Grim Time for Iraq’s Street Children
(June 4, 2003)
By Charles A. Radin
The Boston Globe Staff
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
BAGHDAD — Doaa, 11, opened her eyes to the bright sunshine of early morning and tried without success to blink away the dust covering her eyes. Her face, her clothes, and the brothers and sisters who spent the night huddled close to her on the heat-seared, rock-hard banks of the Tigris River, all are coated with the fine, brown powder. ‘’We’ve been sleeping here . . . too long. I don’t know how long,'’ she said. ‘’We don’t have a house. We used to live in a house, but during the war our parents died. A bomb fell on the house.'’
The children were emaciated and dazed. They clutched one another with what looked like desperation, even when they slept.
‘’We don’t know anyone; we don’t have anyone to ask for help,'’ said Rawaa, a brother Doaa said is 13 but who looked much younger.
‘’We get food from those Americans,'’ he said, pointing to an Army encampment perhaps a hundred yards away, ‘’and we sleep here every night.'’
But a couple of days later they were gone, leaving behind unanswerable questions not just about the impact of the war and the Saddam Hussein regime on Iraqi children, but about whether the United States can cope with the social problems and attitudes of this very different culture. Indeed, a confrontation may be looming between US forces and Shi’ite clerics over orphans and street children.
Homelessness and child abuse existed before the US occupation, but so did a system, however flawed, that Iraqis understood and accepted. Now that system has been destroyed, and the problems have been exacerbated by the US-led conflict.
‘’We have to rebuild Iraqi society by rebuilding the Iraqi people,'’ said Dr. Ali Hameed, a psychiatrist and official at the Ministry of Health who is working with US Army officers as they deliver food and health services to the children and try to get them off the streets. ‘’Twelve years of sanctions and, even more important, the suppression and brainwashing of the previous regime, have made Iraqis hopeless and helpless.'’
Iraqi society attaches a heavy stigma to street children, whether they are orphans or war victims. These days, most orphanages are accepting only the children they cared for before the war who scattered during the conflict. The newly orphaned and deserted children on the streets, said to number at least a few thousand, are objects of scorn.
Mohammed, a teenager who lives in one of the middle-class homes near the US encampment, says Doaa and her siblings left because ‘’some Americans came to help them, but they were afraid they would be put in jail'’ — something that might well have happened to them under the regime, especially if they were caught begging.
‘’Anyway, they’re not homeless,'’ Mohammed said. ‘’Their parents left them.'’
He dismissed with similar ease the plight of a lone boy who was sleeping on the brick sidewalk to get as close as possible to the Americans. ‘’He uses drugs — sniffs glue, like many street children here,'’ he said. ‘’That’s why he sleeps so much.'’
The boy, Ali, woke up, tugged at his too-big rags to make sure they would not fall off when he stood, and explained that he has been on the streets since Baghdad fell and US troops opened the gates of Dar Al Rahmah, the House of Mercy, where he was sent months before the war when he was arrested for begging.
Ali, 13, limps because there is a piece of glass in his left foot, the result of walking barefoot across this war-torn city after other street people stole his shoes.
He, too, soon disappeared.
Contempt for the down-and-out extends from youths like Mohammed to the staffs of Baghdad’s better child-care institutions.
Ibtissam Rasheed Al Habash, 54, a longtime staff member at Families of Iraq, an orphanage now receiving support from both Sheikha Fatima of the United Arab Emirates and the US Army, resents Army efforts to bring the street children to her institution.
‘’They are not bringing orphans; they are bringing homeless kids,'’ said Habash, though she has no way to know whether the children have been orphaned or not. ‘’We are suffering because of that. Homeless children have no manners. Our children have manners. They are clean. They are educated.'’
The street children ‘’are different,'’ she said. ‘’I prefer if they don’t come here.'’
US Army Captain Stacey Simms, a reservist from Rochester, N.Y., who leads the US effort to help the street children, said he ‘’just can’t believe the mentality'’ of the orphanage staffs. ‘’They have condemned the street children. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m from a different culture.'’
‘’These are children and they need help,'’ Simms said. ‘’We don’t know why they became street kids. Their house could have been blown up, their parents could have abused them or kicked them out. But as soon as they take a step on the street, they are considered `unworthy’ of help. . . . These orphanage people do not want the job to be hard.'’
Progress at getting the children off the streets is slow, Simms said. In addition to the prejudice, some orphanages were stripped in the looting between April 9, when Baghdad fell, and early May, when US forces began solidifying control of the city.
‘’I would like to provide homes'’ for the street children, ‘’but that’s fantasy,'’ Simms said. Right now he is concentrating on getting them food, water, medical care, and toys.
But he is trying to navigate a situation that might pose a threat to dozens of children and cause a breach in the uneasy cooperation between American forces and Al Hawsa al-Ilmiya, a Shi’ite Muslim school and social organization that has largely taken over Baghdad’s worst slum and restored order.
Known as Saddam City before the war, now renamed Sadr City after a clergyman assassinated by the Hussein regime, the slum is also the site of the House of Mercy, an orphanage surrounded by prisons for men, women, juvenile offenders, and the criminally insane.
Attractive girls from the orphanage were taken to Hussein’s palaces, says Sheikh Bakr Al Sa’idi, 22, a Baghdad University law student who has been designated by the Hawsa to renovate the orphanage and protect the students. Other girls were sent out as servants. Young boys were trained in Hussein’s army of Young Lions; older boys became part of his fedayeen militia.
‘’We found cells and dungeons here,'’ Sa’idi said. ‘’They beat the kids brutally for the silliest mistakes. The guards raped the girls. I can’t describe how ugly it was.'’
When Sa’idi arrived, three days after the fall of Baghdad, the orphanage had been looted and the children had scattered. He now has 18 Hawsa volunteers rewiring and renovating the place. It is still barren, but beds, cooking utensils, and other necessities gradually are being acquired. A banner reading ‘’No to America; No to Saddam; Yes, yes to Islam'’ hangs over the entrance.
About 50 of the 163 children who were there before the war are back, and a call has gone out for men to go to their mosques and arrange marriages with the older girls. Three have been married so far and another six are engaged, he said.
The Muslim association has no desire to run the orphanage for the long term, Sa’idi said, and ‘’when there is a new government and the Hawsa is sure the Ministry of Social Affairs will provide competent care and ensure security, we will turn it back'’ to the state.
But a confrontation with Simms may occur long before then. An international organization that has visited the institution has told Simms that children are being abused there still. Simms is working on plans ‘’to move the children to a better, safer facility.'’
Whatever happens at the House of Mercy, a much bigger, broader effort will be needed to keep children who have been traumatized by three major wars and 12 years of sanctions in the last 20 years from becoming ‘’a maladjusted, psychopathic generation,'’ said Dr. Hameed, the psychiatrist.
‘’It is the Americans’ duty now to help us normalize Iraq,'’ he said. ‘’You shouldn’t leave Iraq . . . you should do what you have promised.'’