A growing number of Iraqi children are being driven onto the streets by poverty. – Afrah and her brother Bilal were barely teenagers when they were left to fend for themselves on the streets of Baghdad. Shy and awkward, the young brother and sister still carry the scars of their frightening separation from their family.
“My father lost his job and my mother could not care for us,’ said Afrah, 13. “We were too poor to eat or stay in school, so we had to leave home, and this is how we ended up in the institution.”
Afrah’s story is all too familiar in Baghdad’s urban slums, ravaged for so long by conflict and economic hardship. Poverty is a persistent enemy of Iraq’s working classes, a force almost as destructive as violence.
By 2003, at least 15 per cent of Iraqi children under the age of 14 were working to support their families in some way. Today, the figure is likely to be far higher. Tens of thousands of family wage-earners have been killed in sectarian violence. Many more are fleeing to new areas in search of safety and jobs, disrupting family life and eating up household savings.
As violence in Iraq continues to fracture communities and families, children are increasingly being asked to take on adult burdens. For the poorest children, this usually means begging on the streets, or trying to scrape a few dinars by dodging traffic in an effort to persuade motorists to buy sticks of gum, sweets and cigarettes.
Many street children end up trapped in even more desperate situations, drawn into drugs, prostitution and violence. The more fortunate ones find a refuge in government institutions. The unlucky ones end up in trouble with the police or permanently damaged by the worst forms of economic and sexual exploitation, their childhoods lost.
“We are seeing more and more street children in Iraq’s cities, a tragic side-effect of conflict and poverty,” said the Chief of Child Protection Officer for UNICEF Iraq, Patrizia di Giovanni. “They are the forgotten vulnerable of Iraq’s society – less likely than any Iraqi children to go to school, receive emotional support, benefit from health care and stay safe.”
Most of the children working Iraq’s streets are not orphans, Ms. di Giovanni said. Afrah’s case – in which her family could not afford to keep her – is typical of an Iraqi street child.
Other street children are runaways, unable to cope with the stress and domestic violence that infects so many Iraqi families in the heart of the conflict zones. Displacement increases the risk that children will become separated from their parents in transit, or be pushed into work if the hoped-for family income fails to materialize in their new location.
“There was a time when extended families, or even community leaders, would have taken in children in need of help,” Ms. di Giovanni said. “But with pressure growing on all Iraqis, fewer are able to care for children beyond their immediate family. And so a frightening number of children are being left out in the cold.”
Afrah was one of the lucky ones. She found her way into the UNICEF-supported Child Re-integration Project. This initiative aims to bring children living without their parents back into a family environment, with the assistance of an NGO partner working in Baghdad. Children have the chance to stay in one of six ‘transitional’ centres throughout the city, where they receive counselling, psychosocial support and the chance to share experiences with their peers.
Eventually, with the aid of social workers, these children are offered the opportunity to return to a family home.
The Child Re-integration Project is a step-by-step process for children. Where they are orphans, the project finds relatives or members from their former community to foster them. In Afrah’s case, the project was able to trace her family and bring her back to them.
“I asked girls at the centre what going home was like,” said Afrah. “They said that in their own homes they can wake up and sleep freely and they are relaxed. I said to myself, why don’t I go to my family so that I can be free and calm like them?”
Going home can be hard after a long separation, but Afrah and her family had help. The Child Re-integration Project provides children and families with counselling and financial support for several months after a child returns home, to help the family adapt and make sure the child can go back to school.
“We are thankful for the rations provided by the social worker because we are very poor even now,” said Afrah’s mother. “If it were not for this I could not have had my children home, despite my love for them.”
So far, 150 children like Afrah have been re-united with a family by the Child Re-integration Project. Within the next few months it will roll out across Iraq to give other displaced and lost children the chance to change their lives for the better.
“When I was without my family I missed them. I could not imagine living a moment more without them,” said Afrah. “I hope that this project can bring other children back home and help their families.”
“All Iraqi children deserve the care of a family home,” Ms. di Giovanni said. “A family is the best chance they have to grow into confident, educated adults – and to contribute to the nation-building that Iraq needs.”
For today, Afrah is safe and dreaming of becoming an engineer.
“I will build my family a home first, before I work on any other building,” she says, as her mother and brothers sit beside her.