“What can we do?” she says. “This is our life. We’ve tried to find other jobs and to live in dignity but the amount we get on social welfare just isn’t enough. It barely covers our living expenses for one week.”
Social welfare payments in Iraq go from around IQD50,000 (around US$42) to IQD120,000 (around US$100) per month.
“We started digging in the garbage to find things that we could use. Then it was for things we could sell,” she explained to NIQASH. “Now we control this neighbourhood’s garbage; we no longer share this area with anyone else and we’re better off.”
To control the affluent neighbourhood, Nazim, her husband and the rest of their children form groups and occupy various streets in order to guard the best garbage. “We call it our daily treasure,” Nazim notes. “We always find delicious food as well as cans of food that we couldn’t even dream of buying in the malls. We’ve found clean clothes, perfume, gold and bottles of alcohol. One time we even found a Kalashnikov in the garbage.”
Another of the rubbish collectors, Sabbah, who is 25, explained the system of street ownership further: “Certain groups, or families, control certain streets through a kind of system of guardianship,” he told NIQASH. “They collect garbage only on that street. They may also sell the street to another family for money in the same way that sidewalk spaces used by stall holders are passed on. And the value of any neighbourhood or street is determined by the number of garbage containers in it and the kind of garbage there – whether it has been discarded by wealthy people or not.”
The competition for the garbage of wealthy families is not just limited to the families and gangs who control the neighbourhoods.
Sabbah explains how he and his brothers begin their foraging early in the morning so they can get to the good stuff before the municipal waste collectors arrive. “We don’t often see such a service in our own neighbourhoods,” Sabbah says, “but they come much more often in these wealthy neighbourhoods.”