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Feature: Street children shape growing problem in war-torn Iraq

 Feature: Street children shape growing problem in war-torn Iraq


Every day, seven-year-old Maryam wanders in the streets of Baghdad begging for alms, just like thousands of Iraqi children who are living under catastrophic impact of the country's conflict.

"My father is dead, my mother is ill and I have three sisters, we have to do our best for living," she said, who usually spends more than half of the day in the streets.

Maryam, like many of her peers, has been deprived from education and proper healthcare and are exposed to abuse, child labor, child trafficking and recruitment by different militias.

"I don't go to school and I don't want to. What will school ever do for me? I'd much rather help my family than go to school," Maryam said, as she inserted a banknote of 250 Iraqi dinars in her purse, which just got from a passer-by a few minutes ago.

When Maryam was asked if she was being harassed in a way or another, she hesitated a little bit and denied, but later she said that sometimes she was treated harshly, and even sometimes strangers ask her to get into their cars.

"I used to ignore such bad treatment, but my mother is always concerned about me, and she frequently tells me to be cautious and warns me from getting into any stranger's car," Maryam said.

Iraqi children have been living under awful conditions for about 16 years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the subsequent chaos and sectarian strife that engulfed the country.

The post-invasion bloodshed resulted in massive destruction and ruptured the fabric of the Iraqi society, making the vulnerable children to pay the price of the conflict.

Nowadays, one of the most dangerous results of Iraqi conflict is the street children, who are either orphans or war victims.

So many factors contributed in making this dilemma even worse, part of which are poor governance of the post-invasion Iraqi governments, unemployment, poverty and lack of awareness on the importance of education.

However, what really deteriorated the situation were the political conflicts and the turmoil that followed the U.S.-led invasion, as well as the emergence of extremist groups spearheaded by the IS group, an al-Qaida offshoot, which conducted atrocities against Iraqi communities across the country.

The chaos and poverty created a flood of internally displaced people who moved to safer areas in different parts of Iraq, leaving behind their houses, jobs and everything they have once owned.

According to UN Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), up to four million children are in need for assistance out of 8.7 million people affected by the conflict in the country.

Such number is raising the alarm about the catastrophic impact of war on Iraqi children.

Many of those displaced families were forced to send their children to the streets to make their living from every possible mean, including selling simple things to people in markets.

"We came to Baghdad from Mosul," said Sirwan, a 10-year-old boy who's the only breadwinner in his family of seven.

"My father is disabled, and we don't have anyone here, our house was destroyed in Mosul, and our relatives are either dead or in refugee camps."

"A man helped us, when we came here in Baghdad; he offered us a shelter and cleaned the basement of his building for us," Sirwan told Xinhua.

"I really want to go to school, but I can't. My family needs me. I would never leave them to starve," he said.

A short walk in any street in Baghdad would give a clear image of the alarming number of street children. Those vulnerable children are exposed to all kinds of abuses.

Ali al-Haidari, an Iraqi sociologist, said he believes that cases of sexual assaults, kidnapping, trafficking and many other forms of abuse of children currently, are the highest in the modern history of Iraq.

"The negligence of government to orphanages and the absence of continuous observation to the existing ones, are the reason behind the aggravation of the situation," al-Haidari told Xinhua.

Abdul Amir al-Mayahi, a member of the Iraqi parliament, told Xinhua that the number of orphans in Iraq is estimated at five million in 2018.

Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have attempted to improve the situation by opening more orphanages, allocating a stable salary for some families, providing them with some basics and distributing meals. But these organizations have no capacity to help all children across Iraq.

Alaa Abdullah, an activist involved in street children issue, warned that "there's a real danger that threatens the future of Iraq. The government is paying no attention to look after this important part of the Iraqi society."

"These kids represent the future of this country. If the parliament and governmental bodies keep doing nothing, they will end up being a threat to this society," Abdullah told Xinhua.

Abdullah called on the Iraqi authorities to find comprehensive solutions through enacting laws that care for them and safeguard their rights.

"The street children phenomenon is against the constitution of Iraq which stated that all have the right for decent life. If the government wouldn't do anything to these children, they will be an easy target for gangs and terrorist groups who will use them to harm the society," Abdullah concluded.

In Iraq, there is a strong need for setting up a comprehensive program to combat poverty and establish rehabilitation centers to provide therapy for these children and reintegrate them in the society.

"Of course, aid alone is not enough to deal with the children crisis in Iraq, but a comprehensive program that ensures reliable flow of funds can help - as first step - training care workers, teachers who can provide psycho-social support and education through schools and home care system," Abdullah said.

"Maybe we can't totally remove the psychological scars of those children, which they will carry for their lifetime, but we have to understand that there is more to do for postwar recovery other than thinking of restoring buildings, bridges and roads," Abdullah concluded.