WASHINGTON/MOSUL, IRAQ - With his face, hands and clothes covered in dirt, 11-year-old Hassan Abdullah treks through the rubble of Mosul’s Old City dawn to dusk, foraging for whatever pieces of scrap metal he can find.
The boy carries a white sack full of electrical wires and other materials made of copper and aluminum. He retrieved them from under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Like many other residents in Mosul, Abdullah is trying to make a living by collecting and selling the scrap metal left behind from the fierce battle against the Islamic State in Mosul.
“I come here every day early in the morning to earn a livelihood,” he tells VOA while holding the heavy sack on his back with both hands, trying to keep it from falling on the ground.
“This is my occupation now,” the little boy says.
WATCH: Mosul Children, Families Hunt Scrap Metal to Survive
He takes the materials to specialized recycling stores and scrap dealers operating in an area that once used to sell jewelry in the city.
Abdullah says he is especially interested in collecting aluminum, which earns him a little more money than other metals, such as cooper.
“I sell 1 kilogram of aluminum for 4,000 or, sometimes, 5,000 dinars,” Abdullah adds. That is about $4, an amount that can buy him a meal for the day in a city where the local economy has stalled, for the most part, because of the impact of monthslong violent clashes in the city.
IS occupation, ouster
Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and home to more than 1 million people, came under IS control in mid-2014.
Months of IS occupation and the Iraqi battle to oust the terror group left thousands dead and reduced much of the city’s western side to rubble. The United Nations estimates that 40,000 homes in the city need to be rebuilt or restored.
The Old City, where Abdullah and dozens of other residents explore for scrap metal, used to be a densely populated district and Mosul’s trade center before the IS occupation. However, the area is now full of shattered concrete and twisted metal that once were part of people’s homes and shops.
An assessment last year by the U.N. Human Settlements Program estimated 5,390 of the 8,400 housing sites destroyed or severely damaged in Mosul were located in the Old City.
The rubble of those destroyed buildings has now become a source of income for dozens of destitute residents.
Shame of scavenging
Many of those scavenger residents refuse to be interviewed. They say talking about such an issue brings shame upon them and their families.
But the easy earnings obtained from collecting scrap metal, a job that needs no experience or special training, has prompted many to bring their entire families, including taking their children from school, to join in the rummaging.
Another forager, 16-year-old Omar Abdulwahid, left school to join his family of five in collecting scrap.
“I am young and I have my own needs. I collect aluminum from rubble to buy my needs,” he tells VOA.
Abdulwahid says that before the war broke out, he used to make $25 a day by working part time as a porter, helping shoppers carry their heavy goods. Now, he makes an average of $10 collecting recyclable containers, broken windows and doors.
“I have no other choice in this desperate situation,” Abdulwahid says. “This neighborhood provided us a livelihood before it was destroyed. I ask the authority to reconstruct it and create job opportunities for us.”
The Iraqi government said the reconstruction and normalization of Mosul and other war-torn areas is a priority, but a task impossible to undertake without international support.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last month that his government would need up to $100 billion to rebuild his country and pleaded for help from donors and foreign investors.
U.N. officials say the cost of stabilizing western Mosul areas and making them livable again could surpass $700 million.
“It’s a huge amount of money. We know we cannot provide it through our own budget,” Abadi told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month.
An international conference, expected to take place in Kuwait, Feb. 12-14, will focus on raising money for those areas through donations. But Iraqi officials say the donations are unlikely to meet the needs of the country.
The improbable prospects to obtain enough funding for the reconstruction mean Mosul’s Old City would likely remain a crumpled landscape of broken concrete and metal, at least for now.
For impoverished residents like Abdullah and Abdulwahid it means they will probably have to continue scavenging for scrap metal to survive in the absence of economic opportunities.