Aya Hijazi is an Egyptian American social activist. She was imprisoned in Egypt and acquitted after nearly three years in detention.
If you asked me to name my life’s accomplishment, I would answer with one word: Belady (“my country”). Belady, a nongovernmental organization I founded with my husband in Egypt, was an island of humanity that protected 40 street children who were abused, raped and shunned. But it was short-lived. Soon after the NGO’s establishment, the police raided it, charged eight of us with heinous crimes and imprisoned us for nearly three years. In doing so, the Egyptian authorities destroyed my dream and the dreams of our 40 children — and proved that they are determined to crush anyone in Egypt who works for human rights.
Let me start at the beginning. In January 2011, I was an Egyptian American law student at George Mason University. I was inspired by the protests in Egypt and wanted to see my native homeland become a thriving democracy, so I dropped everything to join the demonstrations at Tahrir Square. At Tahrir, I met my husband, Mohamed, and we were married two years later.
Together, we decided that the best way to bring good governance to Egypt was to invest in its children. We started with the most vulnerable: street children. In just 75 days, I saw the great potential of Belady: Forty children who would otherwise have been ostracized as vagrants or thugs found a home with us.
In Belady, they transformed; their identities and self-image shifted. When one child, Salah, was upset because he was called a street child, I told him that he should not consider himself a street child because he no longer lived in the street; he lived in Belady and was Belady’s child. We then hung up a poster with the words “Belady’s children,” which made them all proud. When a relative later visited Salah and shamed him for being a street child, Salah held his head high and said, “No! Now, I’m Belady’s child.”
Belady also changed societal perspectives toward street children. After I took three of Belady’s children to speak at the American University in Cairo, the professor told me that her students had changed their views. Where they once saw rogue adolescents harassing them or begging for money, they instead saw Belady’s children for what they were: innocent and resilient kids. Our staff members started taking Belady’s children on outings with their own children. We felt empowered that we were able to help protect street children — a problem once believed to be intractable.
But instead of supporting my initiative, the Egyptian police raided Belady and shut down our operations, throwing the children back onto the streets. One child, Mazen, had entered Belady after falling out with his parents over his zeal to complete a middle-school education. As the police escorted him out, he looked at me desperately while clutching his books and begged, “Please, I want to take the tests!”
After our arrest, my husband and I were each interrogated separately and asked to incriminate each other. My husband was told that he could walk away safely if he admitted that I was an American spy — and that if he did so, the authorities would help him find a new wife. Yet we held strong in our love for each other. Our love and dream cost us nearly three years in prison.
While I was in prison, the words of one Belady child, Usama, reminded me of my dream. He wrote me a letter that read: “I will never believe a bad thing about you. I will stand by you till you get your rights, but once you leave prison, we will celebrate and then you will leave this country that has no justice. You are not forced to stay in this country, but we are.”
Despite his young age, Usama was right. There is little justice in Egypt. The government wants to monopolize all foreign funding, and to do so it vilifies anyone who uses it or maintains foreign links. It is willing to sentence innocent people to life in prison just to maintain its grip on power. To this end, it has now passed an NGO law more draconian than any before it.
But our cause is not lost. The police tried to use our case as evidence that NGOs are harmful to society, but their efforts backfired. Belady staff members, NGOs across Egypt, strangers from around the world and even President Trump rallied to our side. As a result, the impossible happened: Justice was served, and the Egyptian courts acquitted my husband and me. Instead of demonstrating how harmful NGOs are, our case showed that the Egyptian state is ruthlessly corrupt and entirely without moral standards — and that NGOs are its victims.
My release proves that I was right to hope. Now, I can truthfully tell Usama that we can attain justice if we pursue our dreams. But, while Usama ultimately saw my husband and I walk free, he has yet to see Belady in Egypt return to life. And the people of Egypt are still fighting for justice, though the government is keen on silencing them.
So, to support the Egyptians fighting for justice and good governance, I am establishing Belady in the United States. Once again, we will start with the most vulnerable — this time, child political prisoners. Only when they are free can people dream of a humane and well-governed society.
There is so much that the United States can do to help. For example, the United States should provide human rights aid to the Egyptian government only if the regime advances human rights — and does not repress them. Otherwise, it should withhold that aid. It should also use its leverage to advance human rights both publicly and in private meetings, as it has done in my case. The dreams of many young Egyptians are at stake.