Iraqi Safe House for Creativity a haven for orphans amid Baghdad violence

Sunday 14/08/2016
Orphan children at the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity are trained to develop their talents in fine arts.

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.