Iraqis Taking Care
Of Their Own

By Dahr Jamail

Mustafa, 5 years old, sits at a table in the Childhood's Voice Art Therapy School, drawing a house. The colorful home he draws is large, with a nice triangular roof. When not at Childhood's Voice, he lives with his parents inside a makeshift structure of loose bricks stacked together and a leaky tarp pulled over the top.
Childhood's Voice is an Iraqi NGO that established Season's Art School where Mustafa and 180 other children come to develop childrenís creative and social skills through team-based art education and art therapy projects. One of the goals of this school is to improve the critical sense and self-image of Iraqi children, so as to increase their ability to deal with problems, and raise them up from this bitter reality under the shade of the wars that have lasted for so long in Iraq.
The free services help children suffering from PTSD, poverty and other traumas and disabilities by teaching them equality and respect with peers.
Emad Abbas, the Project Coordinator and Theater Arts Director tells me that UNICEF assisted the school, but after the UN building was bombed in Baghdad has had to pull out. It is now supported by private donations and NCA, a Norwegian NGO. As two US military helicopters rumble over the small school, we watch several students drawing at the table alongside Mustafa.
"We give them art supplies, and just let them sit and draw whatever they like. Inevitably we are able to tell through their art what their troubles are, and how we can best help them," says Mr. Abbas.
Fautma, a 6 year old girl wearing a tiny yellow backpack draws a scene of verdant forests and lakes as another helicopter rumbles overhead.
A little boy with a great smile sits slumped in a chair watching his peers. Four years old, Hussan can only walk with assistance. He smiles as various children walk over to speak with him, and bring him some juice.
Another boy with a speech impediment is pointed out as being the best artist in the class.
As we walk into a room with several students working on computers, Mr. Abbas goes on to explain that there are two psychologists at the school, along with music, theater, computer and visual arts departments and several volunteers who work to help the children at Childhood's Voice, which was established August 3rd, 2003.
Rasha, a woman who has been volunteering at the school for two weeks, says,
"With each of these departments we work to teach them how to work together, respect each other, and help one another."
Monthly art exhibitions are held as a means of supporting the school, as well as expanding public awareness of the program. Initially designed to help 80 students, it now serves 180, and the number is growing rapidly. While the students go to educational school for study, this organization is more like an 'after-school school', assisting children in need of this healing environment. Meals are served when funding permits and donated clothing is provided when available.
There are three such schools in Baghdad, but Mr. Abbas believes 100 are needed to treat the vast number of children in Baghdad who have been psychologically and physically traumatized by the wars, sanctions, and now current difficult situation in Iraq.
Up some stairs there is a small stage with several rows of plastic chairs. We watch students acting out scenes teaching them about respecting nature and respecting one another. The kids are smiling and well behaved, hands raised eagerly in the air to be called on to participate in the next scene on the stage.
Ghazwan, a skinny 15 year old boy stands on the stage enacting a scene teaching about respecting people in his community. I am told he had been brought to the school after being kidnapped. He was found naked in a water tank with cigarette burns all over his body, and mostly likely had been sexually abused. He was completely withdrawn, but even after a couple of weeks began to open up to his peers, and has made great progress with assistance from psychologists at Baghdad University.
Back downstairs it is snack time. Students file into the small kitchen for juice and rolls, then outside into the sun and a small playground. There is much laughing and playing amidst the relaxed atmosphere as two children bring rolls and juice to Samir, a boy who uses a wheelchair.
Out on the playground Hussan is helped to a slide. He then uses the side bars to gingerly pull himself up the steps, swinging his legs up one at a time while bracing himself as he does so. I grow concerned and go to steady him as he stands atop the slide, but one of the staff lets me know he can, and should, do this for himself. With a big smile he pushes his arms straight on the bars and swings his legs out in front of him, plops himself down, and laughs as he wisks down the slide where another staff helps him walk to another slide.
The school is not without challenges. Mr. Abbas says that with the constant threat of kidnappings, looting, checkpoints, military raids on homes in the neighborhood, and struggles for funding, the future is always uncertain.
"With the unstable situation here, especially the security, we take all the help we can get. Many families didnít trust us at first, since we don't charge any money. But as they have seen that we are helping the children and that we are run by Iraqis, they are beginning to support us more," says Mr. Abbas.
The school is open to any volunteers who are willing to help, and donations can be made by wiring money to a bank in Amman, Jordan. As the school is not yet an officially registered NGO due to the long registration process mandated by the CPA, an account has been set up under a person affiliated with the school. The name of the bank is the Arabic Bank, and the name on the account is Abdel Al-Sahib, account number 166812-91718. All funds are transferred directly to Childhoodís Voice.
As I walk around the small playground before we leave I am inundated with hugs from the children and small kisses on my cheeks. Haida, a 6 year old boy who speaks a little English, laughs with me while teaching me some Arabic words. Knowing I'm from Alaska, he pulls a chair into the shade so I can sit out of the warm sun.
He tells me, "I love you. We are friends. All our families can be friends. When are you coming back here to visit us again?"




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