Charity sets up free shops on Baghdad walls

“This is for you. Take what you need,” read the banner over a wall hung with a variety of used clothes. Household goods were arranged underneath them, all part of a charitable project called the “Wall of Compassion.” The Wall of Compassion is an initiative by a group of well-off volunteers to help the needy. 

It has expanded rapidly since its June launch, and by August its walls of charity had spread to seven different Baghdad locations. The idea for the wall came about earlier this year, journalist Ali al-Surawi told Al-Monitor. Surawi, one of the initiative's founders, said it was not very well received at first, as the idea was unusual and unfamiliar to the Iraqi community. 

However, it did not take long to be accepted and welcomed by many Iraqis. Surawi said the first wall was established in Baghdad's Sehah neighborhood. Since then, the number of volunteers involved in the initiative has increased to include people from all over the capital, notably from Baghdad’s affluent suburbs such as Adhamiya, Antar Square, the Liberation Square and the Karrada district. 

The concept is being promoted on the social networks and more walls have gone up in other Iraqi governorates, including Basra, Samawa and Diwaniya. Surawi added that the project was created to address the large number of Iraqi people living below the poverty line who are often neglected by society. 

He said the initiative is a bid to help poor Iraqis who have been largely alienated by the government, as the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is unable to cater to the large numbers of deprived people and provide them with what they need. The initiative has received support from the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which issued statements urging citizens to join and expand the project. 

Khodr Wahi, an activist whose phone number is listed on the banners, told Al-Monitor that the modest campaign has managed to provide clothes for 20 families in only one of Baghdad's slums. Wahi also said that new items are placed every day on the wall, while activists continue to encourage well-off people to donate. 

Wahi said some of the recipients feel too awkward and ashamed to take clothes and household appliances from the wall during the daytime. While some people come during the night to pick up clothes and other goods, children visit the wall throughout the day. Elderly women especially often come at night to take clothes for their children and orphaned grandchildren and leave swiftly for fear of being seen, concerned for their dignity. 

One of the security guards at the checkpoint near the Wall of Compassion in Adhamiya told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that children who sell bottled water and cigarettes in the streets and clean car windshields head to the wall every night before going home to take what they need. 

He expressed hope that the idea will be expanded and to set up a permanent site that activists can supervise and protect clothes and devices from dust and the sun, stressing that the valuable offerings, which could provide for thousands of needy families, should be well managed and protected. The Iraqi community seems to be split over the idea, as some still find it controversial and have expressed reservations. 

Fortunately, the controversy seems to have helped the news about the wall to spread in the Iraqi street. According to Iraqi citizen Nassif Hussein, the project's existence brings hope to the people as evidence that many people still want to help the less fortunate despite the hardships and crises that could harden Iraqis and threaten their ethics. 

He added that like many other passers-by, he feels happy when passing the wall, taking pictures of the clothes with his mobile phones. Hussein noted that in light of the dire economic circumstances and violence plaguing Iraq, some people are left without the most basic necessities of life. He stressed the need for Iraqis to help one another. 

Conversely, Ali al-Atabi finds the idea of the Wall of Compassion shameful and insulting to the poor, as picking up second-hand clothing and other used goods in public is undignified. He suggested sending clothes and household appliances secretly to the houses of the poor in such a way to spare them shame. 

Sara al-Qaher is an Iraqi writer and journalist who studies in the Faculty of Media at Baghdad University.

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