A group of young boys gather around a TV set listening to the presenter as she delivers news of bombings in the Al Sadr neighbourhood of Baghdad, Iraq. Images of children wrapped in bandages and casts fill the screen; an injured child cries for his mother.
The boys assembled in front of the screen are orphans, victims of the violence that has rocked Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This news is their daily reality; they live in Sadr City, the poorest neighbourhood in Baghdad, where 100 people are killed each month as a consequence of American and Al Qaeda attacks in the district.
According to UNICEF, there are around 800,000 children without a mother or father in Iraq today. ‘In my mother’s arms’, a DocHouse presents event which will be shown at the Lexi theatre in London this Thursday, follows the story of 32 of these young orphans who grow up in an independent, unofficial orphanage, and their stoic patron Husham Al Dhbe, who steers them through life and away from state homes.
Many of the boys in Al Dhbe’s orphanage were originally placed in state-run orphanages; as the story unfolds, it is clear why Al Dhbe is adamant they never go back. We meet Salah, who is so disturbed by his experience there that he no longer speaks; he was abused, made to beg and burnt with cigarettes. One boy describes how he was beaten with metal cables.
In fact one in three children in state orphanages in Iraq are subject to abuse, with no child protection laws to safeguard them. The homes have become targets for terrorist organisations that seek to recruit them as ‘Children of Heaven.’ “The last suicide attack was committed by an 11 year old” Husham tells us in the film. With little opportunities and life choices, many become wrapped up in lives of crime.
Though sectarian tension is one of the biggest challenges in Iraq today, Al Dhbe transcends the backgrounds of the children who are Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Turkuman, attempting to inspire their dreams and meet their basic needs, despite resistance from the state. In a two-bedroom house filled with bunk beds, the boys eat, sleep, study and attempt to continue their lives.
With only six carers to look after them, Al Dhbe desperately needs help. When his landlord gives him two weeks notice to leave it is painful to watch him drive from shop to shop to ask people for money – the unofficial orphanage receives no state of non-governmental organisation funding – and to discover that the UN has cancelled promised funding.
Yet it is not only the state that Al Dhbe must battle with. The boys are also navigating the highs and lows of childhood teamed with the psychological implications of war; a troubled character Saif, who features prominently in the film, often fights at school and with the other boys in the orphanage. Al Dhbe struggles with his family life, and his wife who believes he is abandoning his own children for the sake of the orphanage.
In My Mother’s Arms is a DocHouse presents event and will be screened at the Lexi Cinema in London on Thursday 21st February at 6:30pm.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.