Children find safe home next to tanks
Stars and Stripes June 14, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Ever since the war ended, Whejdee Al-Jwad has slept each night beside an M1 Abrams tank outside the Palestine Hotel.
An orphan from Babylon, Al-Jwad, 17, and a half-dozen other street urchins cling to U.S. soldiers pulling security details at the downtown checkpoint.
“We have no other place to go,” Al-Jwad said. “We feel peace when we’re with the soldiers.”
Al-Jwad had a tough life. He’s not sure how his parents died in 1991, when he was just 6 years old. After two years alone on the streets, he was found crying by a man who took him to a Babylon orphanage.
There he learned English.
But the Baath Party had moved into his orphanage, making it a target for U.S. strikes. During the war, when he saw helicopters coming, he ran away, he said.
“When I went back, there was no orphanage,” Al-Jwad said.
He arrived in downtown Baghdad on April 24, with a plan to sell peanuts, he said. He now lives off the generosity of troops, from whom he begs regularly.
“Jo-an, jo-an,” he cries, using the Arabic word for hungry. “Give me money, give me food.”
The next day the plastic toe strap from his flip-flops had torn and he was begging for new shoes.
The boys are at times aggressive and rude, obviously lacking the simple discipline a parent gives a child. Any Westerner passing by is taunted and pounced upon, until a few dinars are dispersed.
During the sun’s hottest hours, and at night, the boys crawl under the tank or sleep in the dirt under camouflage nets. When they sleep peacefully, it is hard for soldiers not to feel sorry for them.
Another teen who hangs around the soldiers is Wisam Simean, 18. He fled his village near Mosul for Baghdad’s streets. Well-groomed and polite, the teen likes to teach the soldiers Arabic and in turn, improve his English.
But as much as Al-Jwad and his motley crew can be more annoying than the mosquitoes that breed in the nearby Tigris River, they often come in handy for the troops.
“They point out the bad folks and help translate,” said Staff Sgt. James Light. “We help them out with a little food and water.”
Even older Iraqis have reasons to hang around the soldiers. Adees Manasarian, 31, who works in a nearby trading office, uses the soldiers for a crash course in English. He writes down the American slang he hears in a small notebook.
“I want to learn more,” Manasarian said. “So I can leave here and go to America.”