New initiative to protect Iraqi children

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, July 08, 2003 at 10:22AM :

New initiative to protect vulnerable children
Report, IRIN

2 July 2003

BAGHDAD - When Mustafa was just 11 years old he decided he had had enough of being beaten by his parents and fled from his home. He managed to survive on the streets of Baghdad by selling plastic bags for a tiny profit to pilgrims at the tomb of the Imam Musa al-Kazim, one of Baghdad's main Shiite shrines.

At first, he slept in the open, but later found a cheap room. Eventually he was picked up by the police and told he could either go back to his family - which he refused to do - or be sent to an institution.

Mustafa now lives at the Bayt al-Tuful, or Children's Home in Jadriyah, a well-to-do district of eastern Baghdad. He proudly sports a grey tracksuit, is a good swimmer, and says his ambition is to become a pilot - although he admits he is not keen on going to school.

By Baghdad standards he is very lucky. "This is much better than being out on the streets," he said. "I'd like all my friends who are still out there to come and live in this comfortable place." Mustafa is one of 28 boys and girls now living in the newly refurbished Children's Home, which is run by the government, supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and administered by the French NGO Enfants du Monde. It is currently the only place available in the city for children who have no family support.

Before the war, more than 100 children were housed in a different building called the Al-Rahmah, or Mercy Centre, in a rough district near the prisons. However, when the Americans arrived in Baghdad, most of the senior government-appointed staff fled and the building was comprehensively looted. "We woke up very early that day and heard aircraft and bombing," said 18-year-old Zaman Abd al-Jabbar. "Then, suddenly, some American soldiers came here - maybe they thought we were prisoners. Anyway, they told us we could go out if we wanted to."

Some of the children stayed, others were given a bed by sympathetic neighbours. Zaman said a group of them ended up on the streets. "There were some people who were like monsters, trying to make us go with them, she said. "We were afraid, but we stayed together and the boys went to get food and protected us."

It was a traumatic experience; most of the children came from broken homes, but were not used to living rough. Eventually, some of them returned to what remained of the centre. Others were brought back by social workers who went out scouring the streets for them. But their old centre was unusable and they have just moved to their new location, a large house which used to be a government guesthouse, overlooking the River Tigris.

There are bright bedrooms - and televisions. The girls, who live on the upper floor, are keen to show off their colourful T-shirts, jewellery and platform heels; the boys prefer tracksuits and football shirts. The children engage in sports, watch television and are given basic literacy and other tuition.

Many of the children said they were much happier at the new home. "They were very strict before at the other place and we were punished," said 13-year-old Zinah, who described how she was brought to the old centre by police after getting lost in Karbala going to fetch water. "I ran away once, but I spent all the time crying and couldn't sleep, so I told the girl I was with we had to come back."

Most of the children, having come from broken homes, found it difficult to adjust. However, they have access to psychiatrists to discuss their problems.

Zaman has seen dramatic reversals in her 18 years. Her parents were murdered when she was very young, and she was subsequently adopted by a senior government official, and even met Saddam Husayn's wife and daughter. But her adoptive parents told her they were not allowed to keep her and, after running away from another family, she was brought to the centre.

"Everyone here takes good care of us," said Zaman, a lively teenager with a steady gaze and a confident air. She added that she had not received any education, but wanted to make up for it now and become a journalist.

"It is difficult - we find the girls change their behaviour more quickly, they become more disciplined, whereas progress with the boys is slower," said Sajidah Salih Hasan, director of the centre. "It's a big step for them all."

UNICEF says the centre's ultimate goal is to provide a temporary lodging while efforts are made to reunify the children with their families. But this is not always easy. Families often refuse to take the children back - especially if they have been on the streets and suspect the children to have been involved in drugs or sexual activity. The social workers have to try to reconcile family members, but sometimes it is just not possible.

The new home for these children is just the beginning. UNICEF is also supporting a drop-in centre for street children, which has some emergency accommodation and is to open along with a youth club. Aid workers say the priority is not to build institutions, but to set up community based projects to help some of Iraq's most vulnerable children.

-- Sadie
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