Letter from Mother Teresa orphanage in Baghdad

The smiles and happy greetings I receive each time I return to volunteer at the orphanage run by Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa in Baghdad are rewarding. Quar Quar reaches out to grab me and doesn't want to let go. Amil wants the usual kisses and full attention. Heider beams from his chair.

Fans hum and help to keep the room from being too stifling in the midsummer heat. One of the Iraqi volunteers helps Ahmid hold a bottle to feed baby Rana. Today I catch the names of two of the five or six newer children at the orphanage. Haifa and Azma are sisters and both share a similar condition - smaller han normal heads and mental retardation - but with smiles that hook you in.

Haifa, the older one, walks, holding onto the chairs and tables, and comes up to meet me. She loves to clap and dance as I hold her hands and sing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jocqolina also swaying to the music, and other faces light up. With the gifts of new handicapped furniture, more of the children sit in chairs, so I miss playing catch and their rolling around on the huge mat. I also miss teasing 15 year-old Allah, one of the few children here who could talk. I find out that one of the US soldiers that used to visit the orphanage a year ago, arranged to take Allah to the US for therapy.

I see the biggest change with Nurah, the three-year-old girl, normal mentally but with only stubs for arms and legs. She gets up into a sitting position and then with a slight wiggle and a wobble, scoots around on the floor. At one point that morning, she wanted a toy that Haifa had, and made loud complaints in Arabic. Later I was amazed to see Nurah, laying in her large crib-bed, looking at a picture book, deftly turning the pages back and forth with the two toes on her tiny right foot.

She showed no signs of being aware of me standing there watching her, but as soon as I walked away to talk and play with other children, she called out, "Peggy," the first time I remember her voicing my name. As I left the building and started walking toward the fruit and vegetable market on my way home, I felt grateful for the love and joy I receive from these children. Each time I return to Iraq, they have grown and changed, just as each time the situation for the Iraqi people has changed.

As with the children, it is important to look beneath the appearance of things to see not just a society handicapped and stunted from years of oppressive dictatorship, sanctions and wars, or burdened by the current hardships and violence. When Iraqis open up windows into their lives and struggles, we experience their basic love and goodwill and find hope as we see them creatively move forward in spite of horrendous adversity.

Peggy is a volunteer with the Christian Peacemaker Team - an ecumenical violence-reduction programme in which teams of trained peace workers live in areas of conflict around the world. CPT has been present in Iraq since October, 2002. For more information see: www.cpt.org.

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