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Caring for the Future of Iraq: Rassmia Abbas Ibrahim, Director of the MOH Nursery and Day Care Center Has Seen Her Dream Restored

By Anna Prouse

More than 80 percent of the 100,000 employees of the Ministry of Health are women. Many of these women are working mothers. At the MOH Headquarters, Rassmia Abbas Ibrahim helps make it all possible.

BAGHDAD—Her eyes are filled with tears. She still can’t get over the shock of seeing her third floor completely looted, her children’s nursery she had put so much passion into for more than 25 years totally destroyed. “Children are my life. I have dedicated my entire existence to these tiny, defenseless creatures,” says Rassmia Abbas Ibrahim, supervisor of the new nursery and day care at the Ministry of Health’s downtown headquarters. “I was only fifteen when my husband died. A fifteen-year-old kid with two children to take care of.”

Astonishment… Fifteen! Is this what Rassmia said? She smiles. “I was only thirteen when I married. My husband was forty. It’s not uncommon in Iraq, you know? My first daughter was only one and the second one was forty days old when my husband died. This is how my training started. Better than any school, I can tell you. My life was destined.”

With the help of her mother, Rassmia didn’t interrupt her studies and, after she graduated, she found a job as a children’s nurse in the Ministry of Health. “I had enough experience with children. That’s why I was chosen to keep an eye on the female employees’ kids during their working hours,” she says. “I started out with a small room, some toys and four children. Two of them were my daughters!”
The Ministry of Health was, and still is, the only place in Iraq where mothers don’t have to give up their job once they have children. When their baby is forty days old, they can come back to work while their child is being looked after by the loving hands of Rassmia. “I’m proud of being the first one in my country who was asked to run this program,” she says. “In 1979 I was given a small building just in front of the Ministry. At that time I had 10 children between 40 days and four years of age. I knew each one of them inside out, from their favorite dishes to the games they liked most. I established strict rules: mothers weren’t allowed to come and visit their children unless they had to breast feed them; they had to take off their shoes and coats before entering my nursery; they had to respect my timetable!” And this lady’s timetable was really strict. “I would prepare breakfast at seven, have the children take a nap at ten and, while they were sleeping, prepare lunch. At twelve we would eat all together and than, one by one, I would take them to the bathroom, change their underwear and hand them over, clean and happy, to their mother.”

In 1980 the war against Iran started. But the number of children Rassmia had to care for, instead of decreasing, increased considerably. “The mothers employed by Ministry of Health were so happy having someone taking care of their children that nothing could hold them back from having more children,” she says. “Their husbands were happy and wouldn’t force them to quit doing something they often had studied for: they finally had the chance of feeling accomplished both as mothers and as workers.”

In 1984 the Ministry realized that Rassmia needed help. She couldn’t do it all on her own. 30 kids were too much even for an experienced children’s nurse. “A young babysitter came to help me out and two years later I was asked to establish a new nursery in Medical City Hospital in order to reduce the load on the Ministry of Health building,” she says. “It took me a month to start this new project. Then I went back to my old love: the nursery in Ministry of Health, although I had to keep on supervising the new Medical City nursery that counted more than fifty children.”

In 1995 Rassmia, together with ten babysitters and 75 children, came over to the third floor of the Ministry of Health’s main building. And there she stayed until the horrifying April lootings. “It happened between the 25th and the 30th of April,” she recalls. Rassmia’s voice is broken. Her look turns suddenly sad. “I cried. The destruction of that little jewel I had been fighting for during my whole life meant for me the end of the World. I came back, day after day. Each time realizing there was absolutely nothing I could do. And this for days… months…”

On January 19, 2004 more than 100 children will enter the front door of the new Ministry of Health children’s nursery. A few days before this fantastic event Rassmia is absolutely radiant. She sits in her glimmering office. The rest of the staff runs around the five children’s rooms, the kitchen and the three offices fixing the last details. Toys, rocking-horses, stuffed pets, learning books and games fill the place. Tiny school benches and rows of desks still have to be put in place. An artist is finishing his last mural on one of the light blue walls: Disney characters are definitely his favorite subjects.
But how did all this come true? “in early July the Coalition advisors showed up. They started helping us fix the entire building.

and gave me desks and carpets so that I could start taking care of my children again,” says Rassmia. “Everything took place so quickly. In less than a week I already had 20 kids! Many more had to come. This is why the Ministry of Health decided I needed an appropriate space of my own. And this is it! I never would have imagined to be running a place like this, not even in my most ambitious dreams… Look at this: it’s simply breathtaking!”

Tears appear in Rassmia’s eyes. Tears of joy.

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