In Baghdad, the poor have no choice but to beg

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 14, 2009 

WORLD NEWS USIRAQ-BEGGARS 2 MCT

Habeeb keeps a pictures showing him holding one of his kids waiting for his turn to talk to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

JENAN HUSSEIN — Jenan Hussein / MCT

BAGHDAD — Zainab, 7, dodged moving cars as she stuck out her hand for help. After a couple of hours, she'd collected 3,000 dinars, less than $4. She walked back to where she lives.

That's a trash-filled warehouse only a few yards from Abu Nowas, the busy street in the Karrada district where she was begging. Then Habeeb Abdulsada, her father, let her watch cartoons on TV with two of his other children in the blue tent he'd pitched inside the warehouse, which reeked of rotten fruit and vegetables.

He connected the TV to a power line illegally so the kids can watch it a few hours a day.

"Yes, they are begging," he admitted, wearing shorts because the warehouse is even hotter than the 110 degrees outside. "I can't stop them. They have needs."

Beggars have become as visible as blast walls and checkpoints in Iraqi cities. Government ministries don't have reliable statistics, partly because those who beg fear official crackdowns on their only livelihood. It's a problem the government has yet to tackle.

Abdulsada once was a singer in a troupe sponsored by the Saddam Hussein-era Ministry of Culture and Information, but many of its employees were never rehired after the Americans initially disbanded the ministry. Abdulsada, who's 55, hasn't held a job since then. He no longer sings such traditional Iraqi songs as "Khadri al Chai" ("Please Make Tea"), a ballad from a man to his beloved.

At the warehouse that serves as their shelter, Abdulsada also looks after Ahmed, 12, Maryam, 8, and Zahrah, 6. A daughter, Fatma, 14, lives with her grandmother because he can't control the teenager, Abdulsada said. His two brothers took the youngest children, Mustafa, 3, and Shahad, 2, so they wouldn't have to live in the warehouse, where rags are stuffed between metal slats to keep out the wind and dust.

None of the older children is in school, because of the expense.

The toilet is a hole in the concrete, hidden by a rug. There's no running water. Because of the heat — and rats biting them in the night — they don't sleep in the warehouse, instead placing rugs on the grass median on the street outside the building.

Their mother, Nahida Jabbar, was kidnapped along with her sister a year and half ago during sectarian violence in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood while the two were visiting their own mother. Neither has been heard from since.

It isn't as if the government is unaware of their problem. Last year, Abdulsada met Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki at a ceremony to reopen Abu Nowas Street, which had been closed for five years for security reasons. "I explained to him our situation, but he didn't show any sympathy," Habeeb said. "He even asked me what was our problem."

Two months later, Maliki's office sent a photograph of the prime minister standing next to him. Asked Abdulsada: "Where can I exchange this to feed my children?"

True, Maliki has had other things on his mind. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, unemployment has reached 18 percent, though unofficial estimates put it at more than 30 percent. Tens of thousands of Iraqis don't know any way to survive other than to ask for handouts.

The Iraq government distributes food rations, but they're delayed for months and often of poor quality.

"The number of beggars increased over the last six years as a result of the events that Iraq passed through," said Mohammad al Khuza'i, a spokesman for the Red Crescent, the counterpart to the Red Cross that operates throughout the Muslim world. The organization tries to help by providing free health care, food and wheelchairs for those who need them.

"Until recently, there has been no law or institution to take care of the victims of terrorists," Khuza'i said.

Abdullah al Lami, an adviser at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, blamed successive Iraqi administrations for ignoring the problem and not sponsoring a program or project to provide jobs and services for beggars.

The explanation does nothing for the destitute.

For the Abdulsada family, Zainab is their meal ticket. Neighbors sometimes bring food for them, but the 7-year-old's innocent face "makes people sympathize with her and give her money," her father said.

One recent morning Zainab's money helped them buy nine slices of pita-like bread and five eggs for their breakfast. "I'm hungry, Dad," she said. Abdulsada cooked the eggs in a pan over a kerosene flame. The bread cost about 90 cents, the eggs the same.

He's tried to find a job, he said, "but nowadays even young people can't find work. How can an old man like me?" Even if he got a job, what would his kids do? "I'm a dad and a mom at the same time," he said, shrugging.

Abdulsada and his children live across the Tigris River from the International Zone, and the street in front of their warehouse leads to one of its heavily guarded gates. Convoys of U.S. and Iraqi officials roll by several times a day.

"They see us while we are sleeping on the grass in the middle of the street," Abdulsada said. "They know very well they are poor children, but they don't want to do anything to solve our problem."

American solders have visited the beggars several times, and one of them cried when he saw the kids. "They gave us food," Abdulsada recalled, "and I would have kissed their hands out of thanks."

(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent. Mike Tharp, of the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star, contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

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