Ali Omar, 19, spends the hours of the day wandering between vehicles at the traffic intersections of the Mansour district on the Karkh side of Baghdad, selling CDs and boxes of tissue, while at night, he sleeps on the sidewalk of a nearby mosque, hoping and wishing for a better tomorrow that will relieve him of the life of orphanhood and homelessness.
He sums up his life story in one line, "When I was four years old, a policeman found me, barefoot and homeless, in a market in Baghdad and handed me over to the orphanage."
He says this with his arm outstretched, as if he is pointing to the incident that took place 15 years ago, and adds in a confused tone, "The policeman would come to check on me from time to time, and then he disappeared. I don't even know his name, and the supervisors at the orphanage also do not know anything about him."
He withdraws his arm, puts his palm on his forehead and wonders, "Was this policeman my father who had abandoned me like that?" He closes his eyes and continues sadly, "It doesn't matter anymore, I was a homeless child when he handed me over and I'm homeless now."
Ali got his name from the orphanage, according to what they told him there. Unlike many of his fellow orphans who completed their studies or found relatives to take them in or provide them with jobs, he was discharged from the orphanage when he turned 18, as is stipulated in the regulations. This was in early 2021, and he only had a piece of paper to prove his identity. He suddenly found himself in front of a completely strange and cruel world.
Ali is not an exception. Many others have moved from orphanages to the streets because they have reached the legal age of 18. The lucky ones find jobs and integrate into society, and some continue their studies alongside their work, while there are those who are picked up by organized gangs that take advantage of their conditions and use them in sex trafficking, begging and even terrorism, according to Baghdad police deputy chief Major General Adnan Hammoud Salman.
When they turn 18, orphans in Iraq are sent out onto the streets. The lucky ones find jobs and integrate into society, while others are picked up by organized gangs that exploit their conditions and use them in sex trafficking, begging and even terrorism
The reason, according to the general, is the state's lack of interest in orphanages, "neither in building new ones, nor in modernizing the old ones, most of which were established during the era of the former regime." He points out that the small number of existing orphan homes has been flooded with a large number of orphans due to "wars and terrorism", saying that there is no accurate statistic on the current number of orphans.
Salman indicates that he submitted proposals to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to solve the problem of those who leave orphanages once they reach the age of maturity (18 years), including appointing them as guards for the orphanages themselves, giving studious and hardworking students the opportunity to stay in the orphanage until they complete their studies, and appointing them as teachers or employees in the same home. Other proposals include them being allocated personal loans to start projects that generate money for them, and form committees to follow up with them, or reopen closed factories and employ them as workers.
"All these proposals have become mere ink on paper and have been disregarded due to negligence," he adds, pointing out that police officers from his department arrest beggars that are headed by organized gangs that distribute them on the streets in their own cars and provide them with housing. These gangs even train them to defend themselves before the competent judge, to say that "these cars and housing are personally rented by them, and many of them had left orphanages due to turning 18."
The general stresses that, among them, there are individuals who possess valuable skills and talents, which he describes as "a treasure for the state if they are properly invested" and that international aid has been provided for this purpose over the past years, but it has "evaporated", as he put it, without providing any further details.
"When I was four years old, a policeman found me, barefoot and homeless, in a market in Baghdad and handed me over to the orphanage.. Who had abandoned me like that? I guess it doesn't matter anymore, I was a homeless child then and I'm homeless now"
Although there are 345 organizations that deal with orphans in Iraq, according to the Baghdad police chief, most of them "exploit orphans to collect money for personal interests, in addition to a number of parliamentarians who trade in the name of orphans and whose only concern is collecting electoral votes. The government does not have a vision on how to address the country's biggest social problem, which is orphans," he says.
He goes on to say, "Despite this, there are organizations whose experiences and practices have proven useful, and the government should spread them to all the country's governorates."
State neglect of orphans
Despite an announcement issued by the Commission for Human Rights in Iraq on January 11, 2021, in which it confirmed that there are five million orphans in the country and that 45,000 of them are without identity papers, there are only 22 shelters dedicated to them. This is, according to the Director of the Community Police, Brigadier General Ghaleb al-Attiyah, a double problem. On the one hand, these orphanages cannot accommodate the orphaned and homeless children on the streets, and on the other hand, the orphan is released at age 18.
He points out that members of the community police observe on a daily basis hundreds of homeless orphans on the streets of Baghdad, working in "begging and suspicious professions", without disclosing what these professions are.
He adds, "The biggest problem facing us is the lack of identification documents for homeless orphans, and we have recorded many of these cases which are caused by marriage outside the court, that is, contracts made by clergymen, especially in rural areas, resulting in undocumented births, and it so happens that the parents – or one of them – die, or the child is abandoned, becoming an orphan and without any proof of identity or family."
There are orphans who possess valuable skills and talents, which is "a treasure for the state if they are properly invested" and international aid has been provided for this purpose over the past years, but it has all "evaporated", according to sources
To find a solution for this, he says he had submitted a request to the Ministry of Interior to form committees tasked with surveying rural areas to produce statistics and record the number of unregistered children, thus addressing the problem at its root, "because they will grow up without education and without having a future, and they'll be time bombs that may threaten the security and sovereignty of the country."
Like the Baghdad police chief, al-Attiyah appealed to the Iraqi government to implement care programs for orphans in Iraq and "grant 18-year-olds, males and females, special job grades to carry on with their lives normally instead of being left to an unknown fate on the streets."
Bushra, a young woman in her thirties, whom we met in an alley in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district, seems to suffer from mental illness and knows nothing about her life except that she was in an orphanage and now lives on sidewalks.
She stutters in her speech, suddenly turns around as if expecting a surprise attack on her, and tells us that her family left her while she was in the swaddle in the orphanage. She left it after she turned 18, making the street her new home.
She doesn't remember how long she's been homeless, but accuses street vendors and other unknown passers-by of beating her on many occasions and sexually assaulting her. She hesitantly raises her hand, lifting three fingers and saying, "I got pregnant and gave birth three times, two I handed over to the orphanage because I couldn't raise them on the street, and one..."
She thinks a little, her eyes turning left and right, and then says, "That wretched woman stole it from me." She points her index finger at different directions and goes back to say, "I worked while I was pregnant in the house of a disabled woman in exchange for food and housing, and after I gave birth to the child I never saw him, and she told me that she sold him, gave me some money and kicked me out of her house."
When we asked her if she had been approached by any official agency to help her, she said that the police had provided her with a place for six months with female prisoners, but that she went out again to the street, and that people had offered her housing with their families, but she refused.
In order to spare orphaned children from facing a fate similar to that of Bushra, in 2004, Iraqi activist and psychological researcher Hisham al-Dahabi founded the Iraqi House of Creativity to shelter and embrace homeless children. Dubbed by some as "the man with a heart of gold", he started caring for four children in his own house, after which he gathered 47 children, sheltered them and provided for their livelihood.
As the days went by, the number of orphans increased, and he was keen to train them and prepare them for practical life in fields such as sewing, hairdressing, and computer work, in addition to helping them practice hobbies such as music, sports, and even journalism and media. He even founded an internal radio station that would begin broadcasting in the morning, alerting the children in the home to wake up and informing each one of their duties for the day.
Some "sex traffickers" in Iraq are always in search of homeless girls and even boys, and orphans released from care homes when they turn 18 are seen as "ideal prey for them"
In 2017, 150 orphans graduated from the Iraqi House of Creativity. "They entered as children and left as young men to continue their working lives, and some of them succeeded in finding wives," al-Dahabi says.
The "house" only takes in boys, without any girls, for fear of being accused of exploiting them. Al-Dahabi says with regret, "Girls are left on the street and we do not know what kind of pressure or harassment they are exposed to, and society does not accept sheltering her in a house that qualifies her to live a normal life."
Al-Dahabi's activism and the success of his charity project reached the United Arab Emirates, which awarded him the Hope Makers Award in 2017, and in mid-2022, he announced the completion of a new home for orphaned children called "The Iraqi House of Creativity".
He says, "Despite the small size of the house, it includes halls for teaching children and others for their meetings, in addition to rooms for teaching them to use computers, as well as sewing, drawing, and playing musical instruments, etc., which helps them discover their talents, along with our focus on what the child will study in the future."
He continues, "After that, the child goes to the adult home assigned by the institution, where he can settle down, complete his studies and do his work. The elderly also provide care in the home as part of an initiative called 'Jeddo (grandpa) at your service'."
Al-Dahabi stresses that his home does not abandon any individual who enters it only after he is assured of his future. This includes 480 orphans who have been embraced over 11 years, and this does not happen in orphanages that belong to the state, where adult orphans find themselves alone without support or assistance.