‘Second chance at life’: This rehabilitation center provides mental health care to orphaned children in Iraq

Decades of war and violence have left many children orphaned in Iraq. There have been different kinds of initiatives to help them, but efforts often focus on the basics. Now, one group is trying to fill an important void by providing mental health care for traumatized children.

The World

At the Luminous Stars center in Baghdad, families in need arrive every month to collect financial assistance. 

While they’re there, mental health care workers take the opportunity to assess the children, many of whom have been traumatized by decades of war in the country — and have suffered the loss of one or both parents. 

“Children who come to Luminous Stars, they are basically given a second chance at life,” said Kawther Hamed, a volunteer doctor at the center, in a video posted online. “These children, generally, if you’re in a state where you are quite traumatized or affected to a severe degree by the circumstances that you are in, you may be neglected, you may be overlooked by society just because it’s too complex to deal with.”

According to a 2021 report by the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, there are 5 million orphaned children in the country. That number includes those who have lost only one parent, usually the father.

And while rebuilding efforts in the country often focus on housing and food, mental health is often overlooked, especially for children — one of the most-vulnerable segments of the population.

Luminous Stars — known locally as Anjum Zahira — is hoping to fill some gaps through its mental health rehabilitation center, which serves around 3,000 orphaned youth.

The center falls under the larger umbrella of the Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation, which was founded in Iraq in 2006 — several years after the US-led invasion of the country. Al-Ayn helps orphaned children and displaced families, and it expanded after the onslaught of ISIS, which left many more children orphaned.

“The idea of starting a rehabilitation center began in 2014 after one of the female orphans died by suicide.”

Haidar Mezhar Khalaf, psychological practitioner, Luminous Stars

Haidar Mezhar Khalaf, a psychological practitioner at Luminous Stars, said that “the idea of starting a rehabilitation center began in 2014 after one of the female orphans died by suicide.”

The incident highlighted the urgency of addressing the psychological needs of the children, he said.

The Luminous Stars center in Baghdad, Aug. 28, 2023.Sara Hassan/The World

“So, we started using cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT] and launched a medical program under the supervision of Dr. Saleh Dhumad based in London.”

Due to the sensitive nature of protecting the privacy of the children and the families seeking assistance, The World was not able to speak to the center’s clientele directly.

A holistic approach

The observations to assess the children usually happen at the soft play areas, which are colorful indoor playgrounds designed with soft and padded materials. Initial assessments are done while the kids are playing, so that they don’t feel stigmatized or like they are being evaluated at a hospital.

“There is a psychological researcher who stays with them in the room to educate people on how to recognize if their kids need psychological help,” Khalaf said. “The same person also observes the kids while they are playing to see which children are isolating themselves or being aggressive. We then send them over to the rehabilitation center.”

Ali Hassanali, executive director of Al-Ayn USA based in New York, explains in an online video that their setup is about protecting a child’s dignity, to “not make him or her feel vulnerable, that they are being judged, and give them a sense of belonging, that they’re just here to play.” 

The layout, he goes on to say, is deliberate; some areas are high or low, or lit or dark.

“You’ll notice towards the back there is no lighting there, right? So, the idea here is to evaluate, are they afraid of the dark maybe? And so, many other psychological evaluations happen in order to find out exactly what that child is suffering through, so that we can essentially provide them the targeted services that they need.”

Assessments usually take place at soft play areas while the children are playing so they don’t feel stigmatized. Screenshot of Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation video.Courtesy of Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation

Melad Ali is another psychological practitioner at the Baghdad center and said that they mostly focus on the children, but taking a holistic approach, they also provide support for the mothers.

“Most of these families live with other relatives who sometimes interfere when it comes to raising the kids,” she said. “They also blame the mothers and that can lead to them taking out their frustrations on the children.”

The Luminous Stars centers, known locally as Anjum Zahira, provide mental health rehabilitation services for orphaned children across Iraq.Courtesy of Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation

One thing the center is trying to do is break stereotypes and taboos around seeking care for mental health. Ali said that the families who come to Luminous Stars know they are in a safe space and are willing to accept the help.

The center also offers vocational training to help children transition into adulthood when they’re older — including lessons in hairdressing, cellphone repair, IT skills and catering, among many other skills — that can help them earn a decent living later.

The Luminous Stars center in Baghdad, Iraq, provides vocational training for orphaned children, including lessons in hairdressing, cellphone repair, IT skills and catering, among many other skills.Courtesy of Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation

Expanding services

The Al-Ayn foundation has offices around the world to support its efforts on the ground.

It has expanded its offices to Europe, the US and Australia, allowing it to tap into funding from Iraqis and other Arabs and Muslims living abroad.

Children can take part in the various vocational training services provided by the Luminous Stars centers.Courtesy of Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation

Currently, the Luminous Stars center in Baghdad is the one that is fully operational, but there are two others operating at satellite locations, and there are plans to create at least 12 more centers across the country.

There are plans to build at least 12 more Luminous Stars centers across Iraq.Courtesy of Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation

Hassanali from the New York office said that they’ve also amended some of their language to refer to the kids as “orphaned children” instead of “orphans,” as a reminder that they are not a product of their circumstances.

“We want to make sure that whatever trauma, whatever difficulty that the child went through in the past, to have it never play a part in dictating the child’s future.”

Enas Razak Ibrahim contributed to this report.

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