Baghdad locals are proving that charity begins at home, with several small businesses and mosques in the Iraqi capital offering goods and services for free or at a reduced rate to refugees from extremist violence
A sign hangs above the door to the bakery in central Baghdad: “Those who cannot afford it will receive donations of bread,” it reads.
Until this week, it was Ramadan in the Middle East which means that practicing Muslims won’t eat or drink until after sunset when friends and family have the celebratory Iftar meal together, breaking the fast undertaken during each day of the month of Ramadan.
And there was one tired looking woman in dishevelled clothing waiting in the queue at the bakery to get her bread for Iftar. She stood in the queue with all the other Baghdadis and when she got to the counter she was given ten loaves of bread. She thanked the bakery owner, put them in her bag and left. Nobody else in the shop noticed that she had not paid.
A loaf of bread costs about IQD200 on average (around US$0.17) and outside the shop, the tried woman, who calls herself Umm Abdullah, tells NIQASH that she could actually afford to buy bread. But she’s originally from the province of Anbar and she and her family left there when the province cane under the control of Sunni Muslim forces –including tribal groups and some extremist groups - who had nothing to do with the Iraqi government. Fearing violence, Umm Abdullah and her family came to Baghdad where they have relatives.
“I could afford to buy bread for my children,” she admits. “But saving on bread allows me to buy other necessities, which I couldn’t otherwise afford.”
“It’s not just a banner on the door,” says the bakery owner, Hassan Saleh Joma. “We hung this banner years ago when we first opened but we still believe in it. There are some people who cannot afford to buy bread despite the cheap prices.”
And the numbers of those people are rising, Hassan says. “It’s quite normal to see bread being given away for free especially during Ramadan. And there are a lot of bakeries in Baghdad who give bread away for free to those who need it. But now there are so many more poor and displaced people in Baghdad. ”
Many of Hassan’s customers also donate bread. They buy extra loaves and leave them at the bakery for those who need it to pick up. Others buy extra bread and give it out themselves.
“I buy bread for my own family for IQD1,000 [US$0.85] and then I buy another IQD1,000 worth of bread for the displaced family who live next door to us,” says another of Hassan’s customers, Mohammed.
This kind of initiative isn’t just limited to bread sales either. Nor is it sectarian in nature; refugees from the violence can avail themselves of the free or reduced goods and services on offer, no matter what sect they belong to, or their ethnicity, say locals.
At the Omar al-Mukhtar mosque in Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighbourhood, the cleric has launched a charity drive, collecting donations that can be distributed to displaced people. The mosque is currently filled with donations – food, mattresses and bedding and even some electrical appliances as well as two separate boxes, one of which is for donations and the other one for medicines.
“We had thought that this crisis would end, we didn’t think it would last longer than a month,” says Mohammed Ibrahim, one of the volunteers that goes out to collect and then distribute the donations. “But it has not ended and there doesn’t seem to have been any progress made. So we decided to keep the initiative going.”
Hundreds of people have come to the mosque seeking help and they come from the length and breadth of the country, from northern Ninawa to western Anbar. The mosque also distributes aid to the refugees from Syria that have ended up in Baghdad.
“We have come here every day to pick up meals and we’ve been able to help a lot of the displaced families with daily needs as well as furniture and medicine,” Abdul Karim al-Ani, a displaced person from Anbar province, says.
In the same neighbourhood, the owner of a travel agency specialising in religious tourism is also collecting donations for displaced Iraqis and refugee Syrians.
“It wasn’t a difficult thing to do,” says the agency owner, Jamal al-Jibour. “I put out a box with a sign on it saying that I am collecting donations for displaced people. Visitors and clients give what they can. And regardless of what is in the box, we distribute the money to those who need it at the end of the day. We know a lot of the families who have come to this area personally and we have someone to supervise the donations.”
In the Saidiya neighbourhood, in southern Baghdad, a small barber shop boasts a new sign. “Price of a haircut for new visitors is IQD5,000”, it says – the phrase “new visitors” is code for displaced people.
“The normal price for a haircut is IQD10,000 [US$8.50] but we are reducing it to half price to help Iraq’s internal refugees,” says Ahmad Saeed, the owner of the barber shop. “We can’t donate money because we have limited means ourselves. But reducing the prices allows us to make a contribution and at the same time, we earn a little more because we are working overtime. In our business we can’t offer much but we can offer this.”
The United Nations Mission in Iraq, or UNAMI, estimates that there are over a million internally displaced people in Iraq now who have fled their homes due to security concerns caused by the loss of government control over parts of northern and western Iraq. The Iraqi government in Baghdad has created a committee to allocate funds to help the country’s internal refugees but as yet there don’t seem to be any simple mechanisms that will allow the money to reach those in need – especially because many of the people are living outside of actual refugee camps and would not benefit from aid.