washingtonpost.com
Orphans in Iraq's Storm
Despite Stigma, Growing Number of Children Ending Up in Public Care

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

"In some cases, it obviously doesn't make sense to put them in a situation where they can be hurt again," said Suda Radhil, director of the First House for the Child.

Interviews with several children at an orphanage in the north Baghdad neighborhood of Waziriya showed they are acutely aware of the societal biases against them. Speaking firmly, his eyes fixed straight ahead, Ahmed Abbas said his mother died giving birth and his father died a hero.

"He was martyred with [Ayatollah] Mohammed Bakir Hakim, " the 16-year-old added, offering details of the fatal wounds he said his father suffered in the August 2003 bombing at a shrine in Najaf that killed one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim leaders.

"Of course I wouldn't want to be here. My father would not want me to be here," Ahmed said. "There was no choice."

After the boy had left the room, the orphanage director quickly offered a different account. Abbas's father is a common criminal, she said, arrested by police two years ago for helping to run a kidnapping ring. And his mother gave him up because she could not afford to raise him alone.

"Sometimes the truth is hard for them to admit," she said.

Recent visits to two Baghdad orphanages showed immaculate, well-equipped facilities, segregated by sex, with children ranging from 5 to 18 years old. The Waziriya orphanage, which does not have a name, had a spacious interior courtyard with basketball hoops and soccer goals, a large television and video game units, and a small computer lab where children are taught typing and other skills.

But they are also places prone to violence. Radhil said she has been beaten nearly unconscious by residents twice since she began working at the First House for the Child in 2004. Fights break out almost daily, and children often run away, only to be dragged back by police.

"These are kids whose parents were taken by violence or who lived on violent streets and only know violence," she said.

At the Waziriya orphanage, that climate is reflected in drawings by Saella Saleh that hang throughout the facility. A resident for eight years, he said only that his parents "died normally," a refrain heard often from orphans whose parents died under violent circumstances.

One of his drawings, done in marker, shows a map of Iraq with a thick metal chain across it and a U.S. flag on the lock. "Iraq is in chains," it says in Arabic script. Another shows women and men crying over a coffin outside a building labeled "Baghdad Morgue." In a third, a tank points its main gun at a group of students wearing backpacks.

For many children, however, the orphanages are a sanctuary from the chaos outside their doors. Muhammad Rahman's long road to Baghdad began nearly two years ago when a major U.S. assault on Fallujah began.

A U.S. bomb, or maybe an artillery shell, he said, struck his home while he played soccer in the street with neighborhood kids. His parents, two brothers and his sister died in the explosion.

For days, Muhammad, then 9, wandered the streets of the besieged city with nowhere to go. Iraqi police commandos found him and brought him to Baghdad and the First House for the Child.

"This is my home. This is my family," he said. "I want to stay here for the rest of my life."

Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company