Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Orphans Face Uncertain Future

Politicians calling for more support for the thousands of children orphaned by the conflict.
Five-year-old Layla Mohammad clings to one memory: her mother combing Layla’s hair, styling it like the popular Lebanese singer, Nancy.

A year and a half ago, a bomb ripped through a market in Sadr City in Baghdad, killing Layla’s mother, father and two-year-old brother.

"After her parents died, Layla became afraid of markets and crowded places. She thinks that someone will blow himself up," said her grandmother Bardia Hassun.

Hassun said her late son was the breadwinner of the family, supporting four of his sisters and his mother in addition to his wife and children. Layla and her grandmother are now reduced to begging, the latter concerned that she won’t have enough money to send her granddaughter to school next year.

"When Layla became an orphan, we also became orphans," said Hassun. "We have no one to take care of us."

There are no accurate statistics on how many orphans are in Iraq. Government sources estimate the figure ranges from the hundreds of thousands to upwards of four to five million.

With little support from the government or non-profit organisations, most orphans are taken in by family members, in line with Islamic tradition. Because of Iraq’s weak economy and its high inflation, many of those families barely make ends meet themselves. According to United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, most Iraqi families are facing additional economic difficulties as they take in other family members.

Abeer Mahdi, head of orphanages at the ministry of social affairs, said that most Iraqis refuse to send orphans to orphanages even if they can better care for them. There are currently 19 orphanages housing about 420 children in Iraq.

"The extended families are usually taking care of the orphans, even if they can't provide them a suitable environment in terms of food, clothing and education," he said.

“It is impossible to create a family-oriented environment” in an orphanage, said one woman who recently took guardianship of a three-year-old girl.

The woman, who asked not to be named, was standing with the child, waiting for food from an aid organisation.

The problems facing Iraqi orphans came to light in June 2007, when US Marines found children in an orphanage for children with special needs tied to beds and starving.

Three of the orphanage’s staff members are being tried for neglect, said Sameera al-Mussawi, head of the Iraqi parliament’s women, family and children’s committee. Two children died of cholera at the same orphanage in November 2007.

However, not all orphanages are in such poor condition and many provide vital shelter and education for children. Several were built during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which claimed one million lives on both sides and left many children parentless.

This IWPR reporter visited al-Zuhoor orphanage for girls in Baghdad and found the facilities clean, well-organised and well-maintained. The orphanage had a heating and cooling system and space for the children outside of their rooms, including a study area and televisions.

Zahra Imad, 7, danced in front of the television. She ended up in the orphanage to escape her abusive father, who also beat her mother. Her mother was imprisoned last year for trying to plant a roadside bomb in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood. She regularly visits her mother in prison.

However, some politicians argue that more must be done to support children like Zahra.

The plight of orphans was the focus of a conference in Baghdad last month in which leaders encouraged the Iraqi government to provide more support for them.

Mussawi said that the government does not have a strategy to deal with Iraq’s orphans, who need everything from financial backing, psychological help to education.

Her committee has asked the government for 4.1 million US dollars to support families caring for orphans. They would also like to hire child care specialists to help the children.

Mussawi said that her committee has repeatedly pushed for the government to prioritise issues such as children’s rights. However, “all government agencies are preoccupied with politics”, she said. “This affects social issues.”

Iraqi leaders expressed concern that the growing number of orphans “could bring serious problems to [Iraqi] society”, said Maissun al-Dmluji, a member of parliament from the Iraqi list.

She said that even orphans living with their families may not have the family structure and stability needed to build strong morals and keep them away from crime.

Dmluji argued that orphans need more support, including “new and modern orphanages that can raise children in a healthy and peaceful environment, where children are taught coexistence, peace and respect".

Hazim al-Shara’ is an IWPR correspondent in Baghdad.

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