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CROSSING EGYPT BY TRAIN — On a rack above me in a crowded train hurtling through the night, someone has stuffed luggage – a box of carefully tied twigs holding belongings.
This is poverty, I tell myself.
Because of this poverty, there are families in Egypt who sell their young daughters to rich men.
Someone with a local community organization that knows of such things, tells me of a small village in Upper Egypt where most of the young girls have been married off to wealthy men so that their families could have money.
I hear from her, and others, about brokers who allegedly arrange these marriages, and who find ways to get around the government law that bars anyone under 18 from marrying.
These community organization workers talk also about so-called pleasure marriages arranged by brokers. It is a business deal where wealthy tourists marry village girls for the weekend or for the summer. And then the men dump the girls.
The teen brides another young woman regularly meets as part of her job a community organization in Cairo deeply upsets her. The woman, whose name in Arabic has the same meaning as prayer, has thrown herself into the work, telling herself this is what she must do.
Young women 14- or 15-years-old are married to men 20 or 30 years older than them for money for their families, she explains with a sad shrug.
The community activist cannot think of someone being sold that way. Nor can she bear to hear another story of a young bride who went off to a world of wealth and came back months later, discarded by the husband, and dumped back into poverty.
Because of poverty there are people here who turn to selling their body parts, mostly kidneys. I can’t tell how widespread the problem is, but there is much talk of it in the newspapers and among local organizations who tell of poor people who have sold their kidneys to dealers, who scout the slums for sellers.
They say the sellers sometimes don’t even get the money they are promised and often they are left sick and damaged permanently from the surgery. They talk of gangs who operate these scams across the Middle East. There’s a story in the Cairo newspapers about arrests of one such gang that operated between Jordan and Egypt.
Because of poverty, there are street children who are victimized in countless ways. Some of them have been scooped up in the smaller towns, and shifted to the big cities where the abuse only magnifies; prostitution, drug dealing, thievery. They have to beg for themselves, for their families, or for whoever manipulates them.
Because of poverty, underage children work in factories and the fields in violation of Egyptian laws that mostly bar them from working if they are under 14 years old, journalists in the country’s smaller cities tell me.
But because the families are poor there are no complaints from them. There seem to be countless community groups struggling to deal with this problem that does not vanish.
Because of poverty, people seek out smugglers who promise to take them to jobs in Europe. But more often the voyages are fatal death trips in boats that barely get beyond the Egyptian coast.
I talk with the head of a community organization in a mid-sized Egyptian city who boils all of these problems down to poverty, and that helps me understand the child brides and the trafficking and child labor. He doesn’t think you can do much unless you understand the root causes.
So, I understand why on the train that pulled out just before mine from a town in central Egypt there was a group of young men clinging for their lives to a door on the outside of the last car. They couldn’t afford a ticket so they were willing to risk their lives on the railroad on this dark night.
And I understand why some of people mulling around in the dirty, decades-old train have a look of unease. It is because they are headed for Cairo, looking for a job and better life. But decent-paying jobs are rare in a country where many earn no more than $2 per day and in a city where swelling crowds are doing the same as them.
And so I understood too the luggage of twigs.
(Editor’s note: The names of community organization workers have been withheld to protect their identities.)
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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.