NO Ordinary Childhood in Iraq
By Raya Al-Jadir
My biggest concerns as a child involved wondering how I was going to avoid getting my hair plaited by mum or eating everything on my plate, how I was going to get the full set of whatever toy I was collecting, and how to get my parents to allow me to visit my friend’s house.
I didn’t grow up with a comprehension of the meaning of fear. I trusted everyone around me. I had no idea what death meant or what it involved. Mine was the classic version of a childhood filled with innocence and naivety.This is not the case for the majority of Iraqi children. For decades, Iraq has experienced wars, invasion, occupation, civil war, political instability, air raids, bombings, economic sanctions, and sectarianism. This has taken a major toll on the country’s youth.
It’s getting worse
Iraq has been in gradual decline since the 1980s, but never in all of its modern history has it witnessed such atrocious and devastating conditions as it is currently experiencing. According to the latest UNICEF report, Iraq has about five million orphans, 500,000 homeless children, and more than 100,000 children between the ages of 8 and 15 who have left school to support their families.
Yasmin is a seven-year-old girl who discovered what death means at the tender age of three when her father was brutally beaten by an unknown group of men. They tied him inside the house and set it alight in front of Yasmin and her two brothers. Not only were the children left without a father; they were also left without a home.
Yasmin’s mother, who suffers from asthma, was left without a house or a husband. She was homeless and without a source of income and had no choice but to share a house with another family, paying rent she could barely afford in addition to high medical bills. She felt she had no option but to send her eldest son, ten-year-old Othman, to work as a delivery boy in a shop after school.
A report published by the UN in collaboration with Iraq’s planning ministry said that after 2003 Iraq’s education system suffered greatly with a decrease of 31.8 percent in the number of people in education. According to the report, this is due, in part, to children being forced to take up the role of family provider.
Child labor has reached its peak in Iraq . More than 83 percent of Iraqi children work to support their families in one way or another. The jobs undertaken are usually unsuitable for a child: hard, physical labor that involves carrying heavy loads or working in dangerous areas such as factories, rubbish dumps, farming or as domestic helpers.
Children who are forced to work by selling handkerchiefs or cigarettes on the streetsare commonly subjected to verbal abuse, mistreatment and, in some extreme cases, sexual abuse.
Additionally, militia groups target children and play on their vulnerability to recruit them to carry out terrorist attacks in exchange for money. These children kill to keep their families alive.
Although Article 29 of the Iraqi constitution prohibits the economic exploitation of children under any circumstances, little is done to implement this law.
Painful stories everywhere in Iraq
|Yasmin is a seven-year-old girl who discovered what death means at the tender age of three|
Yet Yasmin and Othman are fortunate. They have a mother who is still fighting for them.
Bassam, a 10-year-old boy whose father died in a car bomb that targeted a busy market area, lives with his brother and their grandmother in a mud house. Unable to support them, their mother thought her only means of survival was to get married,leaving her children with their grandmother.
Children are under constant threat, especially girls. The fear of having their daughter kidnapped or raped makes early marriage a solution in the eyes of parents eager to protect their children. Also, through marriage, a girl is provided for by the husband and is no longer a financial burden on her family during difficult times.
Young girls are being pushed into marriage at a very young age. Though this is illegal under Iraqi law, locals evade the law by taking part in religious rather than civil ceremonies. This deprives the child bride of any rights should she be divorced since the marriage is not registered. This issue has affected all sectors of Iraqi society and is not limited to low-income families.
Sectarianism in Iraq forms a major threat to many families. Belonging to a different religion, sect, ethnicity or even tribe can put people at risk. Yousif and his siblings were left fatherless at a young age and were forced to leave their home because their local community no longer accepted people of other faiths or sects living among them.
His family was forced to live in a shared property with no furniture except a cooker; this in a country that has one of the world’s richest oil supplies. Yousif’s younger sister later developed kidney disease. With little money to survive and an inability to pay for proper medical attention, it seems likely she will lose a kidney or meet a more tragic end.
Pain and injustice overshadow these children’s lives.
Due to the difficult circumstances families find themselves in, some children are sent to orphanages or left on the street by their parents.
Ahmed’s father could no longer cope with the responsibility of his four children so he left them. They were found in such a bad state that three of the children had to be admitted to hospital to be treated formal nutrition.
Living with disability in such a country
|Yasser did not just lose his leg. He also lost his dream of becoming a footballer|
Maintaining innocence and naivety is very difficult for Iraq’s children, but it is even worse if you are a child living with disability.
Nine-year-old Mustafa was born with Down syndrome. His father was killed by militants and soon after his eldest sister, Arwa, was accidentally shot and killed by the US army. His mother, distraught by her losses and unable to work due to her own battle with cancer, sought the help of charities to cover the cost of her treatment.
Mustafa’s mother worries that should anything happen to her, none of her extended family will look after her son as they themselves are struggling and may not want the added responsibility and attention her son requires.
Mustafa must survive in a country that has no clear rules for survival.
At the age of five, Yasser was caught in a cross fire in a fierce battle between the US army and Iraqi insurgents. At the time of the attack, Yasser was at home with his family. Shots were fired at his house from an American army tank, one of which hit Yasser, leading to the amputation of his leg. Now 11, Yasser is unable to play football with his friends or ride his bike. Doctors cannot implant a prosthetic leg due to a health complication that requires high levels of medical intervention and care, which the family is unable to afford even if it was available in Iraq.
Yasser did not just lose his leg. He also lost his dream of becoming a footballer.
These are just some of the children I encountered through Help the Needy, a charity that operates the Orphan Care/Mosul program supporting children in Iraq’s northern capital.
These stories represent only part of the overall picture, a small segment of a generation that was forced, by circumstance, to grow up and become adults, to set aside their dreams, forget toys, pencils, books and games and instead fight for survival and provide for their families and protect them.
These children have an uncertain future and a bleak present. Hopes for a better life are fading for a generation that has seen nothing but poverty, violence, injustice, war and death.