Guest columnist Jonathan Webb writes about the orphaned children he has seen in Iraq as a soldier and later as a contractor. Though U.S. troops are pulling out, orphans, which represent about 10 percent of the Iraqi population, can be helped by building capacity in Iraqi organizations.
I FIRST flew into Baghdad in April 2003 on a Blackhawk helicopter that would save my life more than once during the 15 months that I served there in the U.S. Army. Like most who have experienced war firsthand, I witnessed my share of horrific scenes in Iraq and lost close friends. Little did I know, however, that it would be after my military service when I would discover a tragedy unfolding in Iraq that would change my life.
To provide for my family after leaving the Army, I returned to Iraq as a contractor. One day as I flew over Baghdad, I looked down to see children rummaging through the city dump. The sightings of children in the streets scurrying down alleyways and scavenging through garbage became more and more common. I came to learn that these were not just kids out being mischievous. These were orphans and other extremely vulnerable children, and for many of them the streets are their home.
It is estimated there are nearly 2.5 million Iraqi orphans as a result of sectarian violence, terrorist attacks and executions under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Orphans represent nearly 10 percent of Iraq’s population of just over 30 million. To put this into perspective, this would be the equivalent of 30 million orphans in the U.S., which would be unfathomable.
But it is not just the numbers that are so shocking. It is the squalor, neglect and risky lives these children face every day. Unlike the U.S., Iraq does not have the expertise or social services to deal with this. And, currently, only about 1 percent of Iraqi orphans are in orphanages.
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Since the U.S. pulled out its combat troops in December, we must urgently make provisions for the innocents that will be left behind. Humanitarian reasons and thousands of heart-rending stories alone would compel most to act.
But if some are not moved for humanitarian reasons to respond to this crisis, perhaps they will be motivated through their own self-interest. Today’s orphans could be tomorrow’s suicide bombers and anti-American jihadists. Most of them are ripe targets for recruitment by radical, anti-Western forces. We know that orphans are also easy prey to criminal gangs, drugs and the sex trade.
If Iraq is to be a stable nation, and if a stable Iraq is in the national interests of the U.S., then we must address this calamity.
Before leaving Iraq, a colleague and I began to assess the scope of this issue and to provide assistance to Iraqi orphans. We determined that Iraqi community leaders and nongovernmental organizations need and want to do the work but they lack the expertise and resources.
We began making connections between Iraqi groups and organizations like The Children’s Village in New York, an award-winning 160-year-old nonprofit that annually serves more than 8,000 vulnerable and at-risk children and families. The Children’s Village graciously offered to provide customized training so Iraqis can deal with the orphans’ trauma, loss and basic living needs.
The road ahead for Iraqi orphans leading to a safe, healthy and peaceful future is long and difficult. But America has sacrificed too much blood and treasure to ignore the consequences of not addressing this crisis.
Government aid from the U.S. is not the answer, nor can we afford to give it at this time. Through its oil revenue, the Iraqi government has the financial means to fund needed programs. But what Americans can do is provide a hand-up to help the Iraqis build their own capacity to deal with its orphan problem.
What we need is to connect Iraqi groups with U.S. charitable organizations and companies that can donate needed expertise and resources. We need social workers and health-care professionals who are willing to lend some of their time and skills to help Iraqis treat traumatized, sick and injured orphans. We need matchmakers to link caring Americans with Iraqis, like the widow looking after orphaned children who simply needed a sewing machine so she could earn money as a seamstress.
What we need is a surge of love for Iraqi orphans.
Jonathan Webb lives in the Seattle area and works in Afghanistan with U.S. forces as a civilian contractor. He is also vice president-U.S. of the Sponsor Iraqi Children Foundation (www.sicfiraq.org).