The Iraqi Children Foundation strives to provide Iraqi children with hope and love, after enduring abuse, neglect, exploitation and more.
“At the end of the day, children are children. No matter the reason why these children live in poverty, no matter why they’re in the situation they’re in right now, whether through displacement or conflict, the reality is they live in a situation that is pretty horrible and very stressful,” Liz McRae, executive director of the Iraqi Children Foundation said.
“They started by doing blanket collections, gathering money from their friends and really just sending stuff back that way,” McRae said. “From there it grew organically. They decided that they wanted to do more long-term interventions.”
Since then, ICF has become a registered nonprofit in the United States, based in Washington D.C. The organization has grown tremendously through programming that is much more expansive than immediate interventions such as food and clothing relief. They now focus on creating sustainable changes within the country of Iraq.
“Now we’re really focusing on hand-up over handout solutions, empowering local organizations, creating jobs and ultimately the goal of protecting, nurturing and empowering Iraqi children,” McRae said.
This is done through programs that focus on education, social work, mental health support, nutrition and food relief, legal support and more. Since all of these programs have been implemented, ICF has seen a remarkable change.
“The Hope Bus program, which is our big education program in Baghdad, is where orphans and kids working on the streets and other vulnerable children come every day to these big city buses that have been converted into classrooms,” McRae said. “It’s very cool. We tend to have them come for a year. They do remedial English, Arabic and math, basically everything they need to get them up to speed to go to regular school.”
Once the children complete the Hope Bus program they are transitioned into regular school. They range from 6-10 years old. The area these children live in has no schools within a reasonable proximity and there are thousands upon thousands of families living there without any real access to education at all.
“Our partner that works with those kids always says that the change for them begins with the Hope Buses,” McRae said. “They believe when they first come that they’re stupid or that they’re not like other kids because they don’t get to go to school. They can’t read. They can’t write. But when you just go through the simple act of giving them their own school bag, their own shoes, things like that, then they become self-confident and believe they are able to do something for themselves and therefore help their families.”
This program is ever growing and last year, the capacity was increased by 50%. ICF will continue to expand the Hope Bus program for years to come. There are so many children who need this kind of support and more.
After the Iraq war, there were 800,000 orphan children and 1 million displaced. With numbers like that, Iraq has had a long-term ongoing problem with vulnerable children living in camps or in horrific conditions below the poverty line. This is why it is so important to remind people that even years later, Iraq is in need of aid.
“There’s been ongoing conflict for decades in Iraq. The one that is most prevalent to us and probably comes to mind is the war in 2003 but there was conflict long before that,” McRae said. “One of the things that we find happens a lot is during the immediate post-conflict time, international organizations come in with support in many different ways and a lot of money flows in. It’s amazing but then what happens is Iraq will move into this different classification from an international standpoint, which means that a lot of the money gets pulled out because they’re classified as post-immediate aftermath.”
When this happens, unfortunately many people will leave whatever they’ve started and not commit whole-heartedly to helping Iraq, seeing as they’re no longer considered an immediate post-conflict area. Since money is no longer flowing in like it was, many buildings and clinics will sit there empty, even though there are communities who desperately need them. This is where ICF comes in, as they will use these resources and fund them to get them up and running for communities to benefit from. They work to make sure focus remains on Iraq.
“I think people struggle with Iraq fatigue a bit,” McRae said. “You know, people have new focuses. I think in an ideal world where everyone can just help everybody then I’m sure many people would still want to support Iraq. It’s just not at the front of people’s minds like other issues are today. We encourage people to help elsewhere because we know there are big problems everywhere and everyone is deserving. I think for us it’s just a case of reminding people that there is an ongoing need here.”
Another continuous issue occurring in Iraq is human trafficking. ICF works with a legal team to provide a multitude of services to vulnerable kids, giving them representation in court, dealing with legal documents and more. When the organization noticed the rise in trafficking, they put together a program in which certain staff members are dedicated to these issues alone. In addition to their efforts, the Iraqi government has really cracked down on organ trafficking within the past year. Even with the massive amount of aid that ICF has given Iraq, all of these reoccurring problems take a mental toll on Iraqi citizens, especially children.
The Iraqi Children Foundation funds one center for girls in Mosul and is in the process of building their second. A big part of it is the mental health support. A lot of these girls have been displaced and have lost their parents in conflict. Many of them struggle with denial.
“When I was there, I was talking to one girl in particular, she was probably 12. She was explaining that her dad’s gone away but she doesn’t know when he’s coming back and that’s really stressful to her. Odds are, he’s been killed during conflict but it’s really hard to help her process that thought. It’s awfully sad. You have anxiety there, you have depression,” McRae said.
Many girls will come to the center for help in the afternoon but will work all night. The mothers are generally at home, some with up to 13 children. This prevents the eldest daughters from going to school because they need to work to provide for their families. So, there are some substantial challenges in the mental health space concerning these girls and getting them to believe that they can have a good life. ICF helps them to achieve that “good life,” whatever that may be for the girls.
“For a country where a lot of people have experienced trauma, there’s not a lot of mental health support,” McRae said. “So, we have a therapist who is from the United States who is Iraqi-American and she is providing ongoing support to our staff every day, to help them learn how to deal with different types of cases, to equip them to help the girls and that has been really effective.”
The Iraqi Children Foundation has been determined to be the voice for children with no voice. Being involved in this organization has changed McRae and many others for the better.
“I think, certainly, it’s a good lesson in constant compassion and empathy to see what happens to especially women in Iraq. To see how generational trauma can impact you for the rest of your life. The women there, in Iraq, go through so much,” McRae said. “It gives me a huge amount of gratitude toward what I have access to. It’s easy to take things like education for granted, to take our rights for granted. It’s very humbling to work with such amazing team members there.”
ICF really focuses on hiring women to empower them. They have female lawyers, social workers, volunteers and more who work so hard to see Iraq succeed. Despite what the rest of the world may think of Iraq and Iraqis, these people get up every single day and aim to make a change. With that, ICF is working to shift the outside perception of Iraq.
“Like anything, there is fear of the unknown. You’ll see one thing on TV or in movies and things but like everything, it’s just about exposure to what the reality is. Due to conflict, there are so many Iraqis all over the world and one of the coolest things about them is that they try to bring their culture wherever they go. Just getting to know them and hearing their stories, I think, would change people’s perception,” McRae said.
ICF shares their success stories as well to ensure that the rest of the world sees their projects are helping real people. These are not just hypotheticals. Knowing that this organization is really making a difference causes a massive shift in perception and urges others to help. What is most helpful to the Iraqi Children Foundation is fundraisers, which anyone can hold anywhere in the world. They strongly encourage people to spread their message and get others to donate so they are able to fund their programs for the children. There is a monthly giving option on their website as well as a one-time donation page and they suggest that if you are employed by a large company, to see if they are willing to participate in corporate matching. That way, your donation is doubled.
Check out their website and spread the word about the Iraqi Children Foundation, to build a better future for vulnerable Iraqi children.