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Iraqi Children Find Solace In Cultural Center

In Iraq, children have often been the overlooked victims of violence. Thousands have been killed and many more have borne witness to the tragedies of war.

In one summer school, children are finding some respite and healing from what they have seen and suffered.

They act out the scene of a play where everyone is happy, then, suddenly, there is an imaginary car bombing. Many of these kids have experienced the horrors of war firsthand.

"I saw a man killed in front of me," says Omar Khalid, 12. "Everyday, we would see gunmen riding their cars, and we were afraid they might shoot us."

He whispers that his uncle was murdered by a militia, and his best friend was kidnapped.

"We come here to have fun and forget about that," Khalid says.

Memories Of Fear And Sadness

The once violent Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour is home to the new children's cultural center. One hundred children attend its free summer camp, where they do theater, practice art and play music for four hours a day, four days a week.

The center opened recently for the first time since the invasion.

Most of the center's children — whose ages range from 6 to 14 — do not remember a time before the bombings and carnage came to Iraq. Their first real memories, they say, are of fear and sadness.

Samar Jasib's father, a printer, was kidnapped in 2006. Later, she and her family were forced out of their neighborhood by insurgents. She never feels safe anymore. She says Baghdad has become a city filled with shadows.

Jasib, 12, is poised until she talks about her life in Baghdad.

"I have nightmares sometimes, and I have shortness of breath," Jasib says. "I often feel panic. I am always expecting that someone will attack our house at any moment."

Jasib's mother, Zahra al Jubouri, runs the summer program, so she says she knows firsthand how much the children need a respite.

"The depression suffered by Iraqi children is enormous," Jubouri says. "We try to ease their pains. Even if we manage to ease a small portion of their sadness, it is something."

Most parents, Jubouri says, do not allow their children to play outdoors. For years, many of these kids have been shut up at home after school, unable to go out and visit friends.

"The Iraqi children have been kept from public parks and outdoor spaces," she says. "Families have not taken them out because they are afraid. They have been deprived of theater, the movies, football, everything. I'm trying to make this place fun for them."

A place, Jubouri says, with few reminders of the dangers that still lurk outside the doors.

"I have tried here in all possible ways to ban depictions of guns or tanks," she says. "I do not allow children to bring toys in the shape of weapons. I am trying to stop terrorism from infiltrating our children. If they play with those toys now, they could use them for real when they grow up."

Imagination And Self-Expression

In the drawing room, young children paint pastoral scenes in electric colors — palm trees sprouting rainbows, stick-figure families standing outside of block-like houses.

Saheel Hassan Abdalmun'am, 8, has named her drawing "The spring."

"These are children — they are playing," Abdalmun'am says of her artwork. "This is a tree, this is the sun, this is a house and a man."

Jubouri says she wants the children to feel hopeful here.

"I want them to feel optimistic about their future," Jubouri says. "I want them to draw from their imagination. They can choose the subject that they want and the material, too."

Many of the works are joyful bursts of self-expression, but the children also get to address their darker experiences.

Back at the rehearsal, the play is ending. After the scene of the car bombing, a young girl comes on stage and draws a question mark.

Rusol Nawfal, 11, says her role is a simple one.

"I draw that [question mark] in order to ask why — why are my friends getting killed?" Nawfal says matter-of-factly. "This is a play, but it's also reality because there are children playing on the streets and car bombs do kill them. We have not enjoyed our childhood. We stay at home and watch cartoons, if we have electricity. If we don't have electricity, we either sleep or sit around the house.

She starts to cry and walks away. A teacher says her father has just been killed.

The rehearsal starts again, and Nawfal walks back on stage. The play poses the question, but gives the children no answers.

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