first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBasketball roundup: Sierra Canyon, Birmingham set to face off in tournament quarterfinals“Iraqis were thirsty for such experiences,” said Khadija Tuma, director of the office in the Ministry of Civil Society Affairs that works with the private aid groups. “It was as if they already had it inside themselves.” The new charity groups offer bits of relief in the sea of poverty that swept Iraq during the economic embargo of the 1990s and has gotten worse with the pervasive lawlessness that followed the U.S. invasion. The burst of public-spiritedness comes after long decades of muzzled community life under Saddam Hussein, when drab, Soviet-style committees for youths, women and industrialists were the only community groups permitted. Saddam stamped out what had been a vibrant public life. Since the founding of Islam in the seventh century, charity has had a special place in its societies. As far back as the 19th century, religious leaders, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, formed a network called Al Ashraf that was a link between people and the Ottoman-appointed governor of Baghdad. The Iraqi Chamber of Commerce dates back to the 1930s, and volunteers plunged into Baghdad’s poor areas to conduct literacy campaigns in the 1950s, around the time of the overthrow of the monarchy. BAGHDAD, Iraq – In the wave of lawlessness and frantic self-interest that has washed over this war-weary nation, small acts of pure altruism often go unnoticed. Like the tiny track suits and dresses that Najat al-Saiedi takes to children of displaced families in the dusty, desperate Shiite slum of Shoala. Or the shelter that Suad al-Khafaji gives to, among others, the five children she found living in a garage in northern Baghdad last year. But the Iraqi government has been taking note of such good works, and now, more than three years after the U.S. invasion, the outlines of a nascent civil society are taking shape. Since 2003, the government has registered 5,000 private organizations, including charities, human-rights groups, medical assistance agencies and literacy projects. Officials estimate that an additional 7,000 groups are working unofficially. The efforts show that even as violence and sectarian hatred tear Iraq’s mixed cities apart, a growing number of Iraqis are trying to bring them together. Today’s groups have picked up that historic thread and offer hope in an increasingly poisonous sectarian landscape that Iraqis might still be able to hold their country together. Al-Saiedi is a pragmatic 35-year-old who has neither a husband nor a job. After the U.S. invasion she tried to find work at a cell-phone company, one of the few types of private businesses that pay well, but was told it was not hiring women because the job required travel. Boredom was part of her motivation: The risk of kidnapping has confined many women to their homes, and she had long hours at home with nothing to do. So, with a group of her close friends and two of her sisters, Saiedi formed a charity group, Bilad al Rafidain (Mesopotamian) Orphan Relief. Once a month she picks her way around mounds of trash in Shoala in dainty sandals, taking blankets, slippers and towels to children there. The members take donations from friends, and co-workers and even people who visit the government offices where several of them work, and regularly give assistance to 520 children. In lovingly rendered notebooks of various colors, Saiedi hand-writes the names of family members and the days that donations were made. “There are families of children where fathers were killed in explosions,” said al-Saiedi, wearing a colorful green veil on a recent day. “Now the state is busy. If I don’t care about them, who will?” Wassan al-Sharifi, 28, an office assistant for a government official, said she had joined the group because “I like the spirit of its members.” “In spite of this bad situation they’re willing to help people,” she said. One delivery early this month took Saiedi to Shoala, to the home of Dumoh Mizher, a 31-year old Shiite widow, one of the women who heads a family of 15 children left fatherless after Mizher’s husband and two of his brothers were killed in the town of Abu Ghraib in 2005, when Sunni Arab insurgents broke into their small shop and shot all three. Children spilled through the doorway of the spare cinder-block house whose empty windows looked out onto a small pen with a goat. Framed photographs of the three dead men were set high on the wall, not far from portraits of Shiite saints. “Who is who?” al-Saiedi asked, trying to calm the children down as they buzzed around her. “Zaineb, where is Zaineb?” she asked, holding up a small pink dress wrapped in plastic. Not all groups are a force for good. Tuma estimated that nearly 10 percent of the registered groups were involved in guerrilla activities and other crime. The need here is growing. The percentage of children who are acutely malnourished has more than doubled, to 9 percent in 2005 from 4 percent in 2002, according to a report based on figures from Iraq’s Planning Ministry that was released this month. Homelessness has spread since 2003 and accelerated with the rise of sectarian violence, with Iraqis even squatting in an old movie theater in central Baghdad, Khafaji said. The Ministry of Migration estimates that 1.1 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003. Khafaji, 49, a former shopping center manager, said she felt a personal connection to homeless Iraqis. In 1969, Saddam’s government executed her father, and her family was forced from its property. She and her siblings were separated for their safety, and their belongings were sold. “This made me feel homeless,” she said, sitting in a large room in a worn building in central Baghdad that houses about 20 women and children. Khafaji even looks for jobs and husbands for the women. A shy 30-year-old who fled an unhappy home life in Kut recently found work through the shelter, bringing tea to guests in a government ministry. Several others have married men in Sadr City, a Shiite district of Baghdad.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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