One night last winter in Baghdad, Tamara Quinn stumbled on a lump in the snow on her way back to the Green Zone, the heavily guarded area where U.S. occupation authorities live and work. Upon closer inspection, she realized the lump was a sleeping boy who looked to be around 12 years old. His only possession was a small blanket. Quinn - who was born in Iraq and lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee - was in Iraq wrapping up her work for the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council.
Unsure what to do, Quinn contacted some American soldiers in the Green Zone and asked if anyone knew the boy's story. Where was his mother? Why was he sleeping in the street?
Some of the soldiers told Quinn they'd noticed the boy outside for a couple of nights. They believed him to be an orphan, but for security reasons they couldn't do anything to help him. They feared he could possibly be a young insurgent, carrying a bomb.
Since Quinn wasn't under military supervision, she decided to help the boy. After checking him for bombs, she brought him onto the base. The boy told Quinn his mother was working in Saddam Hussein's former palace. After checking records, Quinn discovered he was lying.
When confronted, the boy admitted that he didn't know where his parents were. He had once lived in a state-run orphanage, but after the fall of Saddam, someone had simply opened the orphanage doors and the kids scattered, left to survive as best they could on Baghdad's deadly streets.
Quinn took the boy under her wing and convinced an Iraqi judge to draft documents to create a name for him so he would be adoptable. The boy, who became known as Hassan, had found a new life.
And Tamara Quinn had found her life's mission.
A Changed Outlook
Quinn, who had formerly worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority as a fuel buyer, returned to the U.S. determined to do something to help her native land. "The whole experience [of working with the CPA] changed my outlook on life," says Quinn. "I decided to dedicate my time to helping Iraqis."
Quinn became a director with the Spirit of America, a national nonprofit organization that connects charity projects in Iraq and Afghanistan with American donors. Through Spirit of America, she began working on a project that partners American schools with Iraqi schools, allowing the children to e-mail one another and American students to send school supplies to needy schools in Iraq.
But Quinn's experience with Hassan left her determined to do something specifically for the Iraqi orphans. She soon enlisted the help of friends in Iraq - and her son in Memphis, William Alexander.
Alexander, who earned an economics degree from Rhodes College in 2003, worked with Habitat for Humanity while in college and discovered he enjoyed helping others. He became an enthusiastic participant in his mother's work.
Together, Quinn and Alexander set up the Iraqi Orphans Project, a national charitable organization based in Memphis to fund two orphanages, one in Baghdad with 50 children and another in Basra that houses 150 children. Alexander handles the fund-raising. Quinn's friends in Iraq oversee the orphanages. Alexander, who also directs the project, says there are now about 5,000 orphaned children wandering the streets of Baghdad. Funds once used for state-run orphanages under Saddam's rule are being used to train and support troops for the war, he says, leaving the orphans with no place to go and no one to care for them.
Food, Water, Shelter, and Fun
Helping Iraqi orphans is worthwhile for a number of reasons, not the least of which is saving the lives of Americans. Orphaned Iraqi children are among the most likely candidates for recruitment into the insurgency, Alexander says. Many orphans blame America for the death of their parents.
"If they don't have anybody to help them understand the situation better, they grow up with all this hate," Alexander continues. "When you're under 20, you tend to be really passionate, even if you don't know why. We want to simmer that down and help open their eyes."
The first step is providing the children with a home. So far, the Iraqi Orphans Project has raised approximately $7,000.
"Our main focus is to provide housing, food, and clean water," says Alexander. "We're also trying to raise money to renovate a building so we can expand the project."
Iraqi Orphans Project funds have also been used to construct a well in Baghdad. "Up until about two months ago, the kids were going to the Tigris River to wash up. It's full of disease and nastiness," says Alexander. "We built the well, and we now have truckloads of clean water coming in. And we've set up a cooling system."
The project also funds activities for the orphans. "They're kids, so you have to make sure you're giving them a childhood," explains Alexander. "We sent them some CDs and CD players, and that really brought smiles to their faces." Alexander says the group also plans to send some Slip-n-Slides soon to help the children get through the steaming Baghdad summer.
Looking to the Future
Since the project's orphanages are filled to capacity, Alexander says his group would eventually like to get some of the children adopted by American families, but Iraqi cultural laws prohibit non-Muslims from adopting Muslim children.
"We're trying to find a way to make everybody happy," says Alexander. "Right now, we're focusing on the kids called the Lakeet children. They have been shunned by their culture because they are illegitimate."
One of the project's long-term goals is to provide programs to teach kids about diversity and acceptance. Alexander says they'd like to send some kids from Basra up north to gain a better understanding of the Kurdish people.
But diversity training may have to wait on more practical concerns. Project volunteers in Iraq recently learned that one of the state-run orphanages in Baghdad is closing due to a lack of funds. It holds about 150 orphans, and the Iraqi Orphans Project is trying to help. The rent is $700 a month. Alexander says it's paid through August.
"We've raised enough for this month, but we have no funds for the future," Alexander says. "We honestly weren't prepared for this. I had just spent all of our donations on our project's orphanages when I found out."
Alexander says his group needs $10,000 to keep the orphanage running for a year.
"We will find the money," he says. "Homelessness is not an option for these kids."
The Iraqi Orphans Project will continue to support the three orphanages until the Iraqi government is financially stable enough to take them over. Alexander believes that could be a long time.
"I would hope that after they get the security measures taken care of, they will deal with social concerns," says Alexander. "Obviously, water and electricity will be the first priorities, but you just can't let kids run around in the streets." n
For more information on
the Iraqi Orphans Project:
Or call 800-691-2209.