Azza uses experiential learning and non-formal education to overcome the exclusion, inadequate education and limited skills that keep children from marginalized areas excluded from the society and the labor market. Through her community education center, Azza offers children from marginalized areas what they don’t receive at home, at public schools or in their neighborhoods, and accompanies them throughout their childhood.

Azza’s idea is to bridge the social gap that children from underprivileged areas suffer by equipping them with a set of vital abilities and skills that they seldom possess as a result of the exclusion and isolation they live in. Azza created a pioneering model through her community education center, Alwan wa Awtar or A&A (Arabic for Crayons and Strings).

Through her center, Azza equips children with skills they don’t receive in public schools or from home: knowledge, exposure and self development, in order to tackle the root causes that keep children of marginalized areas locked in poverty cycles, namely: exclusion, inadequate education and limited skills.

The center employs a comprehensive module that employs experiential learning and non-formal education to enhance the children’s self development and learning, within a participatory and empowering pedagogical framework. Azza presents all learning and self-development activities in an attractive format, repackaging those under the banner of art.

By building children’s self confidence, broadening their knowledge and sharpening their skills, Azza unlocks the children’s potential and teaches them that they are full members of their society. She equips them with the same tools that children of more privileged social classes have access to. As the children grow up, more exposed and educated, they are able to carve their own niche in the labor market and manage to ascend socially, culturally and economically, hence bridging inherent social gap.

Azza’s community center is currently established in El-Hadaba El-Wusta – Moqattam, an underprivileged area in Cairo. Azza has built a pilot program and is currently replicating her model through other CSOs, by transferring knowledge and providing on-the-job training for CSO staff. She is also documenting A&A experience in order to create a manual and tool-kit that can be used by other organizations wishing to replicate her comprehensive social development strategy. Azza is also training public school teachers wishing to use non-formal education techniques in their classes.

Countries in the Middle East face their largest youth cohort in modern history. However this sector of the population also boasts the highest unemployment rates, high exposure to health risks, and a precarious educational system. Public schooling in Egypt has come under heavy fire as graduating students do not possess the skills needed in today’s competitive market nor the discipline of quality education. This is especially the case for the youth of the Egyptian middle class. This social segment might have carried significant weight in the 1950’s; however, Egypt today consists of an elite class, a rapidly disappearing middle class and a majority of poor people. Egypt witnessed a high rate of social mobility in the aftermath of land reform policies and the economy’s move from protectionist policies to open-door policies. Such quick social mobility coupled with weakened safety nets resulted in the erosion of the middle class and the prevalence of an impoverished middle class in Egypt which does not receive adequate education and health care from the government.

It is worth noting that most of the underprivileged classes are centered in equally underprivileged living areas: slums. the worst in the nation’s capital. It is today not uncommon for ten family members to reside in one small room, without furniture, without running water or sewers. It is today not uncommon for ten family members to reside in one small room, without furniture, without running water or sewers. Recognized as one of the largest cities in the Middle East, Greater Cairo is the home of more than 20 million people, receiving 1000 new residents each week. Internal rural migration has been a pressing issue since the 1970s. Egyptians from across the nation moved to the capital city seeking a better life and ended up with underpaid jobs in the informal economy, living in poor housing, as their children were crammed into public schools classrooms. Nowadays most of these live in slum areas whose conditions are slowly being brought to light. According to the UNFPA and the Egyptian Ministry of Housing, there are 1221 “informal areas” in the whole of Egypt. There is no clear definition of the term “slum”, so the real number may in fact be higher. The 2006 population census stated that almost 15.5 million people are living in slums. 81 slums were counted in Greater Cairo, 68 of which could be improved, while 13 remain in urgent need of eradication. The most known being Darb Al Ahmar District, Bigam squatter, Zinin squatter and Ezzbat El Hagana the latter of which alone has more than one million dwellers.

Most of the residents of these slums either arrive from rural areas in Lower and Upper Egypt, the highest counts being from the governorates of Menoufia and Suhag respectively. In addition, slums are often the location of disasters. For example, in 2007 a fire that engulfed the Zenhom District inhabited by 20,000 people living in wooden huts, and made approximately 280 families homeless. The 1992 earthquake resulted in a great number of people becoming homeless due to the poor construction of many of these slum areas. Yet they were moved once more to other squatter districts in Cairo where indicators show that slum dwellers are more often the victims of crime and violence than the perpetrators of it, as the urban poor, out of desperation or simply frustration, turn to transgression or extremism. A classic example is the disadvantaged community of Al Hadaba El Wusta in El Mokattam. In 1992, a powerful earthquake shook the grounds of Cairo and uprooted whole families from their native surroundings. This resulted in many of them becoming homeless and the proposed solution was to move them to the Mokattam Hills. There they had to start over their lives in a settlement of around 17,000 people.

It is worth noting that in efforts directed at the development of slum areas, children are at the bottom of the list of areas of intervention. Most of them are enrolled in the local public school where there may be up to 60 children in the classroom. Although UNICEF (2008) indicates that the enrollment for primary and secondary schools is relatively high for both boys and girls, 96 and 92 respectively; their net attendance is much lower, especially for girls.

A few programs have begun targeting children in squatter areas in order to give them a second chance at life. The Canadian International Development Centre has attempted to partner with the Ministry of Education in order to reform the national curricula, while other programs have concentrated on health-related issues with a focus on girls. The first of these programs is “New Visions”, implemented in 1994 and funded by USAID. It targets the age group of 9-20 and aims to empower young women using non-formal education. This is through workshops and training sessions on basic life skills such as “feminine identity, rights and responsibilities of men and women, nutrition, health, first aid, child development and rights of children, the environment and small business projects; and Reproductive health.” The Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) is now implementing this program as well as a complimentary program for boys, concentrating on the importance of gender equality. They are active in 21 governorates and are able to reach 81000 girls and 18000 boys. At the same time, they have allowed many women to carry out income generating activities that have helped improve their standard of living. The Catholic Relief Services is also implementing a non-formal education program in Egypt, which was developed to help build the capacity of girls, women and the poor. This program aims to enable them to advocate for services needed in their communities and to improve their educational opportunities. The program encompasses activities varying from health to creative arts, whilst targeting girls and young women between the ages of 9 to 25 in Upper Egypt. To date it has reached 47 communities. Lastly, a local NGO under the name Fatheit Kheir works in the area and is mostly concentrating on income generating activities and extending micro-loans, in addition to weekly art-expression classes and a theatrical summer activity.

Alwan wa Awtar is a pioneer in using art as a tool for social development and one of the very few organizations that employ art for non-formal education. The “Académie Francophone Cairote des Arts » (AFCA) also uses art as tool for non-formal education (using artistic activities to teach French) but targets upper class children between the ages of 4-16, requiring the payment of course fees. While a few initiatives have tried to develop children and complement the current educational system, none of those have been concerned with educating disadvantaged children or with preparing them to become fully integrated citizens. While a few initiatives have implemented recreational-art projects, those have been mostly of short duration and limited scope. This leaves Alwan wa Awtar as the only CSO which adopts a comprehensive approach that works on underprivileged children’s social, economic and cultural development and provides them with an established art center.

Existing initiatives have focused on implementing in-school formal education programs or recreational activities in different neighborhoods and are mostly project based. Azza’s center remains the only comprehensive center which adopts a comprehensive strategy to develop children economically, socially and culturally aiming to help them bridge the social gap they are bound to face when they enter the labor market.

Since 2001, Azza has been working in the community of Moqattam, with the women of Fat’het Kheir. Fathet Kheir is a grass-root volunteer-based CSO which follows a model of development built on empowerment as opposed to charity. Working with the community Azza realized that many of the problems of exclusion and underdevelopment that youth of marginalized communities faced could be prevented if one worked with children at an early age. This realization dawned upon her when one day, she found a job for the son of one of the women of Fathet Kheir, who was now old enough to relieve his mother of the burden of providing for the household. Surprisingly, the young man did not show up on the day of the job interview, and thus let go of a golden opportunity.
It is then that Azza decided that the children of El Haddaba El Wusta, like many of their peers in the numerous marginalized slum areas of Egypt, lacked basic values like responsibility, commitment and respect due to the environment they were raised in. Unlike their parents, who grew up in Egyptian villages where social norms and morals were respected and then migrated to the big city, these children grew up among many siblings in crammed spaces lacking the basic facilities. In their neighbourhoods, instead of finding space to play, they are constantly bullied and exposed to violence and crime. These children grow up trying to be as tough as possible in order to survive.
Azza decided on opening a community development center in the neighbourhood, one which would act as a “surrogate home” for the children, a place were the basic morals, ethics and norms would be instilled in them, a “safe haven” which would keep them off-the streets, and a “school” where they would get the skills, knowledge and learning abilities that they don’t get from public schools. When asked about the center’s objective, Azza tells the story of Hassouna, a boy whom she would one day wish to see get a job like any other Egyptian young man from a privileged background, and raise his kids on ethics and morals. The center now provides Hassouna and many others with confidence, knowledge, presentation skills, language skills, and also with basic “etiquette”. Although this might seem a simple contribution to the children’s lives, it is not, as in Egypt, a significantly classist society, young people get discriminated against in the job market based on their dress code, language skills and manners which would betray their humble origins. Consequently, these children get locked in poverty cycles forever and the social gap widens with every generation that stays in the slums.
With all this in mind, Azza kept on thinking of the best way to approach children to provide them with this parcel of “things” that they don’t get in their homes, from their community or from their schools.
One summer, a group of French volunteers implemented a summer art program for the children of the Fathet Kheir women. Noting that the children came in hoards to paint and play Azza was inspired to use art as a magnet to attract children to her center in order to work on a their comprehensive self-development and educational program. Azza founded her CSO, Alwan wa Awtar in the same year and formally registered it in 2006. She started with 30 children from the families of Fat’het Kheir and has now reached 3,000 children and youth from all over the neighbourhood, and is reaching double the number as her model is being replicated through other CSOs.
Azza’s model is based on experiential learning. Alwan wa Awtar, Azza’s community development center, works on the children’s self development, skills development and knowledge.

Before assigning children to the different activities according to their preferences, Azza opens the doors of her center to children wishing to spend time reading or painting, thus getting them off the streets and away from the violence prevailing in the area and acquainting them with the center’s culture and philosophy before they commit to a certain program. Alwan wa Awtar is a different center as it embodies the very culture that it encourages children to adopt. To improve the children’s mannerism Azza supervises staff and volunteers to ensure that they are punctual, committed and well mannered.

Azza instills values of tolerance, respect, freedom of expression, and self confidence indirectly through program activities and by providing role models for the children through her staff. Alwan wa Awtar uses theatre and music to build the children’s self confidence and teach them teamwork as they hold performances which the whole neighborhood attends. Also, through cooking classes, the children know about hygiene and nutrition.

Azza also works on developing the children’s’ skills, unveiling their creativity, improving their communication skills and sharpening their analytical thinking abilities. In the center the children are encouraged to conduct research and are introduced to debates, by participating in simulation models of international organizations such as the League of Arab Nations to debate issues of interest to the region. The center also offers non formal education programs, teaching foreign languages through painting and cooking, and physics through craft making.

The center also breaks the children’s exclusion and their confinement to their neighborhood by taking them on field trips to venues of culture and science to broaden their horizons and awaken their curiosity. Azza also introduces the children to the world around them by working with foreign volunteers who come from different races and religions. Over the past two years Azza managed to attract over 200 volunteers from different countries; thus resulting in broadening the children’s horizons, exposing them to cultural diversity and instilling values of tolerance in them as they make their own judgments about the other.

Unlike many supply driven programs, Azza’s center gives children a sense of ownership, as they get to decide which activities to participate in and as they get to evaluate the center’s staff and activities on a regular basis. Also, unlike other programs where children are merely receivers of training and assistance, in Azza’s center older members teach new-comers and some have even trained youth from more privileged social backgrounds on crafts making.

Through Alwan wa Awtar the children have found a safe haven where they can learn while having fun. The impact of Alwan wa Awtar on children was obvious to the children’s parents as they watched their children excel academically after joining Alwan Wa Awtar. Also, teachers at the neighborhood’s public school started seeking collaboration with Azza after sensing the difference in the disposition of children who attended A&A programs. Now some of the teachers are getting trained on using Alwan wa Awtar’s non-formal education techniques in their classrooms. In order to ensure the sustainability of its activities and to have a deeper impact in the neighborhood, the organization pays older children who have already taken part in A&A activities to train younger children.

Azza chooses the most promising children of Alwan wa Awtar and helps them pursue more education, by providing scholarships through Fathet Kheir and through her network of private sector sponsors.

To spread the impact of Alwan wa Awtar, Azza works with other CSOs targeting children in marginalized areas. A&A team helps other CSOs replicate and adapt Azza’s method by coaching staff members of other CSOs, either by directly giving classes at the organizations or by providing orientation sessions to visiting volunteers who come to observe the working of Alwan wa Awtar and to get familiar with the tools used. In order to spread the idea further, A&A has recently started training public school teachers on methods of non-formal education. To date Azza has transferred the Alwan wa Awtar model to five other CSOs (Nahdet El Mahrousa, Tawasol, Masr El Mahrousa, Alashanek ya Baladi) and is replicating it through her staff through another CSO in a marginalized area of Cairo (Stabl Antar).

Azza has also approached public schools through a most effective indirect way. School teachers, sensing that the children who received training at Azza’s center had a most outstanding performance among their peers, started approaching Azza to use her methodology in their classrooms. In the next three years, Azza plans to reach out to 5 public schools to use her methodology and program. Her experience with one school in the same area is currently being assessed, and based on the results she will develop and spread her plan among schools, customizing the methodology to their needs.

In the coming five years, in order to fully realize her vision, Azza plans to establish a full-fledged community center that offers artistic activities, sports activities, comprehensive non-formal curriculum and have facilities and a public library at the visitor’s disposition. In the next ten years, she wants all CSOs working in slum areas in Egypt to be acquainted with her model and to adapt it to their own needs.

In the coming year, Azza will work on documenting the Alwan wa Awtar experience in order to develop a manual that allows other CSOs to build on her successful experience. The manual by itself will only convey the curriculum and methodologies used at A&A, however it cannot convey the philosophy and culture of A&A, this is why Azza works on conveying A&A’s experience to other CSOs through on the job training and coaching. Azza stresses that CSOs wanting to replicate her model need to treat children as stakeholders rather than mere beneficiaries, respect to their priorities and needs.

Azza grew up outside of Egypt, moving between countries with her family due to her father’s work as a diplomat. She was sent to boarding school in England at the age of 12 where she was the only foreign student.

Azza was influenced by her mother, a psychologist who taught made everyone feel at ease in her presence, gaining their confidence and trust. Azza aspired to a life of helping. Aware of her aloneness at boarding school, she began a volunteer program for students to visit the elderly. This gave her a sense of satisfaction and realization of the rewards of volunteering. Returning to Egypt to study in a new department, Business Administration, at the American University Cairo, Azza was struck by the few channels available for youth wishing to serve their community. She believed in volunteerism. Following graduation, Azza worked for a few years in the corporate sector, and then joined the development field, serving with the United Nation Development Programme and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Azza also worked with the The Institute of Cultural Affairs for the Middle East and North Africa where she initiated the “Volunteer Child” which aims at embedding the spirit of volunteerism in school children and was the first program of its kind in Egypt. She was frustrated within a weak citizen sector – the only work was through charities, which to her was not development.

After working in international organizations, Azza searched for a way to get into the community. She joined Fathet Kheir a community based CSO offering micro-loans and training to empower women of Moqattam Hills. She is now vice president. Working in the neighborhood for 7 years, Azza gained the community women’s confidence and trust, so this was the logical place to launch her own center, including gaining permission for trips outside the neighborhood. Today the women of the neighborhood are proud of their children’s development and academic performance and enthusiastically send them to Alwan wa Awtar.