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In Egypt, a push to get more orphans families, fight stigma

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Foster mother Yasmina El Habbal kisses with her 7-month-old daughter Ghalia, at their apartment in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Egyptians who have taken in children under the Islamic system of guardianship known as Kafala are turning to social media to raise awareness as part of a push to provide orphans with permanent families. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Yasmina El Habbal long dreamed of giving birth to a daughter and planned to name her Ghalia, Arabic for “precious.” She never got married, and never did.

But in an Egyptian orphanage at age 40, she finally found her Ghalia: a fussy baby girl with large brown eyes who promptly fell asleep in her arms.

“God has created her for me,” El Habbal said. “There’s no way I could have loved her more or become more attached to her had I given birth to her myself.”

Adoption in the strict sense of the word, with children taking on all the legal rights of biological offspring, is not allowed under Islam, which emphasizes the importance of preserving blood lineage. Instead there is Kafala, an alternative care system under which adults can become guardians of orphaned children.

But elements of Egyptian society have not historically been aware of or enthusiastic about the practice of parents taking orphans into their homes and families, sometimes attaching a stigma to children assumed to have been born out of wedlock or abandoned. Today, El Habbal and others are trying to change that by sharing their Kafala stories on social media, demystifying the practice and challenging such societal prejudices.

Since taking Ghalia in, El Habbal has been sharing snippets of their lives on her blog-style Facebook page: The girl giggling as El Habbal rocks and sings to her; bundled up by a campfire; mother and baby sporting matching Superman T-shirts. An initial post was widely shared, and she has also spoken out in Egyptian media.

The message: “Louli” — her nickname — is an ordinary child like any other, who laughs, cries, gets sick and gets better, with no reason for shame.

“I sometimes just look at her and wonder how our lives would have been like this day if we hadn’t found each other?” El Habbal once posted. “I don’t even remember a life without her.”

One of the most prominent Kafala moms-turned-activists is Rasha Mekky, who founded the nonprofit Yalla Kafala to raise awareness and chip away at cultural misconceptions. Its Facebook page answers questions and concerns, discusses issues like how to talk to children about Kafala and explains its requirements to the group's more than 49,000 followers.

Their efforts come as Egypt has been easing those requirements to encourage families to provide orphans with permanent homes. Under Kafala, children may not have the same inheritance rights as biological ones or take on the full name of the guardian father, but they now may take on either his given name or the family name. And the minimum age requirement for couples to apply has been lowered to 21.

Reem Amin of Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity said online groups like Mekky’s provide a support system for Kafala families or those contemplating it, and are “partners in success” for getting more kids into permanent homes.

“All these ideas will for sure, one day, change the society’s awareness and thinking about Kafala,” Amin said.

Much work remains.

Mahmoud Schban, director of the family and childhood department at the ministry, said one challenge in promoting Kafala is that some people mistakenly confuse it with adoption and shun it as “haram,” or religiously forbidden.

“This is not adoption,” he said.

Islam strongly encourages caring for orphans, and clerics supporting the effort often cite a saying of the Prophet Muhammad promising closeness in paradise with those who provide Kafala for orphans.

“These kids who live in facilities are in need of care either through financially sponsoring them or through taking them in and providing them with an adequate home and taking care of their education, financial needs and upbringing,” said Sheikh Hassan Khalil, a member of Egypt’s High Committee for Alternative Families.

“That way one would have performed a great deed for God” and country, he added.

Kafala raises questions about observing Islamic rules governing the mixing of unrelated males and females after children hit puberty and about veiled women appearing without their headcover before unrelated males.

Many Kafala moms opt to breastfeed, at times inducing lactation — nursing a child five times who is under age 2 forges an Islamically recognized familial bond, Khalil said.

That shouldn’t discourage families from taking in children older than 2 so long as they observe etiquette and modesty rules, especially after puberty, he said.

Mekky, an Egyptian-American living in San Francisco, wishes someone had told her about Kafala long before she took in her now-6-year-old boy— it could have spared her years of heartache and a string of failed in vitro fertilization attempts.

Mekky said would-be Kafala parents often encounter resistance from their own families, who see it as “taboo” and advise them to pray to God for a biological child. Her goal is to change that mindset.

“We want people to be proud of what they have accomplished and that they have taken in a child. ... It’s a beautiful thing, not something to hide,” she said.

She has been bombarded with messages from Egyptian women inspired to follow in her footsteps — including El Habbal, who found “a lifeline” in Mekky's story.

El Habbal had already been helping girls at an orphanage by providing clothes and books and taking them on outings. She sponsored one of them financially, and grew close to others. But she couldn’t shake the feeling they needed more than material possessions and education.

They needed family.

When she hit 40, she decided it was time, despite the prejudices she knew they might confront. Looking at a picture of Ghalia, she felt the baby’s eyes piercing her soul.

It hasn’t always been easy: El Habbal’s father, fearful of her raising a child as a single parent, refuses to have a relationship with the girl.

But El Habbal still encourages others to choose Kafala and is thrilled that a friend of a friend who sought her advice has been approved to become a guardian.

“I want as many people as possible to take this step,” El Habbal said. “I want all the children to find homes.”

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.