Orphans in Iraq's Storm
Saturday, September 2, 2006
BAGHDAD -- Athier Hamed first came to the Baghdad orphanage two years ago when his mother died suddenly and his father, he said, "lost his mind."
"He got angrier and angrier with me, and hurt me like it was nothing," said Athier, soft-spoken and slender, pulling up his sleeves to show waxy scars on his wrists from handcuffs he said his father, in a fit of rage, tried to weld to his arms.
Fearing for his life, Athier, now 13, ran away, talking a bus driver into giving him a ride to the Iraqi capital from his small home town in the western province of Anbar. Police took him to the First House for the Child, founded in 2003 as the number of abandoned and orphaned children in the Iraqi capital began to surge.
But when visiting government officials interviewed him about his past, they decided to return him to his father. It didn't last long.
"I said I didn't want to go back, but they said I should be with my own family," Athier said in a recent interview at the orphanage. "I couldn't bear being back with him. After two days, he hit me and I came back here."
Athier again became a ward of the state, a status increasingly common here despite a stigma so strong it has prompted the financially strapped government to pay families to take their children back.
Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, about 400 children lived in Iraqi orphanages, to which Saddam Hussein often paid high-profile visits to demonstrate his magnanimity. But by early 2006, that number had grown to nearly 1,000, according to government statistics. For a country that has been at war or under crippling economic sanctions for more than 25 years, the numbers are still smaller than might be expected. But Islamic society considers it shameful to abandon children to public care, so traditionally most children who lose parents are absorbed into vast family networks.
Social workers and Iraqi officials say the steady climb in the number of orphans turned over to the government -- which has required the construction of three new orphanages in Baghdad alone in the past three years -- reflects the toll that war and economic hardship are taking on families, considered the nucleus of Muslim society. The trend also is evidence, they say, of the newly emerging belief that children may be better off in institutions than in war-torn neighborhoods.
"In the Arab world, tradition plays a part in this. In some provinces, we have no orphanages because it would be a disgrace for families not to take care of the children," said Abeer Mahdi al-Chalabi, director of the orphanages department at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. "But families are having more trouble than ever before. Some of them are falling apart."
Last year the Iraqi government implemented a policy of paying relatives of orphaned or abandoned children to take them back from government facilities. Officials launched efforts to locate family members of children in orphanages and offered monthly stipends of about $35 per child to care for them.
"It is better for the children," Chalabi said.
But the policy runs the risk of leaving children neglected or mistreated or vulnerable to the violence they were trying to escape, some orphanage employees said.