It seems like a happy scene: girls and boys on the playground, swinging, sliding down a rickety metal slide and playing ball. But if you talk to the former street children at Mercy House in Baghdad, you will find that many of them are disturbed and potentially violent.
When a visitor appears, they immediately crowd around him to beg for money. Some hit and kick each other. One small boy stands pitifully at the front gate, asking everyone who comes in if he can leave.
"I ran away from my parents four years ago because they were drunk all the time and stealing cars," Ziya Husayn, a gangling teenager, told IRIN. "I don’t miss them."
"I was sleeping in the street. I don’t know where my mother is," said 14-year-old Mustafa Iraj Ziya.
Under the former regime, the issue of street-children was kept under wraps. Before the US-led invasion in April, many such children would gather around large hotels and beg for money to take home to their families, according to Sajidah Salih Hasan al-Dulaymi, the director of Mercy House, which is run by the Ministry of Social Work.
The ministry previously had an orphanage especially for street-children, but police also would often pick them up and take them to jail, al-Dulaymi said.
When security police moved out of a former recreation building on the Tigris River with playground equipment in the front yard, al-Dulaymi jumped at the chance to move the orphanage to such a more suitable location. "We needed to change our house so the children could have a chance in life," she told IRIN. "Now we have more food and clothes for them, and sometimes we go to the zoo or another tourist spot."
The new location is far from the children’s old haunts, and many are changing their attitude. "I want to buy a bicycle and some day go to college," Ziya Husayn said. "Thank God it’s better here. We can play football or basketball and there’s a breeze from the river."
Mercy House is getting some financial help from Enfants du Monde, a French NGO working with children. The 33 boys and 21 girls, aged between five and 18, at the house occupy separate floors of the building, but eat and play together. The older boys often sexually abused the younger boys, a practice Enfants du Monde was trying to stop, said Michel Sahel, a programme director for the group. "Most were on drugs and had guns and knives. There were also gangs," he told IRIN. "We have tried many things, in fact, to get them away from the gangs."
When Enfants du Monde started working with the children, they found out many of those thought to be orphans had actually got homes, but had either run away or were expected by their families to work on the streets and bring money home regularly. Many were selling cigarettes or shining shoes, for example.
A psychologist was now talking to the children to figure out which of them could be taken home, al-Dulaymi said. About 20 of the children at Mercy House had declared that they would like to go home, she said. "Some have families, some do not. If we succeed in contacting their families, we ask them if they want to go home," she added.
If children want to go home, Enfants du Monde helps out by their giving families small stipends to start projects like selling tea. The idea is to help the families make enough money so that their children can go to school rather than work on the streets. Almost all the children who went home in this way are going to school now, three weeks after their families received their stipends.
"I used to bring get money, but my parents treated me so badly that I ran away," Athir Hamid, an 11-year-old from Fallujah, told IRIN. He said he didn’t want to go home.
Enfants du Monde was also training social workers in new ways to deal with problem children, Sahel said. Under the former regime, as in many countries, street children were treated as delinquents to be put in jail, never as victims of some problem at home.
"They have to know how to intervene when the children fight, for example, because the children are tough," he noted. "This is really hard work. We’re giving them the tools to know how to react."