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Sleeping in the street: “I could stay awake for three days”

All names have been changed as to protect the identities of the research participants.

When I began interviewing female street children about their lives in the street,  I was interested to learn how they spend their days, what sort of violence they might exert or be subjected to, how they make a living and what they are afraid of. My questions addressed their day- and night-time activities in the street. It was only after a few weeks that I became aware that I had not sufficiently focused on the hours during which street children sleep.

Most of us are the most vulnerable when asleep. Our eyes are closed, our ears do not pay much attention to what is going on around us. Being so vulnerable, we need to be safe to go to sleep. This is why, although we use the street on a daily basis and we are not afraid, we would never consider sleeping in it. We resort to a safe place, to our home, where our vulnerability does not subject us to immediate danger. Children who sleep in the street rarely have this choice. They must find ways of creating safe spaces where they can sleep. In the street, a lot of effort goes into planning the hours of sleep, an effort that is unknown to most non-street people. When I realised how substantially important being unharmed while sleeping had to be for the children and when I began to ask more questions, I found that there were different ways in which my research participants dealt with the issue of sleep.

“I would never be fast asleep”

Some girls, like Yasmin (16),  explained that it was practically impossible for them to relax and actually rest when asleep.

I didn’t sleep right. In the street, I had a very light sleep. If somebody would touch me like this [touches her arm], I would immediately wake up. […]I would be aware of myself. I would never be fast asleep, so I could feel everything.

For the sake of her safety, Yasmin denied herself what many other people take for granted. In the street, she had no chance to have a night of restful sleep and to gain energy for the next day without being anxious about whether she would be harmed by potential predators. Yasmin explained to me that, after months in the street, she had the first night of real sleep in a shelter, where she knew that she would not be harmed. Before that, she could not afford deep sleep, as it meant being completely exposed to potential assaulters.

“I would sleep next to a woman”

A very common way of being able to sleep in the street is to not sleep alone but next to another person or with a  group. Fayza (14) explained to me that it was the company of another woman that made her feel safe at night.

A: Were you afraid when sleeping in the street at night?

F: No. I would sleep next to a woman.

In order for Fayza to be able to ‘let go’ and come close to what most non-street people do, which is sleep without constant fear, she had to find a guardian whose mere presence protected her in the street. The woman she was sleeping next to did not actually protect her from assault. She did not physically defend her and yet she made Fayza feel safe.

However, seeking this kind of protection can come at a high price. Salma (14) had to pay 20 Egyptian Pounds per night to be able to sleep under a bridge with an adult woman and other street children (this equals a monthy rent of 600 EGP, for which one would be able to rent a room or an apartment in Cairo). Dalia (14) would sell paper tissues for another woman, just to be able to sleep next to her.

A: How did this go with the paper tissues?

D: She [a woman sleeping in a tent in Tahrir Square] would give them to me and I would sell them for her.

A: Did you give her all the money?

D: Yes.

A: But what was in it for you?

D: Nothing was in it for me. She […] let me sleep next to her.

Sleeping next to somebody else constitutes in itself a means of protection. Many girls believe that it is the presence of other people that decreases their vulnerability and that protects them while they are asleep, and they are willing to pay for this protection.

“I could stay awake for three days”

Before Dalia (14) moved to Tahrir, she was living on the North Coast of Egypt, near Damietta. In order to protect herself, Dalia decided not to sleep during the night at all.

A: You also told me that sometimes you would stay up at night and sleep during the day. Why?

D: So that nobody can harm me.

A: Can you only be harmed at night?

D: Yes, during the day nobody can do anything to me.

A: How did you manage to stay awake?

D: There are screens on the beach, you find them everywhere on the beach. Screens and people sitting in front of them. I would stay with them until six o’ clock in the morning.

Every night, Dalia would go to one of the open-air cinemas on the beach to watch films and to stay awake. In her opinion, sleeping made her vulnerable, especially when she slept during the night. During the day, she felt protected by the presence of passersby and other street children. At night, anything could happen. Dalia lived like this for months, turning her daily rhythm around and being awake only at night.

Yasmin (16) did not go to the cinema every night but she, too, saw the benefit of staying awake at night and found her own way of doing so.

A: How did you manage to stay awake?

Y: Just like that. I could stay awake for three days or five days.

[…]

A: Did you take pills to stay awake?

Y: Yes, I would go and buy them from the pharmacy. I would tell them “I want a pill because I’m working in the street. I need to be awake all the time” and I would get it.

Yasmin who was not very interested in drugs, who never smoked or drank in the street, resorted to a rather drastic measure to keep herself from falling asleep. She began using stimulants that did not give her any satisfaction except the ability to stay awake for days. It is hard to comprehend how her decision to take drugs must have affected her.

Sleep is so relevant and most non-street people are so unaware of it. When talking about street children, one often discusses the seemingly most obvious problems, such as poverty, aloneness or the exposure to violence. The actual deprivation of sleep is hardly discussed nor seen as an immense challenge in the lives of children and adults who sleep in the street. However, the physical and psychological distress caused by sleep deprivation was of substantial relevance in the lives of the girls who participated in my research. Their insights showed me quite plainly that street children are the most distressed when non-street people are the most relaxed. While we look forward to a good night’s sleep, many children in the street fear their own tiredness. Apart from the discomfort of sleeping on a piece of cardboard on a pavement or in a public garden, sleep time is always also the time of danger and vulnerability, rather than of relaxation and letting go.

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