• Megan Giovannetti

IRAQ, January 18: Mothers everywhere go to the ends of the earth to protect their children. Such is the case of two generations of mothers: Najla and Aisha. Najla, a single mother, and her mother, Aisha, fought for years with strength and determination to secure the custody of nine-year-old Farah. Today, the family rests easy after legally proving Farah’s lineage to her mother, Najla, without a DNA test — the first successful case of its kind in the Kirkuk governorate of Iraq.

“Even if we have many problems and struggles in our life, this was our biggest problem,” said Aisha. Without proper documentation, Farah could not continue school nor have government services requested under her name. This is a common fate for children born around the time of Daesh control in 2014 as many marriages and births were not legally registered, with many born in recent years still being affected. The court-ordered DNA test that starts the process of documenting a child remains a large and contested obstacle for many families in Iraq. “Now that it’s solved, we can sleep comfortably. Farah can go to school, and we can work on her ID.”

But Najla and Aisha had an even bigger concern than this already long list of issues: with a missing father and no civil documentation, Farah could be taken away from her mother by her father’s family claiming custody. Aisha previously lost custody of her children after divorcing her ex-husband; she didn’t want to lose her granddaughter too.

Najla’s husband went missing in 2017, forcing the household of women and girls to be their own breadwinners. Displaced from Shirqat during the conflict with Daesh, Aisha and Najla live in the Khazeran informal settlement in Kirkuk and work tirelessly to support Farah and her young cousin. Najla runs a small sewing business while Aisha collects and sells recyclables around the city. Often this was not enough to make ends meet. Moreover, the family also struggled to afford the lawyer and legal fees for Farah’s case.

“I sold my gold. We borrowed money from family,” Najla said. “But all of us worked as daily workers farming, even the kids.” Every winter, the two women and two small girls would harvest corn for 13,000 Iraqi Dinars (~USD 10), per day. This disrupted Farah’s schooling once she was of age, missing nearly half of the first grade.

More than from financial needs, Farah’s schooling was threatened by her legal case itself. Legally proving her lineage to her mother was a necessary precursor to obtaining an ID card, which would allow her to continue her studies.

“When I’m at school, we read a lot of books. My teacher said if I miss too many classes, I will not be able to pass,” Farah said, “But in the end, I did it. I read all the books on my own. Sometimes my mother and grandmother help me.”

“She is so clever and brings back all her exams with high marks,” Aisha said. “Even the principal said it would be a shame if she couldn’t continue her studies, because she is so bright.”

All-in-all, the family paid nearly one million Iraqi Dinars (~USD 770) in legal fees to keep Farah in school and under their care – all to no avail. “The previous lawyer was so disappointing,” Aisha said. “She took our money and then didn’t do anything.”

Najla and Aisha heard of IOM’s legal services from a neighbour who received support from the Women Legal Counseling (WLCO) centre in Kirkuk. After calling the centre, IOM’s WLCO lawyer, Mral, made a house visit.

“We were so happy with Mral,” said Najla. “She is very good and honest, which made us very comfortable to speak to her. Every time we would go to the court, she took the time to explain everything, so we trusted her.”

IOM’s Women Legal Counseling laywer in Kirkuk, Mral, was instrumental in securing the proof of lineage for Farah and Najla. Photo: © IOM 2024/M GIOVANNETTI

Mral worked on Farah’s case for nearly a year. The main obstacles were the DNA test and getting Najla’s mother-in-law and her family to participate. “I had to speak with [the mother-in-law] very nicely and make her comfortable to convince her to keep coming to the court as needed,” Mral said.

In such cases, the Iraqi legal system typically requires a DNA test to prove a child’s lineage to the parents. The only testing facility is in Baghdad, which is a long and expensive trip that’s nearly impossible for single women to make. Moreover, with a missing parent, four adjacent family members are required to take the test. This is something Najla’s mother-in-law simply refused to do.

“There are many, many cases like this around the villages in this area,” Mral said. “Even if we want to help them, we can’t because this is the law. We need to find another solution [to DNA testing].”

Alternatively, if the judge agrees, two of the father’s family members could act as witnesses to the marriage of the parents and birth of the child. Because of IOM’s longstanding relationship with the court system in Kirkuk, a particularly sympathetic judge allowed to proceed with the trial through witnesses. “The judge trusts IOM lawyers because we don’t take money from our clients and because they know that we review cases thoroughly before taking them on,” Mral said.

After numerous house calls and emotional appeals, Mral managed to convince the mother-in-law and another family member to act as witnesses. And with that, the judge approved Farah’s proof of lineage.

“When I first heard the news, I started crying right there in the courtroom,” said Najla. “I told my mom: ‘We did it!’ Then we returned to our neighbourhood and celebrated.” Even with what little they had, Najla and Aisha shared sweets with all their neighbours to rejoice in the good news. “Then we went directly to the school and gave them the paperwork to not remove my daughter from class.”

“I was sad when I heard I couldn’t continue school,” Farah said. Her mother shared how she came home crying the day her principal dismissed her. But with her civil documentation in hand, Farah is excited to return to school alongside all her friends. “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” she said.

The love Najla and Aisha have for Farah is palpable, made evermore apparent through their unfettering commitment to secure her future under their care. Their years of struggle did not go in vain, and they are eternally grateful for Mral speeding up and easing the process in the end.

Thanks to the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) for their support and enabling IOM lawyers like Mral to give the quality services the people of Iraq deserve.

IOM’s legal programme supports target communities with legal services, government engagement and capacity strengthening for local organizations and authorities to increase access to identity and civil documentation, compensation and reparation schemes. In the context of displacement, access to documentation and the protection of housing, land and property rights are fundamental to the achievement of durable solutions for populations affected by displacement. IOM reached over 13,000 individuals with legal services by the end of 2023 across Iraq and aims to resolve 14,000 urgent cases in the next year.


*Some names were changed to protect identities

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