Iraqi Safe House for Creativity a haven for orphans amid Baghdad violence
Baghdad - “I had nowhere to go except the street after losing my parents in a terrible explosion, until I met the director of this home… Since then I have a tender ‘father’ looking after me,” said 10-year-old Ahmad, who is working on developing his talent for acting. “I had the chance to participate in one movie already and am preparing to act in new ones,” he said.
Ahmad’s “home” is the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity, a private orphanage where he lives with 37 other children. His “father” is the home’s founder, Hisham al-Dhahabi, a Baghdad-based psychologist.
“I will work on making the children of Iraq protected internationally,” said Dhahabi, who has four children of his own. “I have been working with children for 11 years. Most of them suffer from depression and solitude as a result of the wars and insecurity plaguing Iraq.”
Dhahabi uses art-based therapy to help traumatised orphans cope with the chaos around them.
“At the Iraqi Safe House we are treating the children by developing their talents, through art, music and painting. The programme proved to be very successful and the talented children received 27 international awards and dozens of local prizes and certificates of excellence in acting, fine arts, sports and singing,” Dhahabi said.
Refusing to call the residents of his house “orphans”, Dhahabi said the majority of the children, who were very young when they arrived at the orphanage and had no documents to prove kinship, are officially registered in his name. “I have even produced IDs for them, a matter that makes me feel proud… They are an important part of my life,” Dhahabi said.
His wife and four children were also happy to be part of the “enlarged family”, Dhahabi said. His wife “did not mind becoming the mother of 38 additional children. In fact, her attitude further encouraged me to seek support for them from local and international humanitarian organisations,” Dhahabi said.
Dhahabi’s interest in the plight of disadvantaged children started in 2004 when he first worked at the Baghdad branch of a Kurdish organisation tasked with protecting children. When one of the organisation’s workers was killed during sectarian strife in 2006, the branch closed and Dhahabi continued taking care of dozens of children by himself.
“I couldn’t leave them to face an unknown future in the hands of the state, so I pledged to take care of the children and rented a small house to be a shelter to teach them and protect them… This is how the idea of the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity started,” Dhahabi said.
The house harbours children until the age of 18 but Dhahabi’s responsibility goes beyond that as he helps them find jobs and get married through the Golden Nest programme he devised.
“We provide them with a small apartment in the beginning. The dwellings will be transferred to other beneficiaries in two years’ time, during which they would have established themselves and made enough savings to move out and start a family,” he said.
Dhahabi said he wants to mobilise international efforts to help protect Iraq’s destitute and orphaned children. “Iraq has succeeded in making al-Ahwar marshlands an internationally protected reserve and I will seek to have the international community protect Iraqi children from being exploited and pushed into being criminals and even terrorists,” he said.
In the last two years, Iraq has seen a surge of fighting between armed groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS), and government forces which has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of orphans and widows.
Iraqi Ministry of Planning said in a report the number of widows and orphans in Iraq now exceeds 1.4 million. “The ministry has registered 600,000 orphan children aged 17 and below and 800,000 widows. The numbers, however, do not include the provinces of Anbar and Nineveh where fighting against ISIS is taking place,” ministry spokesman Abdel Zahra Hindawi said.
“The numbers are alarming, especially if we add up Anbar and Nineveh, they will definitely inflate dramatically,” Hindawi said.
Dhahabi said he had made requests to the Iraqi government to provide support for his project, but the response was disappointing. “Every time, there was an excuse; volatile security, financial crisis, economic depression, etc.,” he said.
How long the orphanage’s proprietor will be able to continue looking after children on nothing more than private donations is uncertain. In the meantime, the orphans have found a haven amid the bombs and bloodshed of Baghdad.