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Meet the Orphans Using Art to Cope With Iraq's Chaos

The Iraqi Safe House for Creativity gives 33 orphans and homeless boys the chance to learn music, painting, acting and other skills.
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Amidst the bombs and bloodshed of Baghdad, these orphans have found a haven.

Their days are filled with art, music and painting — a way to cope with the chaos around them through creativity.

"It is better for me to stay in this house instead of living on the street," 16-year-old Zain al-Abideen Abdulhadi told NBC News during a recent visit. "I have learned how to play music and paint."

Abdulhadi's house is the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity, a private, non-government funded orphanage. He lives there with 32 other boys and teens.

Abdulhadi came to the orphanage 10 years ago because his parents were no longer able to care for him.

He doesn't miss his family — "how am I going to miss someone who let me go?" — and has become an accomplished painter during his time at the orphanage.

"I live inside of it — I live in the colors I use," he said when asked to describe how art has changed his life.

Children have suffered as much as anyone in Iraq's war against ISIS.

Image: An orphan boy draws at the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity in Baghdad
An orphan boy draws at the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity in November.AHMED SAAD / Reuters

More than 18,000 people were killed from January 2014 to October 2015 — half of them in Baghdad — and 3.5 million were forced to flee their homes, according to United Nations figures released last month.

Some 1.5 million of those displaced were children and the country has around 800,000 orphans, according to the latest figures from the U.N. children's agency UNICEF. Less than 50 percent of kids have access to education, with one-in-five schools destroyed.

One of Abdulhadi's paintings depicts a face with a closed mouth and cut-off ears. He said this represented Iraq's voiceless orphans and the "tyrannies" who will not listen to their plight.

"Humanity drove me to look after orphans"

Such bleak imagery is what prompted 46-year-old Hesham al-Dhahabi to found the Safe House in 2006, when the country was enduring a surge of sectarian violence after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

"Humanity drove me to look after orphans… I decided to take these children on as my own responsibility," he told NBC News.

Al-Dhahabi said he has "created a special world" for the children, some of whom have suffered deep psychological trauma after seeing the deaths of their own parents.

Image: A teacher gives a lesson to orphans boys at the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity in Baghdad
A teacher gives a lesson to orphans boys at orphanage in November.AHMED SAAD / Reuters

Iraq's state-run orphanage system was rocked in 2007 when U.S. troops found two dozen severely malnourished boys lying naked in a room with no windows at an orphanage in Baghdad.

The government-run orphanages have since improved, but don’t offer the same opportunities for artistic expression as the Safe House for Creativity.

Al-Dhahabi's believes the government is also too weighed down by bureaucracy and regulations to allow the children the sort of freedoms he permits.

"We do not pay any attention to their sect. I deal equally with any child that needs my help."

In addition to art classes, his orphanage teaches the kids more practical tasks, such as barbering, tailoring and cooking — skills that may help them in a country with an 18 percent youth unemployment rate.

They take daytrips, such as picnics, despite Baghdad's risky security situation.

"We all go together to every place, so [if there is a bomb] we all face the same accident together," al-Dhahabi explained.

Image: An orphan boy plays music at the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity in Baghdad
An orphan boy plays music at the orphanage in November.AHMED SAAD / Reuters

Central to his philosophy is treating all children the same, regardless of whether they are Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Kurdish, or one of the other religions that make up a diverse patchwork of faith in Iraq.

"We do not pay any attention to their sect," he said. "I deal equally with any child that needs my help."

One such child was 12-year-old Nayef Nawaf Hesham.

Al-Dhahabi found him living on the streets two years ago, scraping together a pittance selling chewing gum and sleeping where he could.

"He found me in the street, he brought me here, and started to give me programs in order to be a creative child," Hesham told NBC News. "I did not learn anything from the street — the only thing I saw in the street is how people humiliate me."

"It is better for the children to live inside a house than to let them live on the streets"

Seif Saleh Hesha, 14, was brought to the orphanage as a small child after his parents died. His time at the Safe House was chronicled in a 2011 documentary called "In My Mother's Arms," which played at the Toronto and San Francisco film festivals and earned critical acclaim.

That experience left a lasting impression on Hesha, who thrived in the Safe House's creative environment.

"I want to be a movie director," he told NBC News.

Despite the emphasis on positivity, the boys aren't immune to the violence around them.

Maher Mohammed Sa'ied is just 13 but says he wants to join the Iraqi army "to fight [ISIS], to kill them."

Sa'ied and his brother came to the orphanage last year because their parents were unable to look after them. While he misses his family he says he wants to "stay here for the rest of my life ... Mr. Hesham brings us whatever we want."

How long the orphanage's proprietor will be able to continue doing so is uncertain. Al-Dhahabi looks after the children on nothing more than private donations — a precarious existence.

He started to build a smaller house for the boys to move to once they reach the age of 18. But if donations were to falter, he faces having to move all 33 kids into that the building, which is half the size of their current accommodation.

"Still, it is better for the children to live inside a house than to let them live on the streets," he said.