“People said it’s haram”: Happy mums show reality of adoption in Egypt
Individuals telling their stories and shifts in popular culture are gradually eroding the stigma around Kafala adoption.
When Rasha Mekky reached her mid-20s, she and her husband decided they were ready for children. They tried to conceive but to no avail. They underwent multiple rounds of IVF, at great personal expense, but still could not get pregnant. 20 years later, the couple was still childless.
Then, one day, Mekky was speaking to her best friend’s sister who told her about Kafala. This practice, used in Egypt, is similar to formal adoption, but the child does not automatically inherit from their parents or take the family surname. The conversation changed everything for Mekky.
“I knew I wanted to do Kafala the minute I heard about it,” she says. “I was very hopeful and eager to start the process even though I had my share of fears about being a new mom at 45.”
Over the next month, she visited an orphanage regularly and got to know many of the children there. She eventually adopted a little boy called Mostafa who has become a source of joy in her and her husband’s life. “It turned out better than I could’ve ever hoped for,” she beams.
Mekky’s only regrets are that she didn’t learn about Kafala sooner and that she couldn’t adopt the other fifty children at the orphanage she says she fell in love with.
Yasmina El Habbal’s story begins differently. Unlike Mekky, she had been well aware of Kafala from an early age.
“I’ve always known I was going to adopt or do Kafala for a child ever since the first time I went to an orphanage when I was 15,” she says. “I knew that orphanages aren’t places for kids to be raised, and I’ve been involved with the kids in that orphanage ever since.”
When she turned 40, she decided it was time. Egypt had passed some new rules in early-2020 that allowed single women to adopt, and El Habbal was ready to make the commitment. The Covid-19 pandemic put her plan on hold for a few months, but after this disruption, she began the process for fostering with the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
“In June , I found out everything started again and opened up. I started applying, and one week later I had all my documents ready.”
To El Habbal’s relief, the application went smoothly and she had soon adopted a little girl called Ghalia. The process, however, had never been El Habbal’s main source of concern. In Egypt, there is a lot of stigma around Kafala. Many children who are up for adoption have been abandoned due to societal shame around unwanted pregnancies or babies being born out of wedlock, and this taboo often stays attached to the children. El Habbal faced these attitudes even among her closest family members.
“My dad kept refusing to acknowledge the fact I was going through the process. He wanted me to stop,” she says. “He told me I don’t want to be part of [Ghalia’s] life, until he met her by coincidence for the first time…and he just fell in love.”
Fighting myths and stigma
Mekky and El Habbal’s stories encapsulate both the joys and challenges related to Kafala. For thousands of Egyptian families, adoption has brought untold hope and happiness. Yet there remains widespread ignorance around how adoption works as well as stigma associated with it.
This is what Mekky and El Habbal now want to fight against. Since adopting, they have both taken it upon themselves to spread the word and educate others in Egypt.
El Habbal does this through a Facebook page called Baby Ghalia & Mama Yasmina, which she developed the idea for after she first posted about her experience.
“The very first night after she slept, I made a public announcement on my personal Facebook page that I had adopted and that Ghalia is part of the family,” she recalls. “That post went viral…and I thought ‘let’s use this momentum to gain support for the cause of Kafala’.”
On the Facebook page, El Habbal chronicles her everyday life as the mother of an adopted child. She also raises awareness for Kafala campaigns and promotes fundraisers. The idea is to document the reality of adoption and educate followers.
“It’s not just a story they read about with no pictures; it’s a human being’s life that they follow and they see that it’s doable,” says El Habbal. “There are good days, there are bad days, but the love is worth every single hardship.”
El Habbal says the her favourite part of running the page are the private messages she receives from Kafala mothers, telling her “we didn’t know this could be done until we saw your page and read your story and we applied and our kids are with us now”.
Mekky took a slightly different approach. After adopting Mostafa, she founded the civil society group Yalla Kafala, which dispels myths associated with adoption, provides information about the process in Egypt, and supports parents through its various stages. Mekky was inspired to create the organisation after she faced bureaucratic difficulties in taking her son to the US where she lives.
“Finishing the paperwork to take Mostafa back to the US was so difficult,” she says. “This is one of the reasons why I started Yalla Kafala. I didn’t want parents to have to go through this hassle.”
Mekky says she has started to see a change in attitudes in even the short time she has run Yalla Kafala.
“Kafala wasn’t as known nor supported as it is now,” she says. “So many people said that it’s ‘haram’…It’s so much better now than when I started.”
Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology, echoes this. He says that the stigma around adoption is increasingly being challenged today by outspoken individuals such as Mekky and El Habbal but also in popular culture.
“A popular soap opera in 2021 called Leih laa? [“why not?”] tackled this issue, showing a single woman who wanted to adopt and, after overcoming many bureaucratic obstacles, managed,” he says.
While there is still far to go, he suggests that this kind of representation is beginning to change perceptions.
“Their function is to go against the long-established negative stereotype of orphans and foster families,” he says. “[Though] it will take some time before people deal with this issue as normal.”
In the past couple of years, Mekky feels that the place of Kafala in Egypt has changed in positive ways. She credits some of the interventions made by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which oversees adoption, with helping this shift.
“What I’m most proud of is the direction to treat Kafala and biological mothers equally, especially in having the right of maternity leave and the allowance of single moms to do Kafala,” she says.
The government’s decision in January 2020 to allow single women and divorcees to adopt, and to reduce the minimum level of education required, has also made Kafala an option for a much larger group of Egyptians. The Ministry reportedly received 1,000 requests from families wanting to foster a child in the second half of 2020.
This is good news for the estimated hundreds of thousands of homeless children in Egypt, though some face a higher chance of finding a family than others. According to Flavia Shaw-Jackson, founder of the NGO FACE for Children in Need, there are clear patterns in terms of which children tend to be adopted and those who do not.
“Children with dark skin have few chances to be fostered unless his Kafala parents have the same complexion,” she says. “Moreover, children with disabilities or with severe medical cases have very few chances.”
These preferences are based on other persistent stigmas that, along with misconceptions about Kafala, are only slowly being confronted.
Mekky now wants to see a cultural shift that could bring about the sea of change she wants to see in Egypt. “I wish that people understand that being a Kafala parent is no different than being a biological parent,” she says.
At heart, El Habbal emphasises that people just need to see Kafala kids for who they are. “They’re normal children. They’re human beings,” she adds.
This article is published as part of the African Arguments fellowship for young freelance journalists.