SHARJAH // On a cold, dark Tuesday morning, Imam Mohammed Mahmoud Mohammed walked the short distance from his apartment to the mosque downstairs, as he does at the start of every day. It was 4.30am. Still bleary-eyed, he reached to open the door of the mosque to prepare for the morning prayers. Then he froze. At his feet was a baby boy, swaddled in blankets and lying in a cardboard box.
"It was very dark and I went to open the door and saw the box," said Mr Mohammed, a Somali who has lived in the UAE for more than a decade. "I was very scared at first. It was the first time I had seen such a thing in my life." He ran upstairs and called the police. When he returned downstairs, he received another shock. Just around the corner from the first child, a second baby, also a boy, was lying inside the other half of the cardboard box, which bore the label of the brand of bananas that it originally contained.
The boys were both fully clothed. One even had shoes on. Those found by Mr Mohammed on March 2 were the third and fourth recorded cases of babies abandoned in the Northern Emirates this year. "First of all, this is haram and against humanity," said Mr Mohammed, a 37-year-old father of eight. "It's also against the law." While he waited for the police to arrive, Mr Mohammed's wife came down to check on the children.
"She was crying," he said. "She has children so she, of course, knows about being a mother. My children were crying too." Mr Mohammed had been woken at around 3am on the same morning by what he later realised was the sound of babies crying. "There are no families around here, so I thought the sound could be an animal," he said. By 5am, police and an ambulance had arrived. They took the babies to Al Qassimi Hospital.
Masjid al Furqan, a small, cream-coloured mosque, stands on a backstreet in Sharjah's Industrial Area Four. The area is a maze of warehouses, junk yards packed with spare parts, repair shops and bachelor accommodation. The door to the mosque is slightly elevated from street level, which on the morning the babies were found was still waterlogged after large parts of Sharjah were flooded by heavy rain.
An Indian shopkeeper, who would be identified only as Abdullah, 33, was in the area at 7am, to open the grocery near the mosque. "It was crazy," he said. "Who does something like this and just leaves their babies? Everyone was asking who could do such a thing." Abdullah, who has worked in the area for the past six years, said the fact that the two children were clothed and left outside the mosque made him believe that their mothers wanted them to be found. "They seemed in good health and whoever left them must have known there would be people there."
The boys are believed to have been abandoned by their mothers, with a police investigation continuing to try to trace their parents. Last month, two other abandoned babies were discovered in Ajman and Ras al Khaimah. Ajman Police found the unmarried parents of a three-month-old girl. They were arrested and charged with adultery and endangering the baby's life. If convicted they could be jailed for a year and fined Dh10,000 (US$2,700).
Last year, another two babies were found abandoned outside Sharjah mosques. While the problem is not unique to Sharjah, officials in the emirate say that they have developed a system to cope with the dozen or so cases that they deal with every year. Just a few days after they were found, the six-month-old baby discovered in Industrial Area Four was being fed by a nurse while the other, two months old, slept quietly in a cot nearby, in a paediatric ward of Al Qassimi Hospital.
A new mother was nursing her baby in the same room, but the parents of the other two children were nowhere to be seen. Like most children found in the emirate, the two infants had been transferred immediately to the hospital their first stop in a process that will eventually see them placed with foster families. A spokesman said the hospital's role was to make an initial assessment of the children's health. "We are the first step," he said. "The police bring them to us to check on them, or even to save them."
Once they are well enough, the babies are moved to the Social Care Centre for Children a shelter for neglected, abused or abandoned children run by the Sharjah Department of Social Services. Afaf al Marri, the department's director, has been working in the field since 2002, during which time she has seen scores of children go through the system. Most, she said, are eventually placed with foster parents.
"This happens in any community, in any country," said Ms al Marri. "My main role is to find an alternative family for the children." According to the department, in 2008, 12 children were found abandoned in the emirate. The total last year was nine. These children occupy a special place in Islamic tradition. Caring for laqeet, abandoned children, is considered a highly pious act. Yateem - orphans - are children of known parentage whose father or both parents are deceased.
Ms al Marri and her team become involved as soon as the children are transferred to the hospital and she is informed of a possible new case. The department sends a social worker to the hospital to check on children before they are transferred to the shelter. These unknown children, without parents and without a name, are given an identity names common to the Gulf region, such as Abdullah or Fatima.
They are also issued with a birth certificate and health card. "Unknown" is written in the fields where the nationality and names of their parents should go. Overseeing the entire process is the Sharjah Government's Permanent Committee for Disadvantaged Children, which has been operating since 1984. The committee - comprised of representatives from the Department of Social Services, Sharjah Police, the Ministry of Health, the courts, and the Naturalisation and Residency Department - assesses the applications submitted by potential foster families. Orphaned or abandoned children cannot be legally adopted, but they can be fostered by Emirati families.
Those applying for legal guardianship are subject to a rigorous evaluation. Social workers assess whether the would-be parents are suitable, will care for the children and are in a position to provide for them financially. According to Ms al Marri, it takes around five months for suitable families to be found for the children. However, there are not always enough families who apply to take on the role.
"We have a priority for families who have someone who can breast-feed the babies," she said. "We can create a relationship and a bond between the child and the new mother." Once a family is found, the committee, through the Department of Social Services, continues to follow-up on the children, sometimes for years after they are placed. "We make sure that they are being given their rights and we also give support to the families," Ms al Marri said.
Once they are placed, the often lengthy process begins to secure Emirati citizenship. Before any of that, though, the boys found last week will move to the social care centre, probably within the next few days. Currently, the shelter is looking after nine abandoned babies. "We started this centre because we didn't want the children to be kept in a hospital, but to have a kind of normal life," said Ms al Marri. "We want to engage them in the community, and try to be like a normal family."
The 22 children who currently call the centre home are cared for by a "mother" and a "father", supported by several "aunts" and "uncles". "The central aim is to give each baby good care," said Sheikha al Shar, the manager of the centre, which was opened in 2006. "We have to create a family life for them and give them love." The shelter cares for newborns to 18-year-olds in two homes one for infants and older girls, and the other for boys of eight and above.
Sixteen children currently live in a house on the peaceful grounds of the centre, in Sharjah's outskirts. Staff run programmes for the various age groups. On-site nurses and a doctor are on call. The older children are enrolled in nearby government schools. In the front room, several infants all of whom were abandoned play with toys. An eight-month-old girl, apparently of Asian descent, pulls herself up to a standing position with the help of a baby walker. She has been in the shelter since she was one week old.
"I like this work, you feel like this is your family and I like to see the children smile," said Atheeja Mohammed, a supervisor, who has worked at the centre for five years. The older boys' house, next door, is run by a man they call "Baba Ishaq". "I give advice, the same as any father," he said. "I take them to the school, for sports and to go shopping. My role is like a father." The living quarters have nicely decorated bedrooms, a living room with a television set and a large dining area. Outside the boys' house is a grassy football pitch, while the other house has a play area on the front lawn.
"I love this work," said Baba Ishaq. "The children are amazing. We work to support and love them and give them a home, a life, a country and a chance." Sometimes, the police find the parents of the abandoned children, but often their parentage remains a mystery. Often, the mothers are vilified for what appears to be a clear case of cruelty. However, the truth can sometimes be a far more complicated and ultimately tragic tale, according to clinical psychologist Dr Azhar Abuali, the director of care and rehabilitation at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.
Some of the babies may have been abandoned because they have disabilities, are born out of wedlock, are the result of an unwanted pregnancy for women working as prostitutes or someone who has been raped. Many factors can contribute to a mother abandoning her child from economic circumstances, to mental illness and even extreme cases of postnatal depression, Dr Abuali said. "Naturally, it is a very painful experience for any mother to get to a point where they would abandon their child," she said.
"Usually the mother is victimised immediately, but, if you look, there is probably a reason." According to Dr Abuali, a mother who abandons her child would be left with "deep psychological scars". "It is a traumatic experience to be detached like this, and most times it is not by choice." The long-term impact can include cases of psychosis and the women becoming obsessed with the fate of their children, Dr Abuali said.
For the children, the earlier they are placed with a foster family, the easier it is for them to adjust to their new environment. A stable, healthy family environment ultimately would help the children come to terms with the fact that they were given up by their biological parents, Dr Abuali said. Ultimately, said Ms al Marri, more awareness about the laws here that prohibit sexual relations outside of marriage could help in reducing the number of cases.
"I think people should be told in an indirect way," she said. "It's not enough to simply say 'Don't get pregnant'. "We have to show them what could happen if they go through this experience what happens to them and to the child." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org