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Numbers of Homeless Children on the Rise in Baghdad - 2003-07-29


The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, says the number of homeless children in Baghdad has risen dramatically since the war. It says it is working with other humanitarian organizations to try to get Iraqi children off the capital's streets and into safe homes. There are too few facilities to help most children.

Children ply the streets of Baghdad trying to sell bananas or newspapers to passing motorists. Others can be seen milling around the Palestine Hotel begging for a few dinars from foreigners or sniffing bags of glue.

Ahmed, not his real name, says he stowed away on a bus from Basra six years ago and has been living on Baghdad's streets. He says he is 15 years old, but looks more like 10.

The UN children's agency says the former regime sometimes treated homeless children like Ahmed as criminals and put them in detention centers. UNICEF is trying to change that and got the authorities to develop a special facility for such kids, called "Rahma" or Mercy Center.

Ahmed says American troops stormed the center after the fall of Baghdad and released the kids. Looters then ransacked the place and forced the children back onto the streets.

The least lucky of the street children, says Hassan Juma'a, who heads the Charitable Society for Saving the Children of Iraq, get caught up in prostitution rings operating out of sleazy hotels in the Saadoun and Orphalie districts. Some are raped.

He said, "In Saadoun neighborhood, we saw a real tragedy, children getting raped all the time, girls and boys. There are organized gangs giving children drugs, tablets, alcohol to make them drunk and taking them to the hotels where they will be raped as payment, if you want to have sex with a girl or a boy."

Mr. Juma'a and UNICEF say it is hard to know exactly how many children are living and working on Baghdad's streets. The UN agency says it is working with other groups like Enfants du Monde, World Vision and Save the Children to find ways of tackling the problem.

UNICEF says that before the 1991 Gulf War, the street kids problem did not exist. It says increased poverty, economic sanctions and a lack of investment in social services following the war pushed more children out of their homes and into the streets in search of money and food.

UNICEF spokesman in Baghdad Geoffrey Keele says, while the agency does not support the institutionalization of children, it has opened what he calls drop-in centers to provide kids with a short-term safe haven.

"At first, a lot of the children that we spoke to on the streets were very skeptical about this," Mr. Keele said. "They had heard about it, word of mouth was getting around. But a lot of them really didn't know how this was going to affect them in any way. But as weeks went by and we would show up at the center, children who had originally been skeptics were there playing games, having a meal, speaking with social workers and so it is having an impact."

Social worker Niral Harkabi helps children work through their problems and traumas at one of the only institutions now available for homeless kids in Baghdad, called Child Home.

She says the best prescription for these kids is a large dose of tender loving care. Ms. Harkabi says the staff serves as surrogate parents, supplying affection the children had lost. She says Child Home also offers a structured program involving art, sports, and training in vocational skills, like carpentry, tailoring and hairdressing.

A thirteen-year old girl, Nada, not her real name, living at Child Home says she now feels like she has a family. She enjoys playing with the other kids and says she feels secure with the adults at the home.

The one drawback to Child Home is that it can accommodate only 20 or so children. Ahmed and two of his street pals asked to be able to stay at the home recently, but were turned away because of insufficient space. For them, a safe alternative to living on Baghdad's streets can't come soon enough.