Abu Fatima's Children
POVERTY & PARK LIFE
OM MOHAMMED AND FAMILY
I talked about Om Mohammed and her children before (see report: Iraq - Unreported upsurge in violence).She is a single mother with 2 sons. She visited on the first night of the RPG/mortar attacks from Kerrada. As promised we went to see her the next day. She lives further up the street, on the other side, in a big house shared by 6 families. They had all lost their window glass after the church bomb. The house is a wreck, but could be beautiful - all the living quarters are arranged around a small, but bright courtyard. Here she rents two rooms, one above the other for 20,000 dinar a month (8 pounds), but she is 6 months late with the rent and the landlord is sending her solicitor letters. She receives food rations and other families in the household give her rice and soup regularly so the family do not go hungry. She keeps her son, Mustafa, 8 years old, with her and her older son, Mohammed, 10 years old, often stays with her mother, his grandmother, who I also met. This is not the poorest of poor families but their poverty and living conditions would startle most people in Britain. She has one bed, an air cooler fan, a small TV, a small radio and some pots and pans. The upstairs room is bare except for bags of old clothes which Om Mohammed is trying to sell to make the rent.
Grandmother was a small lady with gentle eyes and soft skin. She told me how she had 3 daughters, but one had been killed in the Iran/Iraq War when she - the girl was just 18 years. Her daughter had been in school when an Iranian plane dropped a bomb on her school, killing and injuring many other girls. She told us that the shock of this awful event caused her to have diabetes and she has worn black until this day - she cannot ever get over the loss of her beloved daughter.
As for Om Mohammed, her problems are caused by the fact that she does not know where her husband is. Some people tell her that he is dead and others tell her that he is working abroad, so she just doesn't know what has happened to him. She is a softly spoken woman of about 30 years, wearing the usual black chadoor, like her mum.
I explained that, although she is obviously very poor, I can only really help poorer families (ie those families without a home) or street children. But I agreed to pay her rent - otherwise they would also become a homeless family and I would then be trying to find a place for them to stay. So to prevent this occurrance, Youth Aid Iraq will pay her monthly rent of 20,000 dinar (8 pounds). I refused to pay 5000 dinar a month (2 pounds) for her electricity, for that would then be taking off poorer families who have nothing and besides, she can use an extension lead to her neighbours' to get electricity and she can go to their homes anytime to cook food etc. Also, I do not need to provide food as she gets food rations and the neighbours help her out in this way - but I do take her some stuff a couple of times a week, just to help a bit more. This is all I can do here - keep a roof over her head and make sure basic needs are catered for. Like I said, she is nowhere near poor compared to so many families in Bagdad and Iraq - but I feel sure that her deprived living conditions and struggle to make ends meet would shock any of you reading this.
ABU FATIMA AND FAMILY
Abu Fatima and his 5 children live in a wrecked and looted former electrical store on Abu Newas Street, alongside the Tigris, here in Kerrada. We tried to help this family around Christmas time by buying them blankets and other essentials for Winter. But there is one big problem here - Abu Fatima, the husband and father is an alcoholic. Kevin spotted the empty liquor bottles on our first visit to them back in December. So there is a danger that anything bought for the family will be sold to feed his habit. He is a really nice man, friendly and polite with kind eyes. His children clearly love him, and he loves them, but he freely admits that he cannot give up drinking. He is never drunk, he just needs to maintain a certain level of alcohol in his body. And it is this drinking that has further wrecked his life and which is wrecking his the lives of his beautiful children.
When Jean Michel was here in March, he was trying to find employment for Abu Fatima. But Abu Fatima, despite Jean Michel's best efforts, was too nervous to try, too worried that his drinking would effect his work and he would be no good. In the end he refused to go with Jean Michel to see a prospective employer.
I don't judge this man, far be it from me to judge any Iraqi that turns to drink after what they have been through, but I wish he would stop, I wish he would want to stop and I wish there existed the means and counselling to help him stop - but this is Iraq and no such help exists in this battered, broken country.
His wife has left him - who can blame her? Living in a looted shop full of rubbish and rats is no life. She has gone to live with her family and he wants her back. But I wonder what she and her family are like leaving 5 children in this deplorable situation - but I suppose they too have their reasons.
The 5 children are amazing, always excited to see visitors, full of joy and smiles. They are filthy, they never wash and their clothes (if you can call them that) are dirty ripped rags of garments. There is Fatima, 9, Mohammed, 7, Miriam, 4 and 1/2, Zahra'a, 3 and 1/2, and Zeinab, 2.
We visited four days ago as a friend had given us 24 eggs to give to poor family. Om Mohammed doesn't need eggs as she gets some off one of the shops around here. So the next nearest poor family was Abu Fatima's. (Now, I know eggs are really bad food, full of cholesterol and other wicked things - but in this situation, bad protein is better than no protein.) We took 12 of the eggs, putting the rest in our fridge as the family do not have a fridge of their own, so they would keep for tomorrow. Then we found that the family have nothing to cook on either - except for a lethally dangerous kerosene cooker with no kerosene. (Kerosene cookers are common in Iraq as are the injuries and burns caused by them.) But no worries, he told us, he can cook them next door at the neighbour's. The neighbours are good, he told us, often giving him food and he also receives some food rations - for him and the two oldest children. He does not receive food rations for the three littlest ones as he has not registered their identities for id cards and so cannot get food rations for them. When we returned yesterday, we took the remainder of the eggs and some bananas and grapes for the children, which they devoured excitedly. Dad had none. We also bought him a small electric coiled heater/cooker - he gets electricity in the shop when Bagdad electric is on. The cooker is just one ring and cost 6000 dinar (2.40 pounds) so at least he can now heat things like water, beans and eggs. And it is not too expensive an item for him to sell for alcohol. This is a real and valid concern. We had a good look around the shop on both visits and we could not see any of the blankets or other items we had bought in the Winter. Where had they gone? Maybe mum had taken them to her family, but this is unlikely and, you see, blankets are good, valuable items to sell.
So it means we cannot take toys or clothes for the children - although we intend to try to find somethings to give them.
We mentioned getting Fatima and Mohammed into the school two streets away come September. Abu Fatima is open to this idea and he said he never stayed anywhere long enough before to settle the children in a school. He had only ever lived in places for up to three months before, but had settled in this former shop for the past 9 months and saw no reason to leave any time soon. But he had one concern. He was now working a few mornings a week in Babalshargy, helping his friend send old Iraqi dinar notes and exchanging money. He said the little money he earns is important to pay for the childrens' food and Miriam's hospital treatment - she has a bad body rash, probably from the stinking living conditions. If Fatima goes to school, who will take care of the smaller children when he works? We agreed with him, but suggested that the other children could go to a free kindergarten, if we could find one in Kerrada. He is very open to this idea and it may offer a way out of this cycle of poverty for these children as well as giving them something to do, to expand their minds, instead of just playing in the dirt all day ( - they have NO toys).
As we left, Abu Fatima asked if there was any chance that we could pay for a squat toilet, some pipe and bricks. He has a friend who will install it for him - the pipe will take waste from the toilet to a big room below the shop. I said that I would look into the matter - I obviously wouldn't give him money directly, but in my opinion, he does not just need a toilet. There is a dire need for a tap and a basin/bowl or even a shower. You see, the shop has no toilet or washing facilities or water supply. Half of the surface area of the shop is given over to rubbish - one metre high in places. And this is where the family go to the toilet, with nowhere to wash hands before eating and nowhere to wash bodies or clothes. As we stood there we saw a huge rat scurry through this rubbish and he would not be the only one in there! Now, I love rats - there is at least one family of them living outside my bedroom window and they are a pleasure to see and hear. But the thought of rats this big moving through piles of rubbish with children climbing over the top to go to the toilet is really quite worrying and disturbing. It is really a wonder that these children are so healthy. So we have identified their needs - toilet and washing facilities and a school and kindergarten - I will let you know how we get on.
ALI (WITH THE SMILE)
I told you about Ali in my report entiltled 'Iraq:Unreported upsurge in violence' and said how pleased we were to see him and how is life is going so well - he was off thinner and happy. Well, he visited two days ago and things are not so good. He was stoned and sad looking. His trousers were a mess, sack of cans over his shoulder. We sat him down and asked him what's up? The day before, he had been collecting scrap aluminium as usual and was down on Karamana Roundabout at around 6.30 pm, about to go home to the House of Mercy Children's Home in Al Rashad. Suddenly he was attacked by three big boys who stole his money from his pocket, stole his sack of aluminium and stabbed his arm - hence his messy trousers - they are covered in blood from his arm. He had made it to the Palestine/Sheraton complex checkpoint where some American soldiers helped him. They took him to Floor 5 of the Palestine Hotel where Ali was treated. His stab wound received 13 stiches and was dressed and he was fed, given painkillers and spent the night there. So, on the day he visited us (the day after the attack), he left the Palestine Hotel, depressed, sad and in pain and he hit the thinner. So he cannot go back to the House of Mercy stoned and with no money for a taxi to get there. Poor Ali - we basically had to force feed him as he did not want to eat and he would not let us put him in a taxi back to the Childrens' Home. He wanted to collect more cans (he had already been collecting today) and go to Sadr City instead of Betouine (where he gets more money per kilo) to sell them and then go home. We made him promise to go home before dark. The Children's Home does not shut the gate until 10 pm, but he need to be home before dark for his safety. He had finished his bottle of thinner, so at least he would not be stoned when he arrived there - or he would have more troubles.
All he wanted was some clean trousers. We gave him the black jeans we were going to give him weeks ago and they looked great on him and cheered him up a bit. He left his blood soaked trousers with us to go in the washing machine and he set off on his mission after eating felafel sandwich, bananas, chirick bun and drinking some pop and water.
This just shows how things mess up here and how the children who live on the streets of Bagdad are so vulnerable. Criminal activity is escalating as the security situation deteriorates and the first to pay the price are the weakest in society - boys like our little Ali.
Wejdy bumped into Ali yesterday on the main street at the top of Kerrada. He looked much better, off thinner again and still in his new black jeans. He had returned to the House of Mercy as he promised after selling his cans in Sadr City for 4000 dinar (1.60 pounds). He was collecting cans again, arm still in its neat dressing, and he stopped for a felafel sandwich with Wejdy before going off happily on his way, continuing his work.
Zayuna Park is one of my favourite places to go in Bagdad. Full of families and children, it is a happy lively place and always feels very secure. Indeed, lone men or men in groups without women are not allowed and everyone has to leave their guns at the entrance guard point.
Zayuna itself is a well-to-do area of Bagdad. The street outside the park is full of restaurants, juice bars and cafes.
Inside the park, rows and rows of tables and chairs under a shelter holding rows and rows of fans, fill up throughout the evening. Seats are at a premium as families pile out of their hot houses to the relative coolness of the park. And here they sit enjoying tea, pop, candyfloss, hotdogs, popcorn and crisps all night. Sometimes they leave their seats to take their children to play on the surrounding swings and rides. Otherwise they just sit and chat all night.
When we go there, the waiters always make a fuss of us. Two of them, like my translator, are from Hilla, and this makes us special. We often get families or children chatting to us or about us as well. The waiters always come and tell us who is saying what about my hair and so on and sometimes it's really funny.
The following accounts are not particularly political or reflective of Iraq, they are just some of the stories of some of the people we talk to in the park:
He is our favorite waiter, from Hilla, and about to get married, after 5 years waiting and saving up. He is really, really in love and cannot wait for the big day. We asked him about children. He wants four boys, but no girls - "Boys can look after me when I am old, but girls are trouble!" I told him off.
When he goes on honeymoon, his brother will come from Hilla to fill his job while he is away, otherwise Kamal will lose his job - no holiday leave here then, and jobless is not an ideal state for a new husband in the New Iraq.
SHAMA'A AND LIQA'A
Shama'a and Liqa'a are two very open and confident women who, fascinated by my hair, got Ali, another waiter, to call us over to their table. I jumped at the chance to speak with women outside of the family home. Shama'a is a hairdresser up on Palestine Street - hence the interest in my dreadlocks. She had married at the age of 12 and had her first child, a girl, when she was 15. Two sons followed this daughter, but now, at the age of 26, she can have no more children. She is very bright and bubbly and wished her children could meet us. Her hair was perfect and her make up just so. Liqa'a is far far quieter.Somewhere in the middle of all this motherhood, Shama'a had found herself working in Syria for a time. But now she was happy living in Bagdad with her husband and children.
Ali is 16 years old and cleans the tables, clears the litter and tidies the chairs. He works everyday in the park from 6 pm until midnight for 2500 dinar a day (1 pound). Next year he will be in the 5th class in high school which is his penultimate year - he is studying literature, history and geography. When he comes to chat, he pretends to be working around our table, keeping one eye on his boss -so the area around our table is always the cleanest spot in the park!
He lives in Bagdad, although his tribe is from Ramadi and he has to work as his father recently died.
He hates America and what happened/is happening in Fallujah.
He told us how there are two tribes based in Al Daura in Bagdad. The Dulaimy tribe is Sunni and the Jiboor tribe is Shia. The Shia Jiboor tribe attacked US troops with RPGs in Daura and so the clever American soldiers killed and arrested members of the Sunni Dulaimy tribe in Daura - his tribe. He went on about the Americans murdering people in Fallujah and how they were airstriking mosques and houses killing so many innocents. He says that America just keeps meddling and causing trouble in Fallujah to create tensions.
MILAD AND AHMED
Milad and Ahmed are two 11 year old boys who live in Sadr City. They do not go to school, but sell cables in a shop there. Ahmed has never been to school, but Milad did, leaving in the 5th class of primary school.
One day Milad left the shop to fetch some food. As he passed some American soldiers he said "Hi". One of the soldiers grabbed hold of him, kicked him and locked him up for half an hour. It does not matter what he did - nobody should treat an 11 year old boy like that. Milad said that he does not say "hello" to soldiers anymore - he hates them.
Then Ahmed told of his neighbour, who had a truck. This man was killed and had his truck stolen by bandits in Sadr City.
Milad and Ahmed both hated America and Saddam and said they were glad that Saddam Hussein was gone, but said that they felt that things were better when he was here, especially security.
HAYDER, KERAR, DONIA AND FATIMA
Hayder, 13, and his brother, Kerar, 6, are cousins to Donia, 15, and her sister, Fatima, 11, and all of them live in Sadr City.
Hayder often comes to sit with us for a while in the park and we have also met Fatima before. Hayder likes school, he is in the first class of secondary school, but says that the teachers do not teach them well. He can get to number 7 in English and the letter G in the English alphabet. His favourite place in Bagdad is Zayuna Park, but in Iraq his favorite place is Sadr City.
Donia's father took her out of school in the 3rd class of primary school (ie after three years in school) and he makes her wear a head scarf always. She would like to have her ears pierced a second time, but he won't let her and she finds him too strict. She said she would like to go back to school, but instead she has to stay around the house all day cleaning, cooking and watching television.
Suddenly, two loud bombs went off in the distance, but they were close enough for people to stop talking and look around. The children asked if I was scared. I replied that I wasn't scared, just very sad, because I realised that Iraqis were being hurt and killed every time I heard a bomb go off. I said that I thought that Iraqis had suffered enough. I asked if the bombs scared them and all 4 children said "Yes, lots". And I asked if they had been scared in the war. They all said "Yes, we were terrified of every bomb and explosion, even though we had moved to the outskirts of Bagdad - it was still very frightening". And even tough, confidant Hayder agreed.
Abu Fatima and Om Mohammed can never take their children to the park - they could not even afford the bus or taxi far there. The difference in wealth and living standards between their children and the children in the park is troubling - even though some of the children we met in the park did not go to school, they are all still much better off. But this is not the half of it.
When we go to Shorga Souk (market), there are grown men in shabby clothes collecting cans in the heat off the dusty streets into dirty sacks. We see men selling a few cigarettes or tubes of toothpaste, unable to afford more wares to sell to generate more income. On the way to Al Nahrwan (and indeed every intersection where there's a build up of traffic), we find men and boys selling bananas, cigarettes, cold drinks, everything, even bath sponges to motorists to eke out a meagre living. They work long hours in the heat amongst the dry dust and petrol fumes for a few 1000 dinar a day. Contrast this to the new wealthy - men in slick clothes driving new Mercedes and BMW's with their mobile phones and in car CD players. There's plenty of them. Many are taking advantage of the new opportunities they have been lucky enough to find to generate wealth in the New Iraq by legitimate means. But they still do not stop to consider their own country's poor or disenfranchised people, they still don't care. Like most rich people all over the world, they just care about themselves, while other people suffer and struggle.
Then we get the late night fast car drivers. Obviously for them, there is no work to get up for early in the morning - these slobs speed around the streets playing music loud and drinking alcohol at the wheel. They cruise up and down streets at top speeds, raising dust, with no regard for pedestrians or other road users, often going up and down the main street in the wrong direction at their convenience - they are so important. And they are horrible. They are widely considered to be looters. People who had no money before, who suddenly, after the looting, seemed to have a lot; people who never worked and who do not work now - so where did all that money come from? They are despised and one of the worst insults that can be hurled in Iraq is 'looter'.
The widening gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate. I think everyone should be able to afford to take their children to the park, I don't think that anyone should need a Mercedes. Things need to equal out a lot here and they need to equal out now. But there seems to be no reason for this widening gap to cease growing in a country with so many other problems to deal with.
All for now
Living Amoungst Iraqis In Bagdad,
From Newport, South Wales.