IDLIB — On the morning of August 23, 2019, Mahmoud woke to the cries of a baby coming from just outside his house. He hurried outside to find a baby—no more than eight months old—swaddled in white blankets on the doorstep of the town’s mosque. A bag of clothes was left next to the baby, along with a note: “She is an orphan from Khan Sheikhoun and needs medical care.”
“[My wife] and I gave the child medical treatment and now she’s in good health,” Mahmoud, a man in his fifties living in the town of al-Khowary in Idlib province, said. “She was quite sick due to the weather.”
The abandonment of newborns is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in Syria, mainly due to extreme poverty. Mothers have left their children—some only hours or days old—at the doorsteps of mosques, in public parks, or even on the side of the road to be taken into the care of locals who stumble upon them.
According to a June 22, 2019 report from Syrians for Truth and Justice, there was an “alarming increase in the number of newborns being abandoned in Idlib and northern rural Aleppo.” The report warned that these abandoned infants “will be denied the rights to education and nationality, [and] will be rejected by society,” due to their lack of civil registration by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-run Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib province and lack of access to government-controlled areas.
According to a governmental source, as of March 2018, around 300 cases of abandoned children were recorded in Damascus since 2011. Today, the Justice Department receives one child every two months on average.
21 documented cases in Idlib
The baby girl found by Mahmoud in al-Khowary is just one of the 21 infants who were abandoned in Idlib province during 2018 and the first half of 2019. SIRAJ documented and verified eachcase for this report, noting the sex of the infant, as well as the time and place they were found. Three of the documented abandoned infants, however, were dead by the time they were found.
According to Muhammad al-Hallaj, the director of the Syrian humanitarian organization, Response Coordination Group, between four to eight cases of abandoned infants are recorded in Idlib province each month.
Idlib, along with the western countryside of Aleppo province, is the last opposition stronghold in Syria and is currently controlled by HTS. The province’s population was 165,000 in 2011, according to official statistics; today it stands at around four million, a result of various de-escalation agreements that transferred those unwilling to accept the terms of settlement and reconciliation agreements with the government to northwest Syria.
However, since the second half of 2019, Syrian government forces and its allied militias have carried out a fierce military campaign on Idlib province, capturing Khan Sheikhoun, Maarat al-Numan and Saraqeb, among other cities and towns. This latest military escalation has displaced around 875,000 people—most of them women and children—between December 1, 2019 and February 17, 2020, according to the UN OCHA spokesman, David Swanson.
Girl in the rubble
Just outside the town of Salqin in Idlib province, Sara, a 10-year-old girl, began to scream for the Syrian Civil Defense (also known as the White Helmets) after she spotted a baby girl wrapped in a piece of cotton among the rubble of a demolished building.
“There! She’s over there,” Sara screamed, pointing at the baby. Her sister spotted the baby as well and began to scream in horror.
Sara and her sister were on a walk around the neighborhood when they came across the baby nestled between pieces of debris. Fortunately, the girl—less than a month old—was still alive when they found her, unlike many other abandoned infants who died before they could be found by a passerby. Many children are abandoned in the late hours of the night and only found in the morning—but by then it is too late.
Khaled Rahhal also found a newborn outside his home in Salqin while he was on his way to morning prayers.
A child or a piece of cloth?
Rahhal rushed the baby to a nearby hospital, where he was treated by the attending doctor. The baby, estimated to be no older than five hours, was kept under observation for 48 hours due to his poor health.
“After he was released from the hospital, I took him home with me,” Rahhal said. “My sister has been taking care of him.”
Abu Khaled al-Khatib, a thirty-year-old resident of Salqin, found a newborn girl in front of a home downtown.
“At the time, I couldn’t believe that a girl was lying there in the street,” al-Khatib said. “At first, I thought she was just a piece of cloth, as there was no crying. We immediately took her to a clinic to get her treatment, as the weather is cold here.”
Al-Khatib continued, saying that the girl lives now with a family who, after giving her a name, treats her like one of their own despite the fact that she has been unable to obtain official identity papers, when his wife angrily cut him off. “I’m the one who is in charge of feeding and raising her! She’s going to be one of my children,” she said.
“She will stay with us,” al-Khatib said. “We will register her as one of our children after a few years when there’s no hope of knowing who her parents are.”
“Of course, I will register her locally but not in the official civil registry, since we live in the liberated territories [under control of the opposition] and we cannot travel to the regime-controlled areas,” he said.
Ahmad al-Suha from Idlib city faces the same situation. He also stumbled across an abandoned infant left in front of a mosque in April 2019. He immediately took the boy into his care.
Al-Suha put out an ad in an attempt to find the boy’s family, but no response came. “My wife and I decided to adopt him; we named him Omar,” he said. “He has become one of my children and I am going to make sure that he is afforded all of his rights, like the rest of his siblings, in terms of his upbringing, education and even inheritance [in Islamic law, inheritance only goes to blood relatives and spouses].”
Al-Suha and his family are not the only ones to take in children that they’ve found by chance. Khaled Jarjanazi, a man from the Jabal Zawiya area in Idlib province, also took in a baby he had found with his son and brother on their way home. They found the baby alone, placed in a half-open piece of luggage left at the entrance of their village.
“When we moved the bag, we heard a baby crying; it was probably just a few weeks old,” Jarjanazi said. “I notified the police of the incident. They began conducting medical tests on the child.”
Since then, Jarjanazi and his wife decided to take care of the baby girl. However, he has not been able to register her with the civil authorities or obtain identity papers for her.
Poverty is the origin of problem
Noor al-Salem, a human rights activist in Idlib province, attributes the recent increase in the abandonment of children to “poverty and early marriages,” as well as to “illegitimate relationships and the exploitation of women.”
Further, the types of marriages in northern Syria can be a contributing factor to the abandonment of children and their inability to obtain official registration papers.
“Marriage cases in the north are divided into two types,” Hallaj said. “The first is the marriage between two Syrians. In this type of case the abandoned child would be of unknown parentage. As for the second group of marriages, Syrians marry foreigners and are not granted identification documents for their children or registered in the civil registry.”
Based on interviews conducted for this report, those mothers who had left their babies on the streets and in public places seemed to be forced to do so due to extreme poverty.
With little support from local organizations, some mothers have no other option but to abandon their children, with the hope of being taken in by a better caregiver than the mother, said Umm Yousef, a woman in her thirties originally from the countryside of Homs province in central Syria, who had to give up her baby.
Poverty and destitution are particularly severe when the husband is absent. In Saraqib, a city in Idlib province, a widowed mother named Hana (a pseudonym), laid her infant child in front of a medical facility and walked away.
In a private interview, Hana, a high school graduate, said she was displaced from the northern Hama countryside with her husband in 2017. Her husband was in the ranks of a military faction and died fighting government forces on September 10, 2018. She stayed in Idlib while attempting to reconnect with her family in the northern Hama countryside but was unable to reach them.
Three months after her husband’s death, Hana went to a free maternity clinic and gave birth to a boy. Soon after, she was forced to marry another man to support her and abandon her child.
She placed him in front of a clinic and watched him from a distance until he was picked up by a guard.
She described the experience as “one of the hardest moments; a mother leaving behind a part of herself after carrying it for nine months. The conditions we live in during the war and the unbearable poverty mean the child’s living conditions might be bad because I’m unable to fulfill our most basic daily needs.”
She added that abandoning her child is the “worst possible situation a mother could be in.”
Hana’s child is about nine months old today, according to her estimate. She hopes he is healthy. “My circumstances won’t allow me to take care of him and raise him. All I hope is for a day to come when I can meet my child again in a better setting,” she said. “I hope that the family that took the child raises him well and provides him with daily necessities, and that my case is the last one where mothers are exposed to these harsh conditions.”
But similar conditions were precisely what prompted Umm Yousef to also give up her baby. She lived with her mother in a displacement camp in Saraqib before marrying a member of one of Idlib’s armed opposition factions. He died a year and a half later, leaving Umm Yousef six months pregnant, alone and at a loss about what to do next.
She had no idea how she would provide for the child, or raise a newborn who would never know their father or relatives, she said. “Giving birth was one of the hardest moments, bringing a child into this cruel world. I had no other choice but to leave him in front of one of the mosques and watch over him while another family picked him up. After that, I left the city and headed towards the camps near the Turkish border.”
She has lived separated from her baby for nearly a year now and doesn’t know where he is. All she knows is that by being away from him, she is missing a part of herself.
According to Article 485 of the Syrian Penal Code, those who abandon their children will be imprisoned for a period of up to 15 years.
The law reduces the sentence for the child’s mother if she does this “compulsively or to protect her honor [in the case of pregnancy and childbearing outside of marriage].”
According to the first article of the Legislative Decree No. 107 of May 1970, a foundling child is defined as a “child who was found and whose parents are not known.”
However, there is room for legal ambiguity, as Syrian law makes a distinction between foundling children and those whose parents are unknown. In the former, it’s assumed that the father is Syrian and thus the child is eligible for Syrian citizenship. In the latter, the father is either foreign or is unknown. Additionally, in the absence of evidence of a legal marriage, the child is put in the second category and is ineligible for Syrian citizenship.
Muhammad Qadri, a lawyer from Idlib, explained that when an abandoned child is found, several measures are taken. First, the child is transferred to a hospital and examined by a specialist. Then the opposition-affiliated Free Police force investigates the identity of the child’s parents before making a decision on their case.
Under certain conditions, Syrian law allows those who find an abandoned child to raise and care for it. However, single men are unable to take guardianship of abandoned children; the law mandates the presence of a woman who can care for them.
Before all of this, however, the child is given a special registration in the civil records reserved for orphans and classified as “foundling” by a judge. The child’s mother and father are assigned two hypothetical names and declared dead. After that, they are handed over to be raised by whoever claims guardianship or are transferred to an orphanage.
In Idlib, the Sharia Commission of the Unified Court maintains that these children cannot be adopted into the families who take legal guardianship of them; rather, they can only be raised and cared for until they reach adulthood. These children are registered but held in a separate category until their parents bring the necessary documents which confirm their lineage. Otherwise, they remain legally registered as “foundling” and receive a separate name from the family raising them.
A loss of identity
Both children with unknown parents and foundlings face a severely negative stigma, due to the belief that they are the product of extramarital relationships. They live in private homes and are denied a lineage and social identity that other Syrians can claim, according to the Damascus-based sociologist, Suha Arafa.
This “makes the child live in a state of loss of identity and societal persecution. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has been on the rise over the past few years,” she said.
With cases of abandonment on the rise, the “unknown parentage” law was proposed in 2017 and was brought to the Syrian People’s Assembly (Parliament) the following year. The proposed law aims to ensure that abandoned children receive the same treatment as orphans.
Under the new proposed law, the child would be issued a birth certificate and would be registered in the civil registry. It would be provided a middle name and Syrian nationality and would be registered as Muslim if their religion is unknown.
However, the proposed law has not been approved yet. Further, its implementation in areas controlled by the opposition, where marriages are not recognized by the state and thus many children remain outside of the civil registry, remains a challenge.
“Despite their exceptional humanitarian situation, there is no legal way to document [the abandoned children’s] names in civil records now,” said lawyer Muhammad Khalil, “especially that the liberated north has become permanently separated from the government civil registry since it was transferred to government-controlled areas in Hama province.”
“We are in the midst of a colossal humanitarian catastrophe; the number of [abandoned] children is always multiplying,” Khalil said.