Eight-year-old Sohayla is shy but mischievous, in that way that kids are. She wears a princess tiara, pretends not to like chocolate, and tries on three colors of lipstick to see which she likes best.
The third grader lives in 6th of October city, a satellite town on the western outskirts of Cairo. She remembers how she was kidnapped five years ago, describing the event with jarring good cheer, but would rather not get into the details.
So, her mother, Hoda, takes me through what happened, how her then-3-year-old daughter went missing from their neighborhood in central Cairo. For five months, Sohayla’s family printed missing child posters, filed police reports, went on national television, emptied their savings pursuing bogus tips, and searched through morgues. “We looked for Sohayla for so long,” she says. “We were spending nights on the street. I shudder just talking about it.”
Finally, in March 2016, Hoda and her husband were reunited with their traumatized daughter in Tanta, a major city 95 kilometers north of Cairo. After the abductor’s neighbor grew suspicious and filed a police report, local law enforcement launched an investigation. Upon determining that the girl — who at that point had been renamed Walaa — was a kidnapping victim, they gave her photo to a local journalist in the hopes of tracking down her real family. As soon as the journalist posted the picture to Facebook, it was sent to Missing Children, a crowdsourcing initiative founded to help Egyptians locate their loved ones through a mix of social media advocacy, digital casework, and vigilante justice.
Missing Children co-founder Marwa Maged had already been in touch with Sohayla’s family and immediately recognized the girl. She contacted Hoda, who went with her husband and what she describes as a caravan of joyous neighbors to Tanta, where the family was reunited. The kidnapper, an accomplice, and other members of the trafficking network all received prison sentences.
Five years later, Sohayla’s case remains one of those closest to Maged’s heart, and an early success story for Missing Children. First started in 2015 by Maged and her husband Rami el-Gebali, a tech CEO, the page claims to have reunited over 2,800 missing, kidnapped, or exploited persons with their families or otherwise helped them enter care institutions. Despite the name, the project’s scope isn’t restricted to children: volunteers have also helped track down vulnerable adults, elderly people, and individuals with disabilities. In the process, they have revealed instances of abuse and human trafficking and highlighted the realities of an overloaded state care system.
The couple first started the page as a response to the many missing children posts circulating on Egyptian social media, which would often stay up for years on end without any resolution. While their initial aim was to ensure that the names and faces of these kids wouldn’t be forgotten, they became more interested in solving cases after a user messaged to tell them that he had spotted a child featured on the site sleeping in a garden by his house. Missing Children now boasts over 1.94 million followers, with each post generating between dozens and hundreds of comments. As the site relies entirely on crowdsourcing, el-Gebali and Maged have developed a robust process for vetting tips. Users submit claims via Facebook Messenger, and one of the team’s seven administrators will make sure it meets a set of basic criteria, often checking details against available documentation or corroborating footage. Then, they will assign the case a code and post it on the public page, sharing and re-sharing it until, ideally, the person is located.
More than six years on, abductions, exploitation, and disappearances still persist in Egypt, but Maged and el-Gebali have managed to highlight and create a powerful narrative around these issues. This, el-Gebali says, is especially important as missing persons’ cases have a tendency to get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. “When a person has been missing for a month, and there are murders, burglaries, assaults, and rapes happening every day,” he says, “the police need to prioritize the crime that’s just happened, because the chances of solving it are a lot bigger.”
Missing Children is effective largely because of the massive megaphone it has created through Facebook. This is both a strength and vulnerability, as el-Gebali and Maged operate largely on their own. If they misidentify someone, are fed inaccurate information, or fall short of meeting their own criteria, they could sabotage efforts to help vulnerable people and risk making sensitive situations even worse — a lesson they learned in their early days, before they had fully developed their vetting process.
Marwan was six years old when he was separated from his mother. They were in Cairo, on a trip from their hometown in the governorate of Gharbia, 90 kilometers north of the capital. His mother lost consciousness on the street while Marwan was getting her a bottle of water. She was taken to the hospital, where her husband was called. But their son was nowhere to be found; no one had realized that the woman had a child with her.
What followed was a seven-year odyssey to find Marwan. Day in and day out, his father looked for his son, visiting hospitals, police stations, and morgues. A year into the search, his wife grew ill and passed away. Then, in early 2011, the already daunting task of finding the boy became even more difficult in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution. Police precincts were attacked and records burned — including reports that Marwan’s parents had filed.
Suddenly, one day, there was a break in the case. Seven years after the disappearance, Missing Children received a tip that a boy whose description fit Marwan’s was living in a Cairo orphanage. El-Gebali got in touch with officials at the organization, confirmed Marwan’s identity, and reunited him with his father.
While Marwan’s situation was unique, his experience of getting lost in the system is not. Though legally, a “found” child of any age can only be admitted into an institution with a police report, a hospital report, and an order from the public prosecutor’s office, the kind of infrastructure necessary to support this kind of in-depth documentation is, at best, inconsistent.
This issue is most pronounced when it comes to infants. Though official statistics are difficult to come by, local and national news in Egypt frequently report on abandoned babies being found on street corners or next to mosques, and according to an employee of the Ministry of Health, these cases increased in 2020, though it is unclear why. According to El-Gebali, “There is no state database of abandoned infants: no searchable list where you can track a child if you know where and when they were left.” Within the patchwork system that is in place, many records are buried within mounds of dusty, handwritten forms stored in drafty orphanages.
El-Gebali and Maged’s response was to create their own digital database for abandoned infants, which details where and when a baby was found, what it was wearing, and where it was taken. The matches they began facilitating on the strength of their crowdsourcing eventually helped them win the trust of orphanages, some of which began sending them information and photos of children in their care. While state agencies initially regarded Missing Children with curiosity and slight apprehension, by early 2016, after a number of success stories, many welcomed the project with open arms.
But not all orphanages were eager to cooperate. When children who had passed through the system began telling el-Gebali and Maged about abuse they had suffered, the couple recognized another potential component to their work. In April 2016, Missing Children began posting testimonies from children who had been inside orphanages where they claimed to have been abused, neglected, exploited, or mistreated. In the wake of these allegations, some institutions were shut down, others were put under investigation, and still others have been engaged in long-running defamation battles with el-Gebali and Maged, who have never formally been charged.
In 2019, Missing Children administrators began posting allegations of sexual harassment involving an orphanage run by the Dar Akhawein Foundation in eastern Cairo. The accusers were 14 teenage girls, the oldest of whom was 18. All the claims centered on the chairman of the foundation, whom the girls said had verbally harassed and threatened them and entered their rooms in the middle of the night to physically assault them. None of the victims were identified, but the site did publish the full name of the chairman along with his photograph and a call to action: “Expose the Orphan Harasser.”
“When we started posting about Dar Akhawein, everyone told us not to,” recalls el-Gebali. “This man was powerful and well-connected, and all we had was the testimony of 14 girls.” In addition to the risk of a lawsuit, el-Gebali and Maged worried that they might face retribution — or that the case would be silently dismissed once public outrage had died down.
Instead, the accusations gained traction immediately. Within a day, Missing Children reported that the Ministry of Social Solidarity had launched an investigation into the chairman and that he had been barred from entering the orphanage. Public opinion mobilized in support of the victims, which encouraged Dar Akhawein employees who had previously kept quiet to step forward and testify. The case was covered in several national newspapers and picked up by Egypt’s popular talk shows, and, in early 2020, the Ministry of Social Solidarity put the orphanage under outside supervision. In May of that year, the chairman was sentenced to two years in prison for harassment.
The ability to mobilize public opinion is a powerful weapon, and Missing Children is able to do it in a way (and at a scale) that few Egyptian organizations are capable of. This may be because the page is written almost exclusively in Egyptian ammiya (colloquial Arabic dialect), as opposed to fusha, the modern standard Arabic used by the press, government agencies, and NGOs. That helps it maintain an air of spontaneity and approachability: readers come away with the impression that the person at the keyboard is just a concerned citizen, free from any agenda that a journalist, public official, or commentator might have.
In recent years, these kinds of social media campaigns have also become a powerful way for Egyptians to demand accountability. In July 2020, 22-year-old Nadeen Ashraf created a then-anonymous Instagram account, Assault Police, spurred by a complex series of events that have been called Egypt’s #MeToo. With over 300,000 followers to date, Assault Police was first launched to help expose one serial harasser, who was recently convicted of sexual assault, at an elite Cairo university, and has since evolved into a platform to educate women about their rights and to raise awareness around sexual violence in Egypt.
It’s an interesting parallel to Missing Children. While both have been celebrated for their impact on society — Ashraf was recently named one of the BBC’s 100 Women 2020 and Time’s 100 Next — the pages appeal to different segments of the Egyptian population. Assault Police is young, bilingual, feminist, activist, Instagram-first, and full of social justice infographs; Missing Children is colloquial Arabic, paternal, everyman, and reliant on Facebook.
Choice of platform also matters. While Instagram reports an Egyptian audience size of 14 million, Facebook commands 47 million, 80.6% of all internet users in the country. Instagram’s base tends to be made up of younger users, social media–based businesses, and middle-class to affluent Egyptians. By contrast, everyone is on Facebook, which is often affectionately called El Face. The sheer extent of Facebook’s penetration has an important effect — it makes it more likely that the average Egyptian will trust, like, and share its content.This has been a major boon for Missing Children, though not everybody is convinced that a single social media page should have so much power. For a 2019 study, Dr. Hesham Roshdy Khairallah, an assistant professor of media studies at Menoufia University, looked at the impact of Missing Children and similar pages and concluded that the sites contributed to increased levels of unwarranted panic around kidnappings and disappearances. “Even people who live in very safe areas became scared and weren’t letting their kids out anymore,” he told me over the phone. Such sites also raise issues around privacy and data collection. A full two years after Sohayla was returned, for instance, her photo was still being circulated by another facebook page, along with inaccurate information.
The role the Missing Children administrators occupy is a fundamentally uneasy one: they are at once social service providers, police investigators, bereavement counselors, and children’s rights advocates. It’s a vulnerable position to hold, and a lot can go wrong: if the site were to mislabel someone as an abuser or inadvertently teach abusers how to better avoid detection, for instance, it could further endanger those they are trying to help. Maged tells me, regretfully, about one of their first cases, of a seven-year-old girl who they returned home, only to find out later she was being abused.
Even when things go right, success stories can be fragile. Marwan spent more of his childhood in an orphanage than with his family, and now, at eighteen, he struggles to connect with people around him. His father, unable to repair the damage of prolonged institutionalization, wonders if he should have brought his son home at all.
There are no easy answers to how complicated this work can be, and no simple way to measure success. Though new reports of missing children and instances of abuse have fallen from their peak two years ago, it’s unclear if this is because actual cases are decreasing or simply because they’re not being reported. “We’re not a body that publishes statistics,” el-Gebali says, “but we’re getting fewer reports, and ministries are taking action a lot more quickly than when we first started.”
On January 31, for instance, Missing Children posted a report about a disabled woman who, for years, had been forced by her brother to spend her days begging in front of a police precinct in the southern city of Beni Suef. Law enforcement picked up the woman the day after the report went live, and on February 2, the site reported that she had been placed in an elder-care facility.
Behind the tear-jerking scenes of Missing Children reuniting families are harrowing realities that often go unseen or simply blend into the background of everyday life in Egypt. They are the result of institutional quagmire and parental neglect, systemic abuse and a fragile social safety system. These problems would be challenging for even the best-funded organization to tackle — for a crowdsourced Facebook page run by two people, it’s a wildly ambitious undertaking. But for now, this is exactly what Maged and el-Gebali are attempting to do, with every message they receive.