Baghdad, 21 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is a cry every foreigner in the Iraqi capital hears every day: "Mister, mister, give me money."
The beggars are children, some as young as five years old. In dirty clothes and unwashed faces, they sell chewing gum or polish shoes or simply ask for money. They speak and swear like adults, and are seemingly afraid of no one.
No one knows how many homeless children there are in Baghdad. They seem to be everywhere, especially in central neighborhoods where foreigners are known to live, near the Sheraton and Palestine hotels.
Iraq's street children are causing concern not only among Muslim religious groups as well as international and Iraqi nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Asmaa Rasheed, a Sunni Arab, is a program manager for the Kurdistan Save the Children Fund (KSC), an NGO that has been operating in northern Iraq since 1991.
The organization opened a Baghdad branch a year ago, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It opened a shelter for street children in the Iraqi capital in November.
"I am 14 years old. My mother [left my father and started living with another man], and my father took us away from our mother and then he started beating us. And then I ran away." -- Kutaiba, a homeless Iraqi boy
Rasheed, a young woman with a shy smile, says her work with KSC is the hardest job she has ever had, but also the most meaningful.
Many of the children she meets have lost their parents during the U.S.-led invasion of the country, or in the near-constant violence that has followed.
But many others were turned out on the street from state-run orphanages that ceased to function after the collapse of the Iraqi regime.
Rasheed says street children have only two alternatives. If they are lucky, they will find someone to care for them. More often, though, they are forced to turn to crime in order to survive.
Rasheed says many homeless children quickly turn to drugs: "One of the most dangerous challenges we face is the fact that most of them are addicts who are sniffing glue, or [vapors] coming from liquids [such as paint], which have large amounts of intoxicants."
Often, Rasheed says, it is drug addiction that leads street children to violence and crime, in order to support their habits.
She says KSC provided shelter to 28 children last autumn. Five have since left, after failing to give up drugs and change their violent behavior.
Rasheed says such children find it hard to give up a life of relative freedom, with no rules or social norms to follow. But she says they are in the minority. Many more children have been forced onto the street and are suffering harsh treatment at the hands of adults -- pushed into criminal rings, or used for sexual slavery.
The mission of KSC and other such groups, says Rasheed, is to "isolate these children from the environment they used to live in and offer them new values."
Akhmad is 12 years old. He tells RFE/RL he has lived on the streets for three years, first in his small hometown and for the past year in Baghdad.
"I lived in Baquba [some 50 kilometers north of Baghdad]. My father left me," Akhmad says. "My mother stayed in Baquba for some time, but later my mother came to Baghdad, leaving me in Baquba. Then I also came to Baghdad and lived near the Sheraton Hotel. I was nine years old [when I started the life of a street child], and now I am 12 years old."
Akhmad says the streets near the big hotels are the best place to earn money. He is reluctant to talk about how he earns money to survive, saying only that he polishes shoes.
Another boy, who gives his last name, Kutaiba, tells a similar story: "I am 14 years old. My mother [left my father and started living with another man], and my father took us away from our mother and then he started beating us. And then I ran away."
Since then, Kutaiba says, he has never seen either of his parents. He left his home in the northwestern town of Ramadi several years ago, and has been begging on the streets of Baghdad ever since.
Kutaiba says the influx of foreigners a year ago has brought him more money. But at the same time, he says, life on the street has grown increasingly violent.
Muhammad is 18 and has been living without parents for 10 years, ever since his stepfather kicked him and a younger brother out of the family home.
Muhammad says he spent several years living in state-run orphanages before the U.S.-led invasion. He says those years were the worst time of his life.
"It was torture, they were starving us to death and the officers used to come in and rape girls in Saddam's time," Muhammad says.
Muhammad says when the Americans came to Iraq, the children left the orphanages and began living on the streets near the hotels where foreigners stay. He says some foreigners were good and gave him money or clothes. Now, he and his younger brother live in a shelter, and say they are happy there.
Children in the shelter have access to computer games and are taught how to write, read, and play music. Occasionally they are taken to cultural centers or a swimming pool. Many of the children say it is the life they have always wanted.
Asmaa Rasheed says that for now she has little possibility to help more children. The KSC shelter is full, and each of its 12-square-meter rooms already houses four children.
But KSC's Baghdad branch is looking to expand its activities. The interim Iraqi government has pledged to give the organization a house for 60 children. The home is now under construction; KSC is slated to move there in two months' time.