Oasis Magazine Articles

Free to Learn: Fatma's Story

By Kristin Jankowski

She hid herself behind her father's legs. I could just see her big brown eyes. "That's Fatma," said Yousef, our new bawab. My family and I just moved in our new apartment, and Yousef and his family lived next door in a small room with no windows. Fatma is his little daughter.

My husband Salah, my daughter Malak and I were so happy about our new flat, situated on the ground floor with a garden and a mango tree. "Maybe Malak and Fatma can be friends one day," said Salah. At that point, he had no clue how much truth was in his words.

"Fatma is afraid of other people," explained Yousef. "It's good that you moved in the apartment next to us. Fatma and Malak can play together one day. "Two little girls, two families, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship… the beginning of a miracle.

It was Salah who introduced the girls to each other. "Go and play with Fatma," he told Malak. And off she went into Yousef's little room where he lives with his wife Shaimaa, Fatma and baby Heba. They share one big bed. They have a very small kitchen and a bathroom, and a TV on a shelf.

Since I arrived in Egypt more than 8 years ago, I can't get used to the big gap between the rich and the poor. It breaks my heart when I see how much money rich people spend on manicures, the hair dressers, and club memberships while the poor beg for food in the streets.

Malak was two years old when they met, Fatma one year older.  Since last summer, the girls have become best friends.  They laugh, scream, run, solve puzzles together, fight and hit each other, cry and hug each other. I'm very proud to tell people that Malak plays with our bawab's daughter. Why? It is just a good feeling.

As time passed, I fell pregnant again. Yousef and his wife helped me a lot during my second pregnancy, while Malak played for hours in their room. Baby Salma was born at home. Even while I was in the last stages of labor, Malak was with Fatma next door. There was no way that we could separate these two girls.

In the last days of summer, Yousef told us he had begun searching for a kindergarten for Fatma. Alarm bells rang in my head. I knew that average kindergartens cost 2,000 pounds or more in Cairo. And most of them I didn't even like. How awful would a kindergarten for 50 pounds be, I thought to myself. No, I thought, not for Fatma. Not for our helpful neighbors.

 Sitting on my laptop, I felt inspired to write a short post on Facebook. It just burst and spilled out of me. I wrote a post starting an initiative for Fatma. During that time, I had spoken with nobody about my idea. There was no "we" at the time, I actually had no idea what I was doing.  I just had a clear vision: Fatma having the same chances in life as Malak. Full stop.

I called the initiative "I'm free to learn” – inspired by the wonderful book "Free to Learn" by Peter Gray. The book is a masterpiece against imprisonment schooling and the importance of free social play.  I asked my Facebook followers if anyone was willing to donate money for Fatma, so we can save her from ill-treatment in a super cheap kindergarten.

I received messages on the spot.  Surprisingly, even the manager of the Montessori-Kindergarten that Malak attends contacted me, scheduling a meeting for the next day. "I'm curious about Fatma," she said, when we met in her office. She asked me a few questions, and it was obvious that we were both very moved by what was happening. "I want to see her. Can you bring her tomorrow?" I felt I was losing my balance, in a dream state. She continued, "I have been thinking for months about admitting an impoverished child into our kindergarten. I know that Maria Montessori would be very happy about that." We both had tears in our eyes.

That afternoon I went to Yousef and told him what had happened, delivering the happy news that beginning from the very next day, Fatma would be attending the same kindergarten as Malak, together. He and his wife were so happy.

In our modern consumerist world, I believe most of us think we can achieve happiness through buying more things, going to yoga or mediation classes to become enlightened, or having an important job. All these things are done in an attempt to fill a void inside of us.

But that may be misguided.  In my own limited experience, the basic source of all happiness is love and compassion, a sense of kindness and warm-heartedness towards others, just as the Dalai Lama.  If these past few weeks have taught me anything, it is how right he is.

A year ago, Fatma was just one of millions of poor kids in Egypt. Now she can speak a few German words and she is counting in English. She knows how to climb, she isn’t afraid of a slide anymore. She knows how to pay the taxi driver, and waits for her change.

When you ask her in Arabic "Enti kam sanaa (How old are you)", she answers in English, full of self confidence and a big smile: "Four years."

I’ve learned that giving is so much nicer than just receiving. I can see how Fatma opens people’s hearts when they whisper in my ears, "I want to donate also." I have tears in my eyes while writing this text. It's a miracle and such a beautiful experience for everybody around us.  I wish you could feel the happiness that has captured our house. 

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