The teachers at his primary school had trouble controlling Ibrahim. He was a cocky kid who was large for his age and just a little bit of a bully. A tough boy from a tough neighbourhood where violence was the norm. Physical punishment never really deterred him from delinquency.
At an after school programme, however, his Arabic tutor Hisham Salama had a different approach towards discipline: a point system by which students are awarded for specific efforts in homework, class participation, reading, writing, and good behaviour (which has the most points allocated to it). After a certain time period, a prize is awarded to the student who has gained the highest number of points.
All Salama needed to do was simply remove several points from Ibrahim’s overall monthly grade and the boy immediately began to tear up and then fall in line.
“In school with him [Ibrahim], it’s all about corporal punishment,” said the organisation’s founder Mostafa Wafa. “But he doesn’t care about being hit. He cries because he wants to be better.”
The after-school programme is known as Mish Madrasa. It is offered to children who live in Saft Al-Laban, an informal housing area in Giza, free of charge.
Five nights a week for two hours each night, beginning at 7pm inside Wafa’s grandfather’s old building, approximately 60 children in groups of 12 are instructed by volunteer teachers in the foundations of reading, writing, Arabic, maths, English, and French.
If you ask the students why any child would voluntarily go to more classes after a day of school, they would respond similarly to 12-year-old Ibrahim: “Here the teachers don’t insult us. They teach us about respect.”
Another boy, Amir, complained about the noise from his large classroom and mentioned that it was fun at Mish Madrasa.
Though they are simple complaints made by many children, it is common criticism echoed by parents about Egypt’s government schools which are ranked last in ”The Global Competitiveness Report of 2013–2014”.
Mish Madrasa is literally translated into “no school”. It is a contrast to the short-comings of state educational institutions, which are notorious for being underfunded, overcrowded, and inadequate as well as pushing a system of rote learning, Wafa said.
Saft Al-Laban, where Wafa and Salama grew up, has just one health centre, three schools, and no police station to service a population of about 300,000. The neighbourhood has the typical problems of neglect by the state, damaged roads, and rubbish on the street.
“Even if one person kills another, the police will not come,” Wafa said.
As an adolescent teenager, physical altercations were a daily occurrence for Wafa, whether on the streets or in school. The kids would brandish sticks or razors and fight other students from different schools. Sexual harassment is also common, Wafa said, describing his school as a “zoo”.
Wafa counts himself lucky for the education he did receive. Being slightly better-off compared to some of his friends, he was able to afford private lessons. Many of his friends could not afford this privilege and later on became local drug dealers, “even if they were smarter and cleverer than me”.
“The middle-class can send their children to private lessons. What do poor people do? They do not send their kids for tutoring. They do not have enough money. They just learn at school, but they learn nothing,” he continued.
A challenge for Mish Madrasa was structuring a curriculum tailored to the needs of the students and the places they live.
“They may be talented. They may be smart but the general environment and the system doesn’t allow them to become better,” Salama said. “They cannot do their best.”
Out of the 12 students in Salama’s class, who are aged 14, only three of them can read properly.
“Once they fail, you must work with them. You must go step by step,” he said. Salama pushes himself harder as a teacher when he sees the students’ progress.
According to Wafa, government schools “give you the impression that your opinion is not important” with no discussions about sensitive topics such as fighting, religion, or harassment. This creates an environment of ignorance, rumours, and intolerance.
He conceded that in crowded classrooms, if teachers allowed “the children to express themselves, the teachers would quickly develop a headache”.
Owing to Mish Madrasa’s limited class sizes and the guarantee of trust and confidentiality, the students have spirited discussions ranging from current social issues to stories from history. The students are also encouraged to ask questions. How do they see society? What do they think of religion? The discussion may have no single answer.
Wafa encourages constructive criticism, believing that there are many perspectives. “There is no one truth,” he said. “Children are pure philosophers.”
When asked about the problems residents face on a daily basis, a young boy named Sala says: “Sometimes doctors give patients the wrong medicine. It happens a lot in this neighbourhood.”
Another boy, Islam, said he wanted to study hard for school to help those who are too poor or weak to help themselves.
From the many discussions with the students, one question left Wafa convinced as to how entrenched violence is in this community: why don’t the teachers at Mish Madrasa hit their students?
The abnormal has become normal for these children, he said.
Mish Madrasa has also faced scepticism from several parents in the area who wondered about their intentions and why anyone would spend their spare time teaching for free.
Salama’s message to them was: “If you care, just bring your children. It’s no stress. It’s free. We give them much more than the school. We give them what you can’t find in school.”
With this programme, many parents would simply give their children to the street. A case in point is when the group of children were heading to an adjacent area for a local brawl. They armed themselves with sticks and knives. They told Wafa that several other kids had injured a few of their friends. They were on their way “to beat them up”.
After an inspired speech, the boys decided to back off. This particular incident made Wafa “insane” and convinced him that his community was near collapse.
“The most important thing we must do is discuss their problems,” Wafa said.
Salama added that their goal was to make students “be good people before being good students”.