It wasn’t my first visit to the Al-Ayn offices in Iraq, but there was something about this one that was different. Stories that remain etched in my memory, changing all I had known about what it means to be an orphaned child, and adding new meaning to what we at Al-Ayn are trying to accomplish.
My visit with the Media and Public Relations team started at the headquarters in Baghdad. I was in the Distribution Hall, observing the smooth process in which widowed mothers were collecting their children’s monthly allowances. That days was dedicated to families living in the Al-Shuala district. In came each mother, heading to the token machine to get her assigned number, and then sitting down until her number was called out. I kept thinking of scenes of hand-out queues I had seen and how different this was. It felt more like a bank branch!
Two hours into this, a mother showed up with her son and daughter. She looked exhausted. The children, Yousif and Zahra, were dressed elegantly and huddled around their mother, chatting away. From where I sat, I saw the mother collect her allowance, then ask to speak to the Distribution Manager. She was suffering from severe abdominal pain, and the doctor she’d seen recommended a CT scan. But the closest free appointment for such a scan was more than a month away, and a private clinic would of course be costly. One conversation with the medical team later and she had an appointment booked for the following day, free of charge.
I followed some of the mothers to another hall, where they were requesting and collecting items. A couple of mothers came in and left carrying the items they’d requested. “Sweet!”, I thought!
But then a mother came in, asking for a heater. The manager in charge of donating items politely refused the request. I was surprised and gave the manager a quizzical look. It seemed very odd that she was being denied this request, considering the manager had just been telling me earlier about the large stock of heaters in the warehouse donated by a generous heater merchant.
Later, she showed me the mother’s records, pointing to where it said the family had received heaters two months ago. “They’ve also received mattresses, blankets, a fridge, a cooker and carpets since registering with us,” she said. “Don’t worry, Najwa. Everything is documented clearly for a fair distribution of donated items between all families.”
I saw the children going past the Distribution Hall straight to a play area whilst their mothers received their allowances. I watched as children played in the brightly coloured room, observed by social workers. The social workers told me about children who are suffering with mental health illnesses, how they often found the help they needed through the mental health services provided at Al-Ayn. Their mothers knew they could turn to Al-Ayn for support.
After our visit to the headquarters, we went around visiting orphaned children in their homes. One of the places we went to was the Al-Hurayya District in Baghdad. The widowed mother was only 25 years old. Her husband had been a construction worker. She’d lost him in an accident. She is now caring for her three children, living with her mother and brother.
We sat in their modest home and watched as their designated field worker gently asked them questions. It was clear she knew the family’s situation. I wondered how Al-Ayn managed to recruit more than 400 field workers, all women, who could carry out what I felt was one of the hardest roles at Al-Ayn. I asked the field worker how she copes with all the tragic cases she witnesses every day. She explained to me that she was an orphaned child herself and could relate to the pain of being orphaned.
She was grateful for the opportunity to carry out this work which she loves so much, and which she said helps her in raising her own children. “It’s not easy, though. There are days I go back home with no appetite and unable to sleep.”
The field workers visit each family at least twice a year, to follow up on how the mother is spending the monthly allowances, ensure the children are still at school, collect updates on their health and wellbeing, and cater for any other needs the children may have.
The Meaning of Poverty
Ever since I’d joined the Al Ayn UK team in 2013, I’d heard and repeated this constantly: “£55 a month, is the figure that Al-Ayn has set for the monthly sponsorship, based on a study of the needs of families, and the amount that is needed to lift an orphaned child above the poverty line.”
But I don’t think the phrase had really sunk in, until my visit to Al-Diwaniya province, where I witnessed first hand the dire circumstances facing family after family and the harsh conditions orphaned children were living in.
We visited a home in the outskirts of Al-Diwaniya, where the widowed mother lost her husband after a short struggle with cancer. The family had sold all their livestock, their source of sustenance, and borrowed money in a bid to save him, but unfortunately, he did not make it.
There were five children in the family, all cared for by Al-Ayn. Scanning their home, we noticed there was no furniture. The children had small plastic bags filled with all the clothes they had. The mother showed us her most recent monthly receipt, showing the amount the family had received from Al-Ayn. I asked the mother how she spends the money. Like the other families I met, it quickly became clear that the monthly allowances just about covered the most basic of the children’s needs.
With every family visit, I’d start planning in my head what I could do to share their reality on my return. I would then visit another family, and I would see even worse conditions.
In Najaf, we visited the Imam Al-Baqer complex. This is one of the Sadaqa Jariya projects that Al-Ayn has built to provide accommodation to families of orphaned children. A 14 year old orphaned child, whose father was a victim of terrorism, stood to recite poetry for us. His recitation was beautiful, the words were moving, and I struggled to hold back my tears.
In one of our family visits in Najaf, I heard the mother ask the staff member accompanying us for an update on the Al-Ayn school bus. The mother told me about how empty she’d felt after the loss of her husband, how it seemed all doors had closed. And then her children were registered with Al-Ayn, and she heard of the new house they’d receive in the Imam Al-Baqer complex. “It was something I would never have even dreamt of,” she said. Now, she was beginning to settle into her new home and her children were being supported so that they could go to school.
Back to London
I came back to London with a heavy heart. I felt ashamed for not doing enough with the blessings that I have. I think about the children I saw in my visit every day. I hear the words of the poem we’d heard so clearly… I hear the sound of laughter coming from the play area… all the words I heard from the mothers about the staff and volunteers at Al-Ayn echo in my head.
The support of Al Ayn brought hope back into their lives. But we are not done yet. There are thousands of more children living below the poverty line, on the waiting list. And the mission lies ahead, to do our best to support them.
Member of Al-Ayn UK Team