Crisis of an orphaned generation

A recent survey in Iraq found that between 800,000 to a million Iraqi children have lost one or both of their parents. According to aid workers this figure is a conservative estimate of the many thousands growing up in the shadow of violence. 

Twelve-year-old Saif lost both his parents in a bomb attack - in which he was also injured - in the province of Diyala in 2005. "I don't remember what happened," he says, quietly. "I was small. A man came and took me away and afterwards told me what had happened to my mother and father. There is no life when you've lost your mother and father." 

Saif is now being brought up in a private orphanage where, despite the trauma he has been through, he enjoys playing computer games and singing, and dreams of becoming an actor. No-one knows the exact number of Iraqi children who, like Saif, have been orphaned by Iraq's unrelenting violence. 

But with bombs and assassinations still a daily occurrence, the number of orphans is continually growing. Beyond the individual tragedies, the sheer number of Iraqi orphans has created a social crisis in a country that has less than 200 social workers and psychiatrists put together, for a population of 30 million people. 

It has no child protection laws. Officials say that desperately needed welfare legislation has been held hostage to sectarian squabbling in parliament. The orphanage in central Baghdad where Saif lives was set up by Hisham Hassan and funded by private donations. 

He told the BBC he could not stand by and watch the suffering of a generation of young Iraqis. "The government has not grasped the size of the problem," he says. Among the 32 boys he looks after are brothers Mustafa and Mortada, aged 10 and 11. 

Their mother was killed in a shoot-out and their father disappeared during the height of Iraq's sectarian war. They remember and miss a "good mother" and a father who used to play football with them. Hisham Hassan and his small staff have done their best to create a homely atmosphere at the orphanage. 

There is one room for the boys to create art, and a computer room where games are allowed once homework is done. And they are taught to sew and even cut hair. After the harrowing experiences of their past, they are being encouraged to prepare for a better future. 

"If they're not properly looked after, when they grow up they will be exploited by terrorists and they will be like bombs - a threat to the security and future of the country," says Mr Hassan. On the other side of the city, in a state-run orphanage for 12- to 18-year-olds, a desperate 17-year-old Mustafa is terrified about his own future. 

"I need someone to give me psychological care. Maybe we'll be involved in crimes because there is nothing good in our future," he says. Mustafa was brought to Dar al-Waziriya orphanage after he lost both his parents in a bomb attack when he was 12 years old. 

"I feel like a bird in a cage here," he says. "I wish there was someone to listen to us." The orphanage, home to 52 boys, is a dilapidated and disconsolate place - the playground has fallen into disuse, there is no light in the downstairs toilet, and no sink in the bathroom upstairs. 

The steps to the boys' dormitories are crumbling and a broken door has not been fixed. "I would like this to be a nice place to live," an eight-year-old boy tells me, shyly. Iraq's Deputy Minister for Social Affairs, Dara Yara, told the BBC that he and his staff are doing their best, in difficult political circumstances. 

"We're are working day and night to improve the services we provide to orphans. But the money I'm allocated for this is very limited. And the whole social security system in this country needs reform. 

"This is a humanitarian issue and it's not being prioritised by parliament. We need laws and we need money from the ministry of finance to deal with the problem." And he, too, worries about the security consequences if Iraq's orphans are not given the long-term care that they need. "They are," he says, "very easy targets for recruitment by terrorists." 

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