DOHA // Western-style adoption is prohibited within Islam, which allows only a guardianship that confers neither family name nor the legal status of a natural-born child. But Khaled Kamal wanted the orphans in his care to have the same rights and privileges that other children enjoy.
He made inquiries. He travelled the region. At a conference last month in Beirut, he secured a verbal fatwa from a leading Sunni scholar, Salman al Auda. "He said it is no problem to give the child the family name, in Sharia it's OK," Mr Kamal, the general manager of the Qatar Orphan Foundation, said during an interview this week in his office. "You can't imagine how important it is to be named according to the family."
Since its creation three years ago by the Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the Qatar Orphan Foundation, known as Dhreima after a violet flower that grows in harsh conditions, has steadily gathered steam. Today its waiting list is growing, its average orphan stay is shrinking and its officials are working to broaden the concept of family and expand the fostering experience, traditionally seen as an important charitable act in the Muslim world.
"Yateem is a big thing in Islam," said Mr Kamal, the Dhreima general manager, using the Arabic word for guardianship. "It helps you get to paradise." The Prophet Mohammed said those who took care of orphaned children would be close to him in heaven, according to a well-known hadith. But Sharia generally recognises only inheritance claims based on blood or marriage and does not allow full adoptions because they are considered relics of the pre-Islamic era of jiyaliyyah, or ignorance.
Thus Mr Kamal's efforts to expand the concept of family. He said that the widely respected Doha-based scholar Youssef al Qaradawi had voiced a view similar to Sheikh al Auda's. Dhreima is drafting documents for these scholars to sign into fatwa and hopes to institute the new policy by the end of the year. If confirmed, this new stance would mark an uprecedented shift. "I do not see how such an opinion would be judged valid according to Islamic legal methodology as it would contradict the clear verses in the Qur'an concerning this very issue," said Sheikh Musa Furber, a mufti who studied Islam for more than a dozen years in Damascus and Cairo and is now a researcher at the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi. "Without seeing the actual text of these fatwa I cannot comment on their contents or evidence."
Mr Kamal also hopes to help foster the passing down of family wealth via wasiya, or bequests, rather than meerat, or inheritance. But these proposals are in their early stages and still have to work their way through Islamic jurisprudence and various bureaucracies. Meanwhile, Dhreima continues to assist Qatar's most needy, focusing on four kinds of at-risk children: those with a mother but no father; those who have lost their father or both parents; the socially orphaned, which refers to financially incapable or broken homes; and finally babies whose parents are not known.
The first three, which represent the majority of children Dhreima works with, are supported with money, health care, rides to school and more. Only the last category can be fostered. Dhreima's facilities include three orphanages - one for newborns to seven years old, another for 7-18 year-old boys and a third for 7-18 year-old girls - and two guesthouses for those older than 18. A key goal is integration. Dhreima's in-house children attend normal government schools and regularly play with non-orphan children. If a local public school asks to bring their students for a visit, Mr Kamal refuses. "This is not a zoo where anybody can come to see them," he said.
According to a Qatari law issued in 2007, police and other authorities are legally required to contact Dhreima whenever a newborn of unknown parentage is found or brought to them. Origin is not an issue. "We don't deal in colours, we don't deal with income, language or religion," said Mr Kamal. "We see orphans as human beings, and anyone within the borders of Qatar is accepted." Dhreima soon begins the search for a new home - such as that of Muna al Mutawa, who married in 1997 and learned over the ensuing years that she and her husband were unable to have children.
They heard about Dhreima in early 2008 and decided to apply to foster a child. Within a month they received a call that the orphanage had received a baby girl born two days prior - the same day Ms al Mutawa's mother died. She was one of five applicants for the newborn, but the others fell away in the rigorous screening process. The foster family must be Qatari nationals and include a mother and spouse (except in rare cases) between 25 and 45 years old. Dhreima visits the applicants' homes and reviews family income and finances. Potential foster families also meet with a psychologist several times.
During Dhreima's first year of operations, children stayed an average of four or five months before being placed, but now the average stay is a month or less. The last arrival was placed within 10 days. Now nearly a dozen families wait for the next orphan to arrive. In May 2008, Ms al Mutawa took her baby girl, now named Reem, home for the first time. "Totally, completely, right away she was my baby," she said, showing a photo of a smiling brown-eyed girl on her phone. "Now she is two years old, very naughty, very funny and very intelligent."
Dhreima requires each foster couple to sign a contract committing to tell the child of its provenance. In the past, many families waited until high school or later to tell their children their family circumstance. "At that age, when they find out they are shocked and leave home," said Mr Kamal, who advises foster parents to tell the child as soon as possible. Ms al Mutawa plans to tell Reem soon. "It will happen in the coming months and years, Insh'allah," she said. "But not until she gets a little older."
Ms al Mutawa applauded Dhreima's efforts to move towards full adoption. Her foster daughter is not a full Qatari citizen, like her and her husband, but rather a naturalised Qatari - a lesser standing that is reflected on passports and other official documents. She hoped the passing on of the family name, if legally approved, would change that. "This would be great," said Ms al Mutawa. "It was not possible when we adopted."