In Iraq, small acts of altruism
24 May 2006
by Sabrina Tavernise
Like the tiny track suits and dresses that Najat al-Saiedi brings to children of displaced families in the dusty, desperate Shiite slum of Shoala. Or the shelter that Suad al-Khafaji gives to, among others, the five children she found living in a garage in northern Baghdad last year.
But the Iraqi government has been taking note of such good works and now, more than three years after the American invasion, the outlines of a nascent civil society are taking shape.
Since 2003, the Iraqi government has registered 5,000 private organizations, including charities, human rights groups, medical assistance agencies and literacy projects.
Officials estimate that 7,000 other groups are working unofficially. The efforts show that even as violence and sectarian hatred tears Iraq's mixed cities apart, a growing number of Iraqis are trying to bring them together.
"Iraqis were thirsty for such experiences," said Khadija Tuma, director of the office in the government that now works with the private aid groups. "It was as if they already had it inside themselves."
The charity groups offer bits of relief in a sea of poverty, which swept Iraq during the economic embargo of the 1990s, but has gotten worse with the pervasive lawlessness that followed the American invasion.
The burst of public spiritedness comes after long decades of muzzled community life under Saddam Hussein, when drab Soviet-style committees for youth, women and industrialists were the only community groups permitted.
Saddam stamped out what had been a vibrant public life. Since the founding of Islam in the seventh century, charity has had a special place in its societies. As far back as the 19th century, religious leaders, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, formed a network called Al Ashraf that was a link between people and the Ottoman-appointed governor of Baghdad. The Iraqi Chamber of Commerce dates to the 1930s, and volunteers plunged into Baghdad's poor areas to conduct literacy campaigns in the 1950s, around the time of the overthrow of the monarchy.
Today's groups have picked up that historical thread and offer hope in an increasingly poisonous sectarian landscape that Iraqis might still be able to hold their country together.
Saiedi is a pragmatic 35-year-old who has neither a husband nor a job. After the American invasion, she tried to find work at a cellphone company, one of the few kinds of private firms that pay well, but was told that they were not hiring women because the job required travel.
Boredom was part of her motivation: The risk of kidnapping has confined many women to their homes and she had long hours at home with nothing to do.
So, with a group of her close friends and two of her sisters, Saiedi formed a charity group, Bilad al-Rafidendo, or Orphan Relief. Once a month she picks her way around mounds of trash in Shuala in dainty sandals, taking blankets, slippers and towels to children there.
The members take donations from friends and co-workers, and even people who go through government offices where several of them work, and regularly give assistance to 520 children.
"There are families of children where fathers were killed in explosions," said Saiedi, wearing a colorful green hijab on a recent day. "Now the state is busy. If I don't care about them, who will?"
Wassan al-Sharifi, 28, an office assistant for a government official, said she joined the group because "I like the spirit of its members."
"In spite of this bad situation, they're willing to help people," she said.
One delivery early this month took Saiedi to the town of Abu Ghraib to the home of Dumoh Mizher, a 31-year-old Shiite widow, one of the women who runs a family of 15 children, left fatherless after Mizher's husband and two of his brothers were killed in Abu Ghraib in 2005, when Sunni Arab insurgents broke into their small shop and shot all three point blank.
Children spilled through the doorway of the spare, cinderblock house whose empty windows looked out onto a small pen with a goat. Framed photographs of the three dead men were set high on the wall, not far from portraits of Shiite saints.
"Who is who?" asked Saiedi, trying to calm the children down as they buzzed around her.
"Zaineb, where is Zaineb?" she asked, holding up a small pink dress wrapped in plastic.
Not all groups are a force for good. Tuma, the government official, estimated that nearly 10 percent of the registered groups were involved in guerrilla activities and other crime. One was funneling aid to fighters in the volatile town of Falluja, she said, and the government shut it down. Another was running a ring that sold children into slavery abroad.
Iraq's religion-based political parties also have a hand in supporting the charity groups. Khafaji, who founded Al Rahma Organization, her shelter for homeless women and children, in 2005, gets some of the financing from an office of Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric.
The need here is growing. The number of acutely malnourished children has more than doubled, to 9 percent in 2005 from 4 percent in 2002, according to a report compiled by Iraq's Planning Ministry and released this month.
Homelessness has spread since 2003, and accelerated with the rise of sectarian violence, with Iraqis even squatting in an old movie theater in central Baghdad, Khafaji said.
The Ministry of Migration estimates that 1.1 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003.
Khafaji, a 49-year-old former shopping center manager, said she felt a personal connection to those who are homeless. In 1969, Saddam's regime executed her father and her family was forced from its property. She and her siblings were separated for their safety and their belongings were sold off.
"This made me feel homeless," she said, sitting in a large room in a worn building in central Baghdad that is home to about 20 women and children.
Khafaji even looks for jobs and husbands for the women. A shy 30-year-old who fled an unhappy home in Kut recently found work through the shelter, bringing tea to guests in a government ministry. Several others have married men in Sadr City.
A visit to the shelter offers a tour of some of the miseries of poverty here.
A man came to the gate a month ago, and tried to leave two children, a 1-year- old and an infant less than a month old. The shelter could not take them.
"So many victims," she said, raising her hands and opening her palms in a gesture of fatigue.
Ali Adeeb and Hosham Hussein contributed reporting for this article from Baghdad.