IRAQ: Drug abuse among children on the rise

IRAQ: Drug abuse among children on the rise

Photo: IRIN
Specialists say the main reason for the rise in the number of children using illicit drugs has been the psychological effects of violence

BAGHDAD, 9 May 2007 (IRIN) – The increase in drug abuse among children and youths in Iraq is worrying specialists who say continued violence is responsible for the rising number of users – something that is compounded by the easy availability of different narcotics.

"Investigations by local NGOs showed an increase, compared to the beginning of this year, of at least 20 percent in drug abuse among children and youth," said Ali Mussawi, president of the local NGO Keeping Children Alive (KCA).

"In our preliminary reports, released in February 2007, there were more cases of addiction among street children but today the numbers have changed and there are more addicted children from the middle class," Mussawi added.

Mussawi said a survey was undertaken by five local NGOs working on children’s issues. They interviewed 1,535 people – children and their families – in central and southern areas of the country. The interviewees were from the areas most affected by drugs.

According to Mussawi the main reason for the rise in the number of children and young people using illicit drugs has been the psychological effects of violence. It is violence, specialists say, which has led to children finding easy ways to forget about the loss of their loved ones.

"Nowadays, you can find drugs being sold near school entrances in many districts of the capital and some children even smuggle drugs into school," Mussawi added. "We have informed the police about the situation but they say that are too busy with the daily violence to deal with such matters."

"Psychological stress"

UNICEF reports from the field suggest that substance abuse is becoming more of a phenomenon amongst Iraqi children.

''Nowadays, you can find drugs being sold near school entrances in many districts of the capital and some children even smuggle drugs into school.''

"Their environment makes them more vulnerable, with an increasing number ending up on the streets after being displaced, orphaned or separated from their families. Many are also living with intense psychological stress as a result of the ongoing violence," said Claire Hajaj, communication officer at UNICEF Iraq Support Centre in Amman (ISCA).

"We don’t have specific programmes for tackling drug abuse in Iraq – but we do focus on providing support for children who are vulnerable to exploitation and harmful practices such as drug abuse – including psychosocial support for displaced children or children separated from their parents, re-integration programmes for children living on the street, care for children injured by landmines and UXOs [unexploded ordnances], and assistance for orphaned children," she added.

Case study

Mas’ud Rafiq, 12, is a clear example of the drug usage increase in Iraq. Receiving support from KCA, the youth said he started to consume marijuana with his 14-year-old brother and then found from two of his school friends that it was easily available.

"They told me that the seller comes daily at our school gate and they buy from him very cheaply. I was using my pocket money to buy it. One day I got really sick and told my mother who looked for help as I was suffering from withdrawal syndrome and was in need of urgent help," Rafiq said.

Mussawi said sniffing glue or solvents from liquids such as paint, which have large amounts of intoxicants, were the most common forms of drug abuse among children but recently they have started smoking marijuana and cocaine.

"Drugs were forbidden before and were never available. Today you just have to go to crowded places or in any street of the suburbs to find them and unfortunately they are very cheap," Mussawi said.

Drug abuse amongst children and adolescents is a worldwide phenomenon, not limited to conflict zones. Tackling drug abuse in any country is complex and difficult – and needs to involve the full spectrum of families, communities, and national health, education, legal and social services.

"Providing these services in peace-time can be challenging – but in times of conflict and population movement, the challenges multiply exponentially," Hajaj said.


Iraq: NGO works to help children caught up in war

Source: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

Date: 27 Mar 2007

Iraq: NGO works to help children caught up in war

March 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) — For more than a decade, the nongovernmental charity War Child has been helping children caught up in armed conflicts around the world. RFE/RL correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke to War Child program coordinator Leila Billing, about the group’s work in Iraq.

RFE/RL: You will soon be issuing a report on Iraq. Where in Iraq did you conduct your research?

Leila Billing: It was a piece of research with approximately 400 children from [Al-Basrah] and Al-Nasiriyah in the south of Iraq. And the research also involved talking to the children’s families, to local community members, and also to people who work with vulnerable and marginalized children. It could be people who work for the state or for local child-protection organizations. This methodology is known as participatory research. And that involves using a whole host of research tools that the children kind of develop themselves. For example, there is a lot of role-playing and social-drama activities that the children do. There is a lot of drawing. The children are mapping out their daily lives on paper. And also training children to talk to their peers and act as researchers themselves. It’s a very child-centered approach.

RFE/RL: What are the main problems of the children in Iraq, of those kids who were forced onto the street? What picture did you get from this survey of the status of children in the country at the moment?

"Boys and girls are engaging in sex work; they are selling weapons on the streets, alcohol, pornography. You know, children as young as eight are involved in these kinds of trades. Obviously, this results in increased stigmatization because the community brands them as ‘bad children.’"Billing: I think it showed the precise way that this conflict is impacting upon children. It’s leading to the increased criminalization and stigmatization of children. For example, we are witnessing high levels of family breakdown and an increase of female-headed households in certain parts of Iraq. And basically what it means is that children are being forced to assume income-generating roles because their families are suffering from acute poverty. That means children leaving school, going out on to the streets and looking for paid work. And it’s on the streets where many Iraqi children are being exposed to illegal livelihood activities. Say, for example, boys and girls are engaging in sex work; they are selling weapons on the streets, alcohol, pornography. You know, children as young as eight are involved in these kinds of trades. And it’s kind of an economic necessity that is forcing them to do this. Obviously, this results in increased stigmatization of these children because the local community brands them as ‘bad children.’ And so, not only they are being impacted by poverty and are they being drawn into this criminal activities, they are also facing strong forms of social exclusion.

RFE/RL: So, children are forced onto the streets to earn a livelihood. But what do the families think about it? The families must see the problem as well as you see it, don’t they?

Billing: Well, the families that we spoke to during the course of this research, some of them, or many of them, wish that they had another option. They wish that they did not have to put their children in this kind of position. But they feel that they have no other option but to do so because they are living a hand-to-mouth existence. But also other children we spoke to, their families have been the primary perpetrators of abuse against them. For example, we spoke to some young boys and girls whose parents or members of their extended families had actually forced them to engage in sex work. So the family as well as being a force that protects, can also be a force that causes extreme forms of abuse.

RFE/RL: Did you study only the lifestyle of these street children? Or did you go further in analyzing their behavior and the impact of the abuse they are living through?

Billing: Another interesting finding of the research was the psychological effect the conflict has had on them. These children were asked to rank their problems. And quite apart from poverty and family breakdown, they all mentioned terrorism and the lack of security in Iraq as one of their primary concerns.

Children in Baghdad watch as police secure the area following a car bombing in July 2006 (epa)And I think what we are witnessing is — the children, because they are surrounded by violence and insecurity on a daily basis, it’s having an adverse effect on their own behavior and their own development psychologically. It’s quite common for kids to be playing with guns. They demonstrate violent behavior on a daily basis because that’s what they see all around them. And although it’s not true for all children, I think for a large proportion it’s having a really adverse effect on their psychological well being.

RFE/RL: This violent behavior of the kids, why do they manifest it? Does it give them the sense of security, is it for self-protection?

Billing: Yes, I think it’s a way of protecting themselves. Quite a few of the kids that we spoke to, particularly the boys, the boys who were forced to engage in sex work, for example, they carry knives as a routine. And it’s a way of protecting themselves. Some of them display quite aggressive behavior, again, as a kind of protection mechanism. They are trying to say: Look, don’t mess with me; I’m capable of defending myself. But deep down, I think we are dealing with quite scared children. And this kind of behavior is an example or symptom of their fear.

RFE/RL: Are all the problems of the street kids common for both boys and girls? Or do girls have different problems?

Billing: Since the conflict started there has been an increase in the prevalence of mota (pleasure) marriages in Iraq. The muta’a marriages are mainly practiced by Shi’ite Muslims. Muta’a marriage is a marriage for a fixed period of time. It is also something that is called a temporary marriage. And what we are seeing is muta’a marriages on the increase, especially for young girls. Now, this could be, again, a livelihood strategy for poor families who give permission for their daughters to conduct a muta’a marriage, say, for a period of a month or two week, or even an hour, in fact. So, it’s kind of a pretext for prostitution.

RFE/RL: Your NGO has existed since 1993, since the war in former Yugoslavia. I presume that those problems are more or less common for all countries at war. What should be done to save those kids?

Billing: I think getting the community involved is the first step — as a way of trying to break down the stigma that these children have. I’d take the example of our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we also work with a similar group of children, street children who were very marginalized, very stigmatized by the community. And what we are trying to do is increase the involvement of the community in the lives of these children. Because if the community is on board, you can really help to promote a protective environment for the children themselves. But I think the key to community involvement is reaching those community leaders or authority figures and using them as a way of mobilizing the rest of the population. And this could involve talking to an influential religious spokesperson. It could involve speaking to district councilors. This is something we’ve done involving the local mullah in our work w
ith children in conflict with the law and getting him to talk about the need to break down the stigma against these kids in his sermons, in the preaching that he does to the local community. And that had a really positive impact.

Children lured into drugs and prostitution

IRAQ: Children lured into drugs and prostitution

Photo: Zaineb Ahmed/IRIN
Orphans and street children in Iraq can easily be lured into gangs.

BAGHDAD, 12 February 2007 (IRIN) – Violence in Iraq is tearing families apart and destroying the country’s economy, two major factors giving rise to a mass of marginalised street children, child specialists say. Once on the streets, children can easily fall prey to gangs involved in drugs, violence and prostitution.

“Children are the first victims of violence and they are particularly vulnerable psychologically speaking. So it’s easy for an adult who would like to do so to manipulate and use children. There was already the case of a child who was used as a suicide bomber in late 2005, for example,” Cedric Turlan, information officer for the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), said.

Ali Mussawi, president of the local NGO Keeping Children Alive (KCA), said that since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 there has been an increase in the number of children used by criminal gangs. Mussawi said that a major reason for this was that many homeless children quickly turn to drugs, including sniffing glue or vapours from liquids such as paint, which have large amounts of intoxicants.

''These children are starving to death and the gangs use their desperate situation to force them into a drugs and sex world.''

“Many street children join criminal gangs to get money for their [drug] habits because the money they get from begging is not enough for them to eat and consume their drugs,” Mussawi said.

Mussawi added that some criminal gangs offer these children drugs in exchange for sexual favours.

“[Street] boys and girls are in a desperate situation. The Ministry of Interior cannot control such groups and the losers are the children who cannot escape,” he said. “It is a torture. These children are starving to death and the gangs use their desperate situation to force them into a drugs and sex world.”

Officials at the Ministry of Interior said they were on the look out for such gangs and have been punishing the ones already arrested but they did not want to give more detailed information.

Glue sniffing

Sami Rubaie, 12, lives on the streets of Baghdad. He said he ran away from home because he could not stand the beatings he got from his father for not bringing home enough money from begging all day. He soon turned to glue sniffing. To support his habit, he recently joined a gang and now men have sex with him in exchange for glue and money.

“I cry every time a man has sex with me and they usually hit me because I am crying. After I do it, my boss gives me a good quantity of glue and around US $3 dollars for food. I know what I’m doing is wrong but it’s better than living with daily beatings from my father for not bringing him enough money,” Sami said.

Several NGOs are working to support street children psychologically. There are also projects to return street children to their families. However, lack of funds and the increasing insecurity aid workers face have left many of these projects unimplemented.

''I cry every time a man has sex with me and they usually hit me because I am crying.''

For example, the Iraqi Red Crescent, which had been developing initiatives to help street children, has put its projects on hold due to a lack of funds and for security reasons.

There a number of ways in which Iraqi children can end up living on the streets. Some are orphaned and left with no-one to support them. Others are escaping violence and sexual abuse at home. Not all are lured into drugs and sexual acts on the streets, but all are vulnerable nonetheless.

Like Sami, Muhammad Sa’adek, 12, ran away from violence at home in the hope of a better life on the streets of Baghdad. He escaped an abusive father with his 10-year-old sister Nahila a year ago.

“My mother left us to go and live with another man. My father took us from her and beat us all the time, taking revenge for my mother’s behaviour,” Muhammad said. “My sister suffered the most. On top of forcing her to clean and cook alone, one day I saw him forcing her to play with his penis,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad took his sister and ran from the Dora Alwai district of the capital to the Dora neighbourhood on the opposite side of the city, so that their father, a mechanic, would never find them.

“We went to where our mother is living but she told us to go home because her new husband doesn’t like children and she had already given us to my father. When I told her what my father was doing, she just said that he is our father and can do whatever he wants,” Muhammad said. “So, we found the streets are a happier place to live than with our family, even if we have to beg to live.”

IRAQ: Child beggars proliferate in Baghdad

IRAQ: Child beggars proliferate in Baghdad

Photo: Afif Sarhan/IRIN
Child beggars are a common sight in the streets of Baghdad.

BAGHDAD, 11 February 2007 (IRIN) – Ahmed Saffar, 7, has been forced to beg on the streets of Baghdad in order to eat. An orphan with two brothers and one sister, Ahmed hangs around all day near a traffic light, asking for money from each driver who stops.

“Uncle, uncle, give me money to eat,” is his most common opening line. “Sometimes they give me some money; sometimes, when I insist, they hit me. Women never help and the windows of their cars are always closed but old people are the best ones,” Ahmed said.

“I have no option. I and my brothers work in the streets, begging in different places. I am the youngest but usually the one who makes more money. My sister is always with me and together we can make enough to eat by the end of the day,” he added.

Ahmed said he would rather beg than steal and that he had started begging before his parents died because they were a poor family. He said his mother died in Fallujah in August 2004. She was visiting her parents when their house was bombed by US-led coalition forces.

His father fell ill and could not work so he sent his children out to beg. If they did not come home with enough money, he would beat them, Ahmed said. His father died of kidney failure in April 2005.

''We are happy even though we sleep in the open, in a garden with only two blankets. I hope one day I will help all child beggars in Iraq.''

“Now they are dead but my brothers treat us well. We are happy even though we sleep in the open, in a garden with only two blankets. I hope one day I will help all child beggars in Iraq,” Ahmed said, grinning from ear to ear before excusing himself and running after an expensive-looking car.

Ahmed is one of thousands of homeless children throughout Iraq who survive by begging, stealing or scavenging in garbage for food.

Only four years ago, the vast majority of these children were living at home with their families.

“Every day when I go to work or pick up my sons from their schools, a child comes near my car asking for money. It is hard to ignore them as so many children are now in the streets begging for food and material help,” said Ali Mussawi, president of the local NGO Keeping Children Alive (KCA).

“They speak and swear like adults, putting the name of Allah [God] in the middle of all their sentences. Sometimes, when their hunger is severe, you can see a child is seemingly not afraid to steal in order to eat,” Mussawi added.

Deteriorating economic situation

According to the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq is the main reason for the increase in the number of street children since the occupation of the country began in 2003. The next major contributor is the increase in the number of widows countrywide.

“The economic situation of the Iraqis is decreasing month after month. Lots of families are using their children to get additional income, which they can get through begging. There are also families who send their children to work,” Cedric Turlan, information officer for the NCCI, said.

''The increasing number of widows and orphans, and the terrible [security] situation, the families’ needs have increased as has the number of street children.''

“In addition, with the increasing number of widows and orphans, and the terrible [security] situation, the families’ needs have increased as has the number of street children.

“Of course, when children are not going to school anymore, there is nothing you can do to keep them off the streets. When children are in school, they are not in the street and teachers and educators can also have an impact on families,” Turlan added.

There are several centres working with street children in Baghdad and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, in conjunction with NGOs, is working to provide financial or social support to families so as to prevent them sending their children to work or beg.

“Unfortunately, with the current situation – I mean the difficulty of access and the security matter, and sometimes the lack of funds – these projects are very much reduced and have become very difficult to implement,” Turlan said.

“Iraq has signed the conventions related to the rights of the children, but their implementation is also much reduced now, certainly because of insecurity. So the main concern is the future of Iraqi children in general: what will be their future?”

IRAQ: Fadhel, Iraq “Stealing is the easiest job in Iraq today”

IRAQ: Fadhel, Iraq “Stealing is the easiest job in Iraq today”

Photo: Afif Sarhan/IRIN
As an orphan living in Baghdad’s streets, Fadhel, 11, steals to survive.

BAGHDAD, 8 February 2007 (IRIN) – “I’m an 11-year-old boy who has never been to school – so I can neither read nor write. For the past two years I have been living on the streets of Baghdad, surviving on leftovers that I scavenge from garbage or by stealing from people and shop-lifting.

“When I first started, I was scared that at any time the police would catch me for stealing. Now it has become easy for me to steal. I have become an expert and the proof is the title my peers have given me. They call me ‘the young king’.

“People might be surprised to hear a child like me being happy for being an expert at stealing and looting things but in a country like Iraq, where most people are without homes and food, the hero is the one who can survive by whatever means.

“I’m an orphan and don’t know who my parents are. Nor do I know if they are alive or dead. I was taken into an orphanage when I was four years old and since then different people have been taking care of me. They were not good people. During [former president Saddam Hussein] Saddam’s time, police officers sometimes used to come and have sex with older boys.

“I ran away from the orphanage during the [US-led] invasion with another three boys in 2003. But three months ago they abandoned me as they discovered the world of drugs.

“Sometimes I feel lonely. The only thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is when I steal something which I can sell in a market to get some money to eat or something which I may use myself. If I don’t steal food, I usually steal things like electronic items. I never steal from people’s homes. I usually make about 5 or 10 [US] dollars a day.

“Five days ago, I stole a walkman in a shop in Mansour district [a high-class area of Baghdad]. No one saw me. When I told my friends in the street, they were surprised because no one had done this before because of the high security there. And I’ve never been caught. Now I’m their king. It’s good to be popular.

“I and many other children sleep together in an empty government building at Hay Jamia’a district [in Baghdad]. We keep a few things there because sometimes children from other groups come to steal from us. They may even kill you if you don’t give them what you have.

''It has become easy for me to steal. I have become an expert and the proof is the title my peers have given me. They call me ‘the young king’.''

“In Iraq, thieving is the most common profession today. Everybody steals – from very young children to elderly people. Sometimes gangs of thieves fight over an area to operate in.

“I am lucky to be able to steal only in two good neighbourhoods. For security, one week I operate in one neighbourhood and the following week in the other. If I continue stealing as I do, after one year I might have enough to buy a good bicycle to make life easier for me.

“People might see me as a criminal but what can I do without family support? Stealing is the easiest job in Iraq today and I’m happy to be in this world to be able to support myself.”

In Baghdad, street kids live on petrol smuggling

In Baghdad, street kids live on petrol smuggling

Fuel shortage in capital of one of world’s most oil rich countries supports generation of street kids.

By Patrick Fort – BAGHDAD

A chronic fuel shortage in Baghdad, capital of one of the world’s most oil rich countries, has created a black market for petrol which sustains a growing population of dirty-faced street kids.

Along the pavements of the Saadun Avenue, cutting through the centre of the Iraqi capital, dozens of children siphon petrol into cars from five gallon drums, using funnels made of soda bottles and lengths of garden hose.

On the other side of the street, a once prosperous thoroughfare now marred by razor-wire, concrete barricades and shuttered shops, motorists queue for up to five hours to buy subsidised petrol at official rates.

Those who have the cash, but no time to wait, can ask kids like 13-year-old Mohammed Riyad to fill their tanks on the spot for 15,000 dinars (10 dollars) for five gallons (20 litres), more than twice the official price.

Prices may be cheap by western standards, but Iraq boasts the world’s second largest confirmed oil reserves and its population expects access to fuel.

Violence and underinvestment have damaged the pipeline and refinery network, leaving the country partly reliant on imported refined products, and smugglers exploit state subsidies to re-export cheap fuel to Iraq’s richer neighbours.

Oil minister Hussein Shahristani says Iraq produces 10 million litres of petrol and imports seven million litres per day, whereas the market sucks up 22 million and distribution is hit by "terrorism and administrative corruption."

This is a view shared by many Baghdad motorists such as taxi driver Hussein Shefik, who says he cannot afford black market rates and instead passes much of his time in long queues exposed to possible bomb attacks.

"We’re here because there are more thieves than citizens in Iraq. It’s the land of Ali Baba. In Egypt, petrol is half as expensive as it is in Iraq," he declared, with only slight exaggeration.

The average price for a litre of petrol at an Iraqi service station is 50 US cents. In Egypt it costs around 22 US cents per litre.

The government has vowed to tackle the problem and root out corrupt officials within its own ranks, but in the meantime the shortage has created a minor economic boom for Baghdadi children as young as six.

The smallest fuel traders struggle to manoeuvre the large plastic fuel drums that mark each team’s pitch along Saadun Street. Mohammed has the help of his 16-year-old brother and the blessing of his father, who let him quit school.

At night, the older brother gets himself to the head of a petrol queue in order to get the first subsidised deliveries in the morning. The stocks are then hidden just back from the street, and Mohammed touts for trade.

Business is good, but not without its risks.

"Once, three guys in a Mercedes asked for 40 litres. I emptied my first drum, and when I said I was going to fetch another, they pushed me over and took off," he said part way trough his 13-hour roadside shift.

Nearby, it is the same story for 16-year-old Ali Kassem and his older brother, who also does the nightshift queue. Like Mohammed, Ali has given up his studies and now spends up to 15 hours a day serving nervous drivers.

"That’s how it is," he sighs, squinting against the hot, dusty wind coming down the street. "I’ve got no choice, we’ve got to do this to survive."

There are no official figures on how many young Iraqis are selling petrol for cash, but UNICEF estimates that only around 60 percent of Iraqi children attend school.

Many of those who have dropped out since the outbreak of the US-led war in 2003 take low-paying jobs in order to earn money for their families.

IRAQ-MIDDLE EAST: Street children face hunger and abuse

IRAQ-MIDDLE EAST: Street children face hunger and abuse

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Click here to enlarge image
©  Afif Sarhan/IRIN

Street children in Baghdad are open to abuse and hunger

BAGHDAD, 26 Dec 2005 (IRIN) – Khalid Amir, a ten-year-old boy whose surname means “the prince,” has built his castle in the streets of the capital, Baghdad. His daily income comes from selling sweets at traffic lights, where violence is part of his everyday life.

“Sometimes they hit me, or close the window on my hands,” said Amir, pointing to a scar on his face caused by a driver who struck him with a penknife a week ago.

“People don’t care who we are and where we come from,” he added.

Like Amir and his eight-year-old sister, Salua, hundreds of children can be seen on the streets of Baghdad struggling to eke out a living.

“I don’t have a choice,” explained Amir, adding that, if he returns home without money, his father will hit him.

Safa’a Muhammad, a senior official in the Ministry of Public Work and Social Affairs, concedes that few programmes are currently available to help children like Amir and his sister.

“Last year, we had many projects to help such children, but corruption in the ministry has caused them all to be delayed or ignored,” she said.

Ferdous al-Abadi, spokeswoman for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), said a lack of financing and constant insecurity prevent the organisation from effectively helping street children. “We’ve prepared three programmes with the aim of helping them, but due to the constant fighting in many areas of the country, and a lack of investment, we’ve put them aside.”

Chronic poverty and high rates of unemployment are largely to blame.

“If the government helped them by giving work to their parents, these children would be going to school today,” said Raghed Rabia’a, a psychologist who volunteers with several Baghdad-based NGOs.

Instead of going to school, though, children like Amir and Salua are growing up illiterate, forced to work to help support their families.

Malnutrition reported

Most of these children also face regular malnourishment, health workers say.

“The only thing I eat all day is a piece of bread with some tomatoes and fried potatoes,” said Amir. “If we eat more than this, our father doesn’t let us eat the next day.”

Ali Salah, a doctor at Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital, says he regularly registers malnourished children who have been picked up by police.

He recounted the case of one nine-year old girl who said her family did not allow her to eat more than bread and tomatoes everyday.

“When I told her I was going to send her home, she began screaming that, if her family found out she had come in, she would be beaten by her father,” Salah recalled.

According to Hayder Hussainy, a senior official at the health ministry, approximately 50 percent of Iraqi children suffer from some form of malnourishment. He added that 1 in 10 also suffered from chronic disease or illness.

“I pray that one day I’ll have one of those meals you see on television,” said Salua, describing a sumptuous repast of rice, salad, beans and meat.

“One day, God will give me this pleasure,” she added.

Children face daily violence

Sexual abuse is one of the most common dangers faced by children like Amir and Salua.

“Girls come first, suffering 70 percent of the abuses, while the remaining 30 percent of recorded cases are suffered by boys,” said the social affairs ministry’s Muhammad. She added that these figures applied to children under the age of 16.

Most cases are not reported to police, as parents are often afraid of being penalised for permitting their children to work on the streets.

Women for Peace, a local NGO devoted to women’s issues, believes that incidence of sexual abuse has increased in the last year, due mainly to the overall lack of security.

“We have at least one case of a girl raped per week and one boy every two weeks,” said Youssra Ali, a spokeswoman for the organisation. “The most worrying thing is that they’re afraid their fathers will kill them because of a perceived loss of honour.”

Beatings are also frequent.

“One time I pushed a man to buy gum from me,” recalled 11-year old Baker Hayder, who works the streets of the capital selling candy. “He got out of his car and hit me so hard with his shoe that I lost consciousness.”

“No one came to help me or asked what had happened,” he added. “But this is what I have to do to survive.”

Drugs ease the pain

In an effort to forget the traumas faced daily, many children on the street resort to illicit drugs.

“You just have to smell this powder and you feel much better,” said 14-year old Bassel Malek, who takes a daily dose of heroin to get by. “You don’t remember you’re hungry or that you have to go back home.”

Malek helps transport the drug in exchange for a daily hit: “I take the drug to another district and then go to work, well supplied with my powder of happiness,” he explained.

According to Kamel Ali, director of the health ministry’s drug-control programme, the number of registered heroin addicts in suburban Baghdad has more than doubled over the past year, rising from 3,000 in 2004 to a current 7,000.

“We’ve found that many children selling candy in the streets are using drugs, especially heroin,” said Ali. “When we alert them about the dangers, though, the only answer we get is: ‘If you were in our situation, you’d take it too.’”

The children’s plight is exacerbated by regular discrimination.

“People often think that street children should be excluded from society and don’t deserve to be treated like other children,” said Rabia’a.

Many Baghdad residents agree with this premise.

“I hate it when children come over to my car selling candy with their dirty hands,” said Najida Hadi, a resident of the capital. “I wish all of them would be put in a separate place from the rest of society.”

Some use violence to avoid the children, hitting them through the car window when they approach.

“Only we know how much it hurts,” said Amir, prince of the streets.

Iraq: New NGO Helps Street Children In Baghdad

Iraq: New NGO Helps Street Children In Baghdad
By Valentinas Mite

Thousands of homeless children are living on the streets of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. They are begging, stealing, selling, or using drugs, rooting through garbage for food, and sleeping on the pavement. Some of them have been living this way for just days, but others have been on the street for more than a year since leaving state-run orphanages after the collapse of the regime. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite is in Baghdad and reports the problem is causing mounting concern among new Iraqi NGOs.

Baghdad, 21 June 2004 (RFE/RL) — It is a cry every foreigner in the Iraqi capital hears every day: "Mister, mister, give me money."

The beggars are children, some as young as five years old. In dirty clothes and unwashed faces, they sell chewing gum or polish shoes or simply ask for money. They speak and swear like adults, and are seemingly afraid of no one.

No one knows how many homeless children there are in Baghdad. They seem to be everywhere, especially in central neighborhoods where foreigners are known to live, near the Sheraton and Palestine hotels.

Iraq’s street children are causing concern not only among Muslim religious groups as well as international and Iraqi nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Asmaa Rasheed, a Sunni Arab, is a program manager for the Kurdistan Save the Children Fund (KSC), an NGO that has been operating in northern Iraq since 1991.

The organization opened a Baghdad branch a year ago, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It opened a shelter for street children in the Iraqi capital in November.
"I am 14 years old. My mother [left my father and started living with another man], and my father took us away from our mother and then he started beating us. And then I ran away." — Kutaiba, a homeless Iraqi boy

Rasheed, a young woman with a shy smile, says her work with KSC is the hardest job she has ever had, but also the most meaningful.

Many of the children she meets have lost their parents during the U.S.-led invasion of the country, or in the near-constant violence that has followed.

But many others were turned out on the street from state-run orphanages that ceased to function after the collapse of the Iraqi regime.

Rasheed says street children have only two alternatives. If they are lucky, they will find someone to care for them. More often, though, they are forced to turn to crime in order to survive.

Rasheed says many homeless children quickly turn to drugs: "One of the most dangerous challenges we face is the fact that most of them are addicts who are sniffing glue, or [vapors] coming from liquids [such as paint], which have large amounts of intoxicants."

Often, Rasheed says, it is drug addiction that leads street children to violence and crime, in order to support their habits.

She says KSC provided shelter to 28 children last autumn. Five have since left, after failing to give up drugs and change their violent behavior.

Rasheed says such children find it hard to give up a life of relative freedom, with no rules or social norms to follow. But she says they are in the minority. Many more children have been forced onto the street and are suffering harsh treatment at the hands of adults — pushed into criminal rings, or used for sexual slavery.

The mission of KSC and other such groups, says Rasheed, is to "isolate these children from the environment they used to live in and offer them new values."

Akhmad is 12 years old. He tells RFE/RL he has lived on the streets for three years, first in his small hometown and for the past year in Baghdad.

"I lived in Baquba [some 50 kilometers north of Baghdad]. My father left me," Akhmad says. "My mother stayed in Baquba for some time, but later my mother came to Baghdad, leaving me in Baquba. Then I also came to Baghdad and lived near the Sheraton Hotel. I was nine years old [when I started the life of a street child], and now I am 12 years old."

Akhmad says the streets near the big hotels are the best place to earn money. He is reluctant to talk about how he earns money to survive, saying only that he polishes shoes.

Another boy, who gives his last name, Kutaiba, tells a similar story: "I am 14 years old. My mother [left my father and started living with another man], and my father took us away from our mother and then he started beating us. And then I ran away."

Since then, Kutaiba says, he has never seen either of his parents. He left his home in the northwestern town of Ramadi several years ago, and has been begging on the streets of Baghdad ever since.

Kutaiba says the influx of foreigners a year ago has brought him more money. But at the same time, he says, life on the street has grown increasingly violent.

Muhammad is 18 and has been living without parents for 10 years, ever since his stepfather kicked him and a younger brother out of the family home.

Muhammad says he spent several years living in state-run orphanages before the U.S.-led invasion. He says those years were the worst time of his life.

"It was torture, they were starving us to death and the officers used to come in and rape girls in Saddam’s time," Muhammad says.

Muhammad says when the Americans came to Iraq, the children left the orphanages and began living on the streets near the hotels where foreigners stay. He says some foreigners were good and gave him money or clothes. Now, he and his younger brother live in a shelter, and say they are happy there.

Children in the shelter have access to computer games and are taught how to write, read, and play music. Occasionally they are taken to cultural centers or a swimming pool. Many of the children say it is the life they have always wanted.

Asmaa Rasheed says that for now she has little possibility to help more children. The KSC shelter is full, and each of its 12-square-meter rooms already houses four children.

But KSC’s Baghdad branch is looking to expand its activities. The interim Iraqi government has pledged to give the organization a house for 60 children. The home is now under construction; KSC is slated to move there in two months’ time.

Grim Time for Iraq’s Street Children

Grim Time for Iraq’s Street Children
(June 4, 2003)

By Charles A. Radin
The Boston Globe Staff
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

BAGHDAD — Doaa, 11, opened her eyes to the bright sunshine of early morning and tried without success to blink away the dust covering her eyes. Her face, her clothes, and the brothers and sisters who spent the night huddled close to her on the heat-seared, rock-hard banks of the Tigris River, all are coated with the fine, brown powder. ”We’ve been sleeping here . . . too long. I don’t know how long,” she said. ”We don’t have a house. We used to live in a house, but during the war our parents died. A bomb fell on the house.”

The children were emaciated and dazed. They clutched one another with what looked like desperation, even when they slept.

”We don’t know anyone; we don’t have anyone to ask for help,” said Rawaa, a brother Doaa said is 13 but who looked much younger.

”We get food from those Americans,” he said, pointing to an Army encampment perhaps a hundred yards away, ”and we sleep here every night.”

But a couple of days later they were gone, leaving behind unanswerable questions not just about the impact of the war and the Saddam Hussein regime on Iraqi children, but about whether the United States can cope with the social problems and attitudes of this very different culture. Indeed, a confrontation may be looming between US forces and Shi’ite clerics over orphans and street children.

Homelessness and child abuse existed before the US occupation, but so did a system, however flawed, that Iraqis understood and accepted. Now that system has been destroyed, and the problems have been exacerbated by the US-led conflict.

”We have to rebuild Iraqi society by rebuilding the Iraqi people,” said Dr. Ali Hameed, a psychiatrist and official at the Ministry of Health who is working with US Army officers as they deliver food and health services to the children and try to get them off the streets. ”Twelve years of sanctions and, even more important, the suppression and brainwashing of the previous regime, have made Iraqis hopeless and helpless.”

Iraqi society attaches a heavy stigma to street children, whether they are orphans or war victims. These days, most orphanages are accepting only the children they cared for before the war who scattered during the conflict. The newly orphaned and deserted children on the streets, said to number at least a few thousand, are objects of scorn.

Mohammed, a teenager who lives in one of the middle-class homes near the US encampment, says Doaa and her siblings left because ”some Americans came to help them, but they were afraid they would be put in jail” — something that might well have happened to them under the regime, especially if they were caught begging.

”Anyway, they’re not homeless,” Mohammed said. ”Their parents left them.”

He dismissed with similar ease the plight of a lone boy who was sleeping on the brick sidewalk to get as close as possible to the Americans. ”He uses drugs — sniffs glue, like many street children here,” he said. ”That’s why he sleeps so much.”

The boy, Ali, woke up, tugged at his too-big rags to make sure they would not fall off when he stood, and explained that he has been on the streets since Baghdad fell and US troops opened the gates of Dar Al Rahmah, the House of Mercy, where he was sent months before the war when he was arrested for begging.

Ali, 13, limps because there is a piece of glass in his left foot, the result of walking barefoot across this war-torn city after other street people stole his shoes.

He, too, soon disappeared.

Contempt for the down-and-out extends from youths like Mohammed to the staffs of Baghdad’s better child-care institutions.

Ibtissam Rasheed Al Habash, 54, a longtime staff member at Families of Iraq, an orphanage now receiving support from both Sheikha Fatima of the United Arab Emirates and the US Army, resents Army efforts to bring the street children to her institution.

”They are not bringing orphans; they are bringing homeless kids,” said Habash, though she has no way to know whether the children have been orphaned or not. ”We are suffering because of that. Homeless children have no manners. Our children have manners. They are clean. They are educated.”

The street children ”are different,” she said. ”I prefer if they don’t come here.”

US Army Captain Stacey Simms, a reservist from Rochester, N.Y., who leads the US effort to help the street children, said he ”just can’t believe the mentality” of the orphanage staffs. ”They have condemned the street children. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m from a different culture.”

”These are children and they need help,” Simms said. ”We don’t know why they became street kids. Their house could have been blown up, their parents could have abused them or kicked them out. But as soon as they take a step on the street, they are considered `unworthy’ of help. . . . These orphanage people do not want the job to be hard.”

Progress at getting the children off the streets is slow, Simms said. In addition to the prejudice, some orphanages were stripped in the looting between April 9, when Baghdad fell, and early May, when US forces began solidifying control of the city.

”I would like to provide homes” for the street children, ”but that’s fantasy,” Simms said. Right now he is concentrating on getting them food, water, medical care, and toys.

But he is trying to navigate a situation that might pose a threat to dozens of children and cause a breach in the uneasy cooperation between American forces and Al Hawsa al-Ilmiya, a Shi’ite Muslim school and social organization that has largely taken over Baghdad’s worst slum and restored order.

Known as Saddam City before the war, now renamed Sadr City after a clergyman assassinated by the Hussein regime, the slum is also the site of the House of Mercy, an orphanage surrounded by prisons for men, women, juvenile offenders, and the criminally insane.

Attractive girls from the orphanage were taken to Hussein’s palaces, says Sheikh Bakr Al Sa’idi, 22, a Baghdad University law student who has been designated by the Hawsa to renovate the orphanage and protect the students. Other girls were sent out as servants. Young boys were trained in Hussein’s army of Young Lions; older boys became part of his fedayeen militia.

”We found cells and dungeons here,” Sa’idi said. ”They beat the kids brutally for the silliest mistakes. The guards raped the girls. I can’t describe how ugly it was.”

When Sa’idi arrived, three days after the fall of Baghdad, the orphanage had been looted and the children had scattered. He now has 18 Hawsa volunteers rewiring and renovating the place. It is still barren, but beds, cooking utensils, and other necessities gradually are being acquired. A banner reading ”No to America; No to Saddam; Yes, yes to Islam” hangs over the entrance.

About 50 of the 163 children who were there before the war are back, and a call has gone out for men to go to their mosques and arrange marriages with the older girls. Three have been married so far and another six are engaged, he said.

The Muslim association has no desire to run the orphanage for the long term, Sa’idi said, and ”when there is a new government and the Hawsa is sure the Ministry of Social Affairs will provide competent care and ensure security, we will turn it back” to the state.

But a confrontation with Simms may occur long before then. An international organization that has visited the in
stitution has told Simms that children are being abused there still. Simms is working on plans ”to move the children to a better, safer facility.”

Whatever happens at the House of Mercy, a much bigger, broader effort will be needed to keep children who have been traumatized by three major wars and 12 years of sanctions in the last 20 years from becoming ”a maladjusted, psychopathic generation,” said Dr. Hameed, the psychiatrist.

”It is the Americans’ duty now to help us normalize Iraq,” he said. ”You shouldn’t leave Iraq . . . you should do what you have promised.”