April 3, 2014
In 2010 at the age of 16, Wissam left his home in Babil province to find work in Basra. At times, he had to beg to survive. Wissam’s parents searched for him for nearly four years, but to no avail, and then on Feb. 27, they saw him on television.
The police had picked up Wissam and transferred him to a homeless shelter in Baghdad. There he met Sabrine Kazem, a young journalist covering social issues for Alhurra Iraq TV. It was her story for a news bulletin that led Wissam’s family to find their son.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Kazem said, “The shelter is full of tales of homeless persons who are neglected by their families. Some of them have passed the legal age [until which time they are required to stay at the shelter]. I wanted to highlight this category of people that no one pays attention to.” Kazem also said, “All of the young men in the shelter have pale faces. They are uncomfortable and do not receive high-quality rehabilitation so they can return to normal city life.”
Wissam had repeatedly told the police and the homeless shelter that he had family in Babil province awaiting his return. His appeals, however, went unheeded. No one tried to reunite him with his family or to even inform them of his whereabouts.
Kazem said she was surprised when her office received a telephone call from Wissam’s family, requesting that they be put in contact with him. He had appeared frightened and weak in the shelter.
Although the news report helped reconnect Wissam with his family, after four years in the homeless shelter, they have not been reunited. The legal procedures involved would cost the boy’s family a good deal of money, which it does not have.
Baghdad has a number of homeless communities with people ranging between 10 and 20 years of age. In Liberation Square, in the center of the city, a group of homeless beg while others pickpocket passersby or steal from the shops in nearby areas. Most of them do not have homes or families to protect them. Some sleep in the streets, while others have joined begging networks that provide them with shelter.
One homeless young man in the Karada district of central Baghdad told Al-Monitor, “[There is] coordination between some of the beggars’ networks and the police, which prevents us from being arrested.” Nonetheless, there are other dangers. A security source informed Al-Monitor, “Armed groups exploit the homeless in some provinces of Iraq.” He added, “A number of those [who got involved with armed groups] have been arrested, and they are now in juvenile prison.”
There are only two homeless shelters in Iraq — one for males and one for females. While there are no official figures available on the number of homeless, various unofficial statistics estimate that they exceed 500,000.
Kazem’s story sparked reactions in the street and on Iraqi social networking sites, raising questions about the steps that the government should take to return people to their families or to integrate them into society after having been neglected. Kazem noted, “The shelters’ dealings with the media are fraught with concerns,” and further explained, “They are afraid of journalists entering the shelters, for fear of exposing themselves to criticism.”
Wathiq Sadiq, a social researcher, told Al-Monitor, “If homeless shelters don’t rely on actual programs, within the framework of the adequate economic and social conditions, then their results will not be as efficient as required.” He observed, “These shelters, despite the many changes that occurred in Iraq post-2003, are still unable to truly perform their tasks. This is because they are subject to the general reality [in the country], which is largely characterized by confusion.”
Sadiq also explained, “There is currently no clear governmental program to guarantee the elimination, or even reduction, of negative social phenomena, including homelessness.” He stressed, “Homelessness is one of the most common channels [leading to] behavioral and social deviation. … The government, represented by state institutions, is the primary one responsible for imposing the agreed-upon social order and thus ensuring socially acceptable standards of conduct.”