Bassem Awdah and eight family members have for years been packed into two cramped rooms in a decrepit former government office building in central Baghdad, because they have nowhere else to live.
The crowded conditions for Awdah’s family and other residents of the building in Al-Masbah area — which held defence ministry offices during Saddam Hussein’s rule, but was taken over by people in need of homes after his 2003 ouster — are a microcosm of a wider problem: Iraq’s severe housing shortage.
Awdah, a 43-year-old taxi driver, and his family used to live in a house in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, but he said it was destroyed in fighting there.
In 2005, he paid about $1,400 dollars for the “apartment” — which was originally one room that he divided with makeshift walls into two bedrooms and a small kitchen and bathroom — and has lived there ever since with his wife, three daughters, brother and elderly parents.
The apartment gained yet another resident when Awdah’s son Hussein was born in 2006.
The family sleeps on narrow mattresses that are piled up during the day to conserve precious space.
A picture of snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills hangs on one wall, in stark contrast to the family’s claustrophobic quarters.
“When I wake up, I feel pain in my neck because there is no place to sleep in a good way,” said Awdah, who has thick black hair and a moustache and wore a tan robe.
Living with seven other people also curbs opportunities to be intimate with his wife, he said, and moreover, the cramped apartment is not a good place for his children to grow up.
“I want my children to study, succeed and have a better future,” Awdah said. “What will the future for my children be if we stay here?”
“I request that the state… help us to find a place to live.”
Problems in the building are not limited to crowding — generators supply sporadic electricity, and a makeshift collection of small electric pumps and pipes is all that brings water to residents.
Inside, paint is peeling off the walls in flower petal-like flakes.
The smell of sewage from the building, which is piped into the courtyard behind, permeates the air. Awdah said money is collected from residents to periodically remove the waste.
The building is, in short, a place no one would want to live if there was another option. But the problem is, options are very limited.
Dyfed Aubrey, land and housing expert for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme’s (UN-HABITAT) Iraq Programme, told AFP by email that Iraq faces a significant housing shortage, which it is struggling to address.
“Population growth, overcrowding, urbanisation and ongoing issues of internally displaced persons (IDPs) all contribute to poor housing conditions and a growing housing demand in Iraq,” Aubrey said.
“Fifty-seven percent of the urban population experiences slum-like conditions and 37 percent of houses in urban Iraq suffer over-crowding. The provision of basic infrastructure is unable to match growing demand.”
Iraqi investment commission chief Sami al-Araji has said that new housing is the country’s top priority in terms of attracting foreign investment. But housing projects that are in the pipeline will take years to complete.
And while Aubrey said Iraq will require two million residential units by 2016, the country has only said it aims to build one million new housing units nationwide in the coming years.
Barring significant government subsidies, the new homes will also likely still be out of reach for people as impoverished as those living in the building in Al-Masbah.
Abdel Sadeh Jaber, a 60-year-old retired soldier with white-slashed dark hair, a grey beard and tan robe, is the unofficial building manager of this unofficial residential building, in which he said about 26 families reside.
Jaber said he only allows new tenants in who have families and real identification papers.
“This building used to belong to the defence ministry,” he said. But “after the collapse of the previous regime, it was empty.”
“I lived in it and I tried to protect it.”
Jaber, like other residents, faces difficulties. He lives in a small apartment on the ground floor, in which he shares a tiny bedroom, much of it taken up by cabinets, with his two wives, son and daughter.
“I only receive 250,000 dinars (about $213) per month,” he said. “We are five people, living in a very small place.”
“It is not easy to live here due to the lack of water, services and sewage problems,” he said, expressing hope that the government would step in and provide a better place for residents of the building to live.
Khaled Kuzi Shia, a 47-year-old with paint-stained clothes, thinning hair and a black moustache who lives in a tiny one-room apartment in the building with his two young sons and wife, said he cannot afford to live somewhere else.
“I’m working as a construction worker and I can’t get enough money to rent a house,” he said, so “I live in one room.”
And a large part of that room is taken up by a stained blue couch and several cabinets.
As in Awdah’s apartment, a picturesque scene adorns one wall, in this case a print of a garden with a fountain and a flower-covered gazebo.
“Everything is difficult,” Shia said. “Even when a guest comes to me, I have no place for him.”
“My wish is only to have one metre in Iraq of my own, to live with my family.”