Syrian babies abandoned at mosques and under trees as 12-year war fuels poverty

More than 100 children abandoned across country in less than two years, says rights group

Ibrahim Othman plays with the little girl he found abandoned on the doorstep of the village mosque and called Hibatullah. AFP
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One cold winter night in north-west Syria, Ibrahim Othman left his home to pray and returned cradling a baby girl, who had been abandoned on the doorstep of the mosque hours after she was born.

“I took her home and told my wife, 'I brought you a gift',” said Mr Othman, 59, who lives in Hazano, in rebel-held Idlib province.

He named the baby Hibatullah, meaning “Gift of God”, and decided to raise her as his own.

Babies have been left outside mosques, hospitals and under trees in Syria as more than 12 years of civil war fuel poverty and desperation.

Before the conflict broke out in 2011, “only a few cases of child abandonment” were documented in the country, said Syrians for Truth and Justice, a group in Washington that records human rights abuses.

Between early 2021 and late 2022, more than 100 abandoned children – 62 of whom were girls – were found across the country, the group said in a report published in March.

It estimates that the real figure is much higher.

The number has “increased dramatically” since the start of the conflict, along with “the social and economic repercussions of the war” in government-controlled and rebel-held areas, the group said.

It pointed to factors including poverty, instability, insecurity and child marriage, along with sexual abuse and pregnancy out of wedlock.

While adoption is forbidden across Syria, Mr Othman has asked the local authorities for permission to raise Hibatullah.

“I told my children that if I die, she should have part of my inheritance,” even though she can never officially be part of the family, he said, breaking into tears.

The three-year-old, her hair pulled back loosely into pigtails and walking around in shiny pink sandals, now calls him Grandpa.

“She is just an innocent child,” Mr Othman said.

Syria's war has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged the country's infrastructure.

Health department official Zaher Hajjo told AFP that 53 abandoned newborn babies had been registered in government-controlled areas in the first 10 months of last year, 28 of them boys and 25 girls.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad this year issued a decree creating dedicated centres for the children, who would be automatically registered as Syrian and Muslim, with the place of birth as the location they were found.

In rebel-held Idlib province, social workers at the main centre for abandoned children tended to tiny babies wrapped tightly in blankets in basic cradles, some spruced up with purple paint or ribbons.

In a bare-walled room with a brown-and-beige carpet, one woman rocked a baby to sleep with one hand while feeding another milk with the other.

Faisal Al Hammoud, head of programmes at the centre, said one baby girl they took in was found under an olive tree after being attacked by a cat.

“Blood was dripping down her face,” he said. The orphanage has since entrusted her to a family.

Workers follow up to make sure babies are well treated and “that there is no child trafficking” taking place, Mr Hammoud added.

The centre has taken in 26 babies – 14 girls and 12 boys – since it opened in 2019, and nine this year alone, said Abdullah Abdullah, a civil affairs official with Idlib's rebel authorities.

More than four million people live in areas controlled by fighters including Turkish-backed groups in Syria's north and north-west, 90 per cent of whom depend on aid to survive.

“The war is to blame and families too” for child abandonments, Mr Abdullah said.

“These children are victims,” he said.

Updated: May 25, 2023, 8:44 AM