Children Work Amidst the Violence Plaguing Iraq

The war in Iraq has taken a toll on that nation's children. Poor families are forcing their children to work. Sometimes child labor is a family's only source of income.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The war in Iraq and the ongoing violence there have taken a predictable toll on the nation's children, some parents keep their children at home missing school and outdoor play for fear of car bombs and kidnappers.

Parents who are less well off are forced to send their children out, some of them, to earn what may be a family's own source of income.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.

COREY FLINTOFF: Mohammad Ibrahim's(ph) father is dead, shot to death on the street two years ago.

Mr. MOHAMMAD IBRAHIM: (Through translator) He went out to get some bread in Sadr city where we used to live. There was fighting between the Americans and the Mehdi Army, and they killed him.

FLINTOFF: Mohammad's mother says it took one bullet to make her a widow.

FLINTOFF: Nirja Saad(ph) was left with no income and two children to feed. She says she had to turn to the oldest one.

Ms. NIRJA SAAD: (Through translator) His father was killed when he was 9 years old. I forced him to give up school and told him to go to work. What can I do? Otherwise, how can we live?

FLINTOFF: She says she hated pulling him out of school. She says Mohammad was a clever boy who loves studying so much that he used to run to class in the morning.

Ms. SAAD: (Through translator) He had to work to support us. It's a bad time. Who can I depend on? He is our man, and he has to take responsibility now.

FLINTOFF: Mohammad's father had been a woodworker so she found the boy a job with one of the father's friends.

Mr. ALI HUSSEN(ph): (Through translator) His mother came to me saying that his father is dead, and asking me to find him a place in my workshop.

FLINTOFF: Ali Hussen is the owner of the furniture shop where Mohammad now works.

Mr. HUSSEN: (Through translator) I told her he was too young to be of help to me, but I accepted him. I noticed that he was clever and caught on fast. He got the job after his first two months.

FLINTOFF: Mohammad, now 11, works six days a week for anywhere from four to seven hours. When the work is plentiful, he's paid as much as three dollars a day. His mother sighs at that.

Ms. SAAD: (Through translator) It's barely enough for our rent. We are living at the lowest level.

FLINTOFF: Kareem Jassem(ph) is the general director at the Ministry of Education. He doesn't approve of child labor, but he says Mohammad is comparatively lucky to have a trade. Many children are forced to make what they can selling cheap items, such as tissues, cigarettes and cold drinks on the street.

Mr. KAREEM JASSEM (General Director, Ministry of Education): (Through translator) That's why you see them in crowded places like intersections or shopping areas. They're out there from early morning until late at night.

FLINTOFF: Jassem says the government doesn't have up to date information because of the violence and turmoil on the city, but figures compiled by an international aid group two years ago, say there were then as many as 110,000 children working here. Jassem says working deprives children of their childhood, education and play.

Mr. JASSEM: (Through translator) The other thing is that they might get let astray, sexual abuse, smoking and drugs, whether for boys or girls. When that happens, they become a danger to society, like time bombs in the streets.

FLINTOFF: Haydar Mohammad(ph) is 15. He says he works in a restaurant near the orphanage where until just a short time ago, he used to live.

Mr. HAYDAR MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) They put us out on the street because they say we've gotten to be adults.

FLINTOFF: He and a group of his friends have come to the Ministry of Education looking for help.

Mr. MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) We want them to hire us in jobs where we can get ahead. If not, we'll go into the streets to join the terrorists, or become robbers.

FLINTOFF: He concedes that he doesn't really expect much help from the ministry. Nirja Saad, the mother of the young woodworker's assistant, says she's tried to get help from the government too, but that the government isn't helping anyone. She expects that her three-year-old will also have to go to work before he's grown.

Ms. SAAD: (Through translator) I just let my younger son learn to read and write, then I'll make him work too.

FLINTOFF: Back at the furniture shop though, her 11-year-old son Mohammad, has bigger ambitions.

MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) I'm going to insist that my brother finish his school. I gave up in fourth grade and I'm sorry I didn't finish. I won't let him quit school.

FLINTOFF: Mohammad goes back to working on a chair that's part of an order from the workshop. He's been a woodworker for two years already. And he says he's getting more skillful at it. What's more? He says he likes the work.

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Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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