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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For the second year in a row, the Iraqi government is observing what it calls the week of the children. In some parts of the country this means concerts and recitals. In others the week will pass unmarked, with thousands of children orphaned, in poverty and out of school.

For Baghdad, NPR's Jamie Tarabay has the story of one group of children trying to make ends meet.

Ms. NISMA MERZA: (Arabic spoken)

BAHA: (Arabic spoken)

JAMIE TARABAY: Baha is 11 years old and getting ready for school. After throwing a jacket over his thin gray shirt and trousers, he looks around for a belt. His day began hours earlier. He's just back from collecting cans in the streets of Baghdad. His face is dirty and there's dust on his long eyelashes. He asks his grandmother, Nisma Merza, where his belt is.

BAHA: (Arabic spoken)

TARABAY: While rummaging through drawers, Merza curses Baha's mother. She left Baha and his siblings and ran off with another man after their father was imprisoned. The children, all seven of them, ranging in age from six to 16, now live with their grandmother. She's had to resort to crafty entrepreneurialism to keep her household running.

Ms. MERZA: (Through translator) They go out and collect empty soda cans, aluminum pots, metal, and sell them at the market.

TARABAY: She sends them out to work every morning. When they get home, they change for school. After classes, Baha goes back to work at a kebab shop until eight in the evening. And when he comes home, he tries to concentrate on homework.

Mr. RIYADHH HASSAN: (Arabic spoken)

Ms. MERZA: (Arabic spoken)

TARABAY: The only other adult in the house is Merza's 56-year-old son, Riyadhh Hassan, a watchmaker with an alcohol problem.

Mr. HASSAN: (Through translator) You asked about her grandsons. Some of them collect cans. Some of them beg on the streets too. They asked people for money. It's not shameful to do that because even God tells people in the Koran to be kind to beggars.

TARABAY: The sight of dirty children pressed up against car windows at traffic intersections is as common here as the permanent layer of dust that blankets every surface, every statue and every bridge in the city. Children take advantage of the multiple checkpoints that slow traffic along Baghdad's main streets to hawk every thing from Kleenex tissues to cigarettes and chewing gum. Others stand along the sides of the road, selling black market gasoline. There's no one to tell them to go home or to go to school.

(Soundbite of bicycle shop)

TARABAY: Assam Thafir runs a bicycle shop in Zafaraniya, close to Nisma Merza and her brood.

Mr. ASSAM THAFIR: (Through translator) I tell them why don't you go to school, and they say no school would accept us. They mingle with the wrong people now, and they teach them bad things, you know. I don't have to tell you.

TARABAY: Part of Iraqi tradition obligates relatives to take in orphaned or abandoned children rather than put them into orphanages. The government says it has only 700 children in its institutions, even though the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs says there are more than four million orphans in the country.

Abeer Chalabi heads the state orphanages section at the ministry.

Ms. ABEER CHALABI (Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs): (Through translator) The number maybe true or a little bit exaggerated, but to have so many is a catastrophe.

TARABAY: She says she led a campaign after the U.S. invasion to gather street children and place them in government institutions, but that program has now been abandoned. With a government in disarray and a society damaged from years of war, Chalabi says it's the children who pay the greatest price.

Ms. CHALABI: (Through translator) If you look at the international convention for the protection of children's rights, to which Iraq is a signatory, I just wonder how many articles of that convention the government has put into practice. I'm sure the answer is none.

TARABAY: Back at his grandmother's home, Baha slowly finishes getting ready for school. He earns around $2 a day selling cans. His drunken uncle calls him lazy and wants him to drop out of school. But Baha says he'll keep going to classes, even as he juggles two jobs and homework.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: NPR's Isra al Rubaie contributed to this report.

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