In May 2014, on a flight home from a business trip, I picked up a newspaper from a flight attendant and came across news of a group accused of exploiting children, among other allegations. It was obvious at the time that their case was fabricated. The paper did not mention the names of any of the accused, but when I arrived in Cairo, I discovered that the main suspect was Aya Hegazy, the co-founder of the Belady Foundation for the care of street children. A month later, fabricated accusations landed me in Qanater Women’s Prison as well.
I got out five months ago, having spent 15 months in prison on charges including violating the protest law. A presidential pardon allowed our release after the court had initially sentenced us to three years in prison, later reduced to two years. For almost two years now, and ever since her arrest in May 2014, Aya has been in pre-trial detention at the prison in Qanater, attending court sessions that are adjourned time and time again. It is still unclear how long she will remain in prison.
I met Aya Hegazy in 2007, on a university-student activity that organizes artistic summer workshops for children in Palestinian refugee camps. Our group was fairly small, but despite having lived together for a month in the summer of that year, I had become friends with other people — perhaps because Aya was shy and talked very little. When I saw her again, in prison in the summer of 2014, she had not changed much.
This week, a stranger stopped me on the street and asked: “Did you see Aya in Qanater Prison?” I answered that I did.
He said: “I was a volunteer in their association. I just got lucky, because I was not there on the day they all got arrested. I could have been arrested too. You should leave Egypt,” he said. “And don’t come back until things have improved a bit. I know a lot of people who are unfairly imprisoned.”
I was sick and in a hurry the day when I met him. Upon my return home, I sat down and wondered what could possibly drive a person who is obviously staying in Egypt with no plans of departure, to advise others to leave the country rather than have us all face this situation together.
Aya had returned from the United Studies hoping to bring about a positive change for children living on the streets. I had not seen her at all between the summers of 2007 and 2014, a period long enough for the birth and murder of hope.
The prison administration in Qanater forbade prisoners in our case from talking to other prisoners, forbidding me to speak with Aya even after I explained that I had known her long before the prison brought us together.
However, the few moments in which I was able to see Aya while I was imprisoned led me to feel that she had not changed at all. Although I am an optimistic person who has always been hopeful, I was always amazed by Aya’s persistent hope. She was always touched to know that people outside still think of her. While in prison you always fear that you will be forgotten at some point.
We did not forget, Aya. We will continue to remind each other of those who have paid years of their lives for the hope we all dreamed of. When everyone is freed, life will hold a moment of silence to acknowledge that precious price that was paid by young people whose only intention was to make our country better.
Hope shall prevail.
This text has been translated and edited for clarity. You can read the original Arabic here.