When Amina Abaza was an eight-year old girl she befriended a stray dog. The dog waited every morning at Amina's school bus stop with her, and often, Amina packed treats for the next time they met. Greeting the dog was part of her morning ritual.
Amina lived in Cairo, Egypt, with Muslim parents who taught her to respect all living beings. They would not let her bring a pet inside, so instead she contented herself just to look forward every day to seeing her dog at the bus stop. Then one day, the dog didn't come...
She had been shot by the police.
This was one of the defining moments that led to the founding of SPARE (Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt), the first animal protection charity in Egypt, which is now pioneering change for all animals in this challenging region of the world.
Amina grew up to be a successful woman, becoming the chief translator for Egyptian Satellite TV, a position she still holds today. However, her love for animals inspired her to start rescuing animals from the streets of her home town, and welcome them both into her home as well as others.
In fact it was fate (well, a dog actually) which brought Amina and her soon to be husband together. Faced with the challenge of finding a home for an abused Great Dane, a mysterious 'perfect adopter' with 'beautiful eyes' emerged. Little did Amina know that this man with a kind heart was going to become her life partner and greatest ally. Amina's husband — Raouf Mishriki — was a key factor in the establishment of SPARE, which without him would never have come to pass.
Raouf helped Amina both morally and financially in the (fledgling/beginning) days of SPARE, and together, they rented a plot of land 20 minutes outside of Cairo where stray animals could find refuge.
The lifelong dream of Amina became a reality when — in September 2001 — SPARE became the first registered charity for the protection of all Egyptian animals, in a country where there are still no effective laws to protect animals.
Today SPARE houses nearly 100 stray dogs, 50 cats, and 19 donkeys, as well as having a spay and neuter clinic for strays. They provide a free veterinary service to the local community. SPARE advocates better conditions at the Cairo Zoo, an end to poisoning and shooting stray dogs, and an improvement in conditions at slaughterhouses. Perhaps most importantly, SPARE appear on Egyptian television to raise awareness about the importance of kindness to animals.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest problems Amina deals with is that in the richest areas around the foreign embassies, where people regularly call the police to ask them to get rid of "dirty" strays. "I always thought that the foreigners were much more civilised when it came to animal welfare," she said. "But it's people inside the European and American embassies calling the police to complain about these harmless strays. And since there are so few shelters in Egypt, the police just come kill them."
Donkeys are also a big issue. "There is no tourist who doesn't come away being shocked by the donkeys," she said. "We are a very poor country, so many people work with the carts and the donkeys - beating them and starving them is terribly common". Why is that? Partly, she said, it's a lack of public education on kindness to animals. But really, she said, she doesn't wish to give it an excuse, because, "I cannot defend what is un-defendable."
Nonetheless, she says there are a lot of wonderful things about growing up and living in Egypt, and the way that her local community has embraced the SPARE shelter has been cause for enormous hope. And where are the most beautiful beaches in the whole world? Tahiti? Hawaii? Nope. Amina assures us that Egypt has the most beautiful beaches anywhere on the entire earth. Furthermore, the people are kind and welcoming; "They live in the present and don't worry about tomorrow. It's really a very nice thing."
Now through Amina and SPARE, Egyptians are learning that animals matter too. This remarkable and courageous Egyptian is providing a living example of the power of kindness in this most challenging of countries.
With grateful thanks to Best Friends for their contribution to this article.