Widows Often Find Help Elusive in Iraq
Growing Demand Strains Welfare Net

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006; A16

BAGHDAD -- She has progressed a few paces in five hours under the glaring sun, but still the line of women in black robes stretches far in front of her. In three more hours, the Labor Ministry will close, and Aida Qamel will return home for another few months, until she has another free day to search for someone who will listen to a widow's story in Baghdad.

"My husband was blown up in his video game shop. I was a housewife," she begins quietly, keeping one arm firmly wrapped around her 7-year-old son, Mohammed.

Another widow interrupts. "I have seven children and my house collapsed."

Then more women from the line crowd in, speaking over one another as if it is all the same story.

"I've got two handicaps, and my husband was a farmer. Now we have nothing."

"Can someone just get me some cold water?"

"Are you going to help us at all?"

With each new car bombing, grenade explosion or mortar attack, the list of Iraq's widows grows longer. And each new case further overwhelms the beleaguered Iraqi government's welfare program intended to help them. At the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Baghdad, where staff members sometimes work in darkness during power outages, officials in charge of disbursing funds to widows admit they cannot keep up with the killings.

"The money is not sufficient. The time is not sufficient. Our lives are not sufficient at this point," said Isma Talib Mohammed, the head of the ministry's social welfare fund. "Many women cannot even come here to ask for money because the security situation does not allow it."

Iraq this year has $337 million to disburse from the fund for all welfare cases, not just widows, in a program that covers 500,000 people. A widow with no children is eligible for $34 a month from the government, while the maximum monthly disbursement is $81 for a widow with five or more children -- neither amount enough to escape from poverty.

But whether this money even makes it to the right home -- at a time in Iraq when sectarian violence has displaced thousands of families -- is impossible to know. The ongoing killing means it is too dangerous for Iraqi social workers to make visits to welfare recipients, said Isam Abdul Latif Mohammed, a Labor Ministry official.

"We could know about the living situation of the recipients, but for the time being such a thing is not possible," he said. "So some errors might take place."

Haldia Ismael, 45, said she lost her son in a car bombing two years ago, and her husband died in 1983 during Iraq's war with Iran. But because her husband's body never turned up, she does not have the death certificate that she needs to receive welfare. Along with the families of three relatives, Ismael now lives in a bombed-out Baghdad compound, the former offices of the Iraqi air force, which has become a squatter settlement of about 500 impoverished families.

Last week, a bombing at a market in the Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City sent shrapnel into Ismael, her 23-year-old son and a cousin, and destroyed the soft drink stand that supported two families.

"I don't know really what we're going to do. We don't even have something we can sell to buy a new stand, we don't have anything," she said, motioning with bandaged hands around a barren concrete room in her home. "Now you cannot get a job or a government salary unless you know someone at the ministry. If you don't have anyone you know there, you can't get anything."

Ismael said she went to the ministry for two months applying for assistance but eventually quit trying.

"I realized the money I'm spending on transportation to go back and forth to the ministry should be going to my kids," she said.

There is no precise figure on the number of widows in Iraq, though the Labor Ministry is working to generate such a statistic for lawmakers. A study earlier this year from Baghdad University, in collaboration with nonprofit women's rights groups, estimated there were 400,000 widows in Baghdad alone, according to the Iraqi organization Women Against War. Before two wars with the United States, a generation of Iraqi men was lost during the brutal eight-year-war with Iran in the 1980s.

"These women have been ignored completely," said Raja al-Khuzai, president of the Iraqi Widows' Organization. "I didn't like to see Iraqi women humiliated like they were during Saddam [Hussein's] time, but I don't like to see them begging in the street, and taking their kids out of school."

For many Muslim women in Iraq, the death of a husband now precipitates a painful choice: follow the traditional Islamic mourning process -- four months and 10 days without leaving the house -- or set out to find work in a war-zone economy of rampant unemployment.

"Unfortunately in these last few months, mourning is a privilege we cannot afford anymore," said Yanar Mohammed, head of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. "It has become a minute part of our daily lives, because we are more concerned with survival than mourning."

When her husband was shot in 2004, Khalida Shakir Salih, 40, chose to spend the 130-day mourning period -- a tradition intended to ensure that any posthumous pregnancy came from the husband -- inside her home in the same squatter settlement in Baghdad. She saw no males but her relatives and was supported by the falafel stand run by her teenage son. She winces at the memory.

"Because the feeling of the sorrow and sadness increased when I stayed like this," she said.

Salih, who has three sons and three daughters, carries her husband's death certificate with her, a small token whose script is fading as she keeps unfolding the paper. Her husband, Salim Rashid Majid, died at age 41 when the food delivery truck he was driving from Baghdad to Basra was shot up by unknown gunmen in an Opal sedan. He had been imprisoned for seven years during the rule of Saddam Hussein, under suspicion that his delivery truck, at the time carrying teapots and kettles, was running "illegal material." He was killed a year after his release.

"My son is our breadwinner now. We don't have a pension, a salary. We have nothing," Salih said. "I wish I could find a job, but my sons refused that. Because of our traditions, they said, 'We'll not let you work because it's shameful for us that you work and we just watch.' "

She could not prevent herself from crying as she spoke about her children. She dabbed at her eye with a white cloth.

"I don't think about getting married again," she said. "I just live now for the sake of my children. That's it."

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri and Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

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