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Baghdad orphans lose parents and freedom

(AFP) / 29 May 2005

BAGHDAD - Fourteen-year-old Iman Hussein says her most painful memory is that of seeing her mother shot dead. But now she endures the daily sadness of a Baghdad orphanage, separated from three of her four sisters.

Her plight is shared by a growing number of children whose parents are killed in Iraq’s merciless daily violence as well as those who are abandoned by families feeling the bite of an increasingly harsh economic situation.

Imam recalls the night in September 2004 when the sound of shooting woke her.

“As I got out of my bed I saw from behind a curtain four masked gunmen shooting my mother in the head,” she says, clasping two-year-old sister Hanned closely to her waist.

“It was only the next day that I realized what happened as neighbours carried my parents’ coffins to be buried in Balad” a town north of Baghdad.

The killers stole the family’s savings and the five girls -- Iman, Hanned,Marwa, 12, Sura, 6, and Aliyaa, 9 -- were taken in by another family in Baghdad’s Kadhamiyah northern district.

But they found it hard to look after five new family members and ended up handing them over to two institutions: Iman and Hanned to Salihiyah orphanage and their three sisters to Al-Ulwiyah orphanage.

“The only wish I have left is to live together with my sisters in one house. Tomorrow I’m visiting my three sisters in the other orphanage,” says Iman.

As the eldest daughter, Iman feels responsible for her sisters but doesn’t know when she can be properly reunited with them, probably not before she is a married adult with the means to support her family.

A tragic increase in numbers

The problem is that Salihiyah only takes babies and children under six.

Nevertheless, orphanage director Najat Shakir Mohammed says Iman is allowed to stay because her little sister now looks on her as a mother.

“I’ve been trying to train Iman to work here as she is very kind and polite,” says the director of this orphanage, home to 75 children.

Only the youngest children are available for adoption, which means that even toddlers may remain in care well into adulthood.

Sometimes families come looking for wives, and they can take girls from age 14, although the girl has the final word on whether to marry or not.

Some families believe that orphan girls are meek and obedient and not choosy about their husband. Other think that by marrying an orphan you will be rewarded by God.

If girls do not find a husband by the time they’re 30, many have little option but to go to work in other orphanages as Iraqi society frowns on women living on their own.

Iraq’s orphanages have seen a tragic increase in the number of children they look after since the US-led invasion more than two years ago and the often-indiscriminate killing of the ensuing insurgency.

“Since after the war, there has been an increase in the number of children being brought to us,” says Mohammed.

Prevailing sadness

The building itself looks like a normal home, although up to 10 children sleep in each bedroom.

But because of the security situation, the girls miss out on outdoor activities, such as picnics, essential for psychologically well-balanced children.

“The children are kept inside the building all day long,” she says.

“After the invasion the number of parentless children has risen because of the security situation. Many also are victims of divorce cases because of the mounting unemployment,” says Hameeda Hassan, director of this orphanage which houses 60 children.

Before the war there were 20.

Some children are simply abandoned on the mean streets of Baghdad, scene of daily car bombings, shootings and kidnappings.

“Police increasingly find abandoned children on the streets and bring them to orphanages. We usually put notices in the media so someone can come forward for the kids,” says Hassan.

“But usually no one comes, so we decide to bring them up ourselves.”

For most children, school holidays are a welcome break, but for Baghdad’s orphans, who attend state-run schools, isolation makes holidays the hardest time.

“Kids here are especially sad during holidays as no one comes to bring gifts, there are no parents to say “happy Eid’ (feast). They cannot go outside and lead normal lives like other kids their age,” she says.

Photo courtesy: annuairedelirak.com

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