
“I used to hate it when people would ask me what I loved doing or what my best talent was because I had nothing to say,” she says. “At Alwan wa Awtar, I tried and learned so many activities that today I’m so proud and happy to tell people what I love and what I can do well.