“We walked for more than 20 hours with no food or water,” says Juan, an adolescent girl who arrived at Nawrouz refugee camp in north-east Syria three days ago, along with eight family members.
Juan is from the Yazidi minority group, many of whom are fleeing to Syria from the mountains of Sinjar in Iraq. Sinjar, a district of Ninewa in north-west Iraq with a population of at least 150,000 children – including many who are internally displaced – was taken over by the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) on Sunday.
Thousands of Yazidi families with many children are arriving daily to the newly established refugee camp inside Syria, 40 km from the Iraqi border. As of yesterday (12 August), around 5,000 families were estimated to be at the camp – children making up 60 per cent of the arrivals.
The new arrivals are exhausted and dehydrated, in desperate need of urgent assistance. With daily temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees Celsius (apx. 113 Fahrenheit), many are suffering from sun or heat stroke.
“This boy walked from Iraq to Syria,” says a mother of seven, pointing to her five-year-old son.
A UN team delivered lifesaving supplies to the camp yesterday (12 August) including UNICEF materials: high energy biscuits, hygiene kits, and clothes for children who are arriving with dust-covered faces and torn shoes.
“We have seen children and families arriving in large numbers to the camp in trucks and in very poor condition,” says Eltayeb Adam, UNICEF head of office in nearby Qamishly. “UNICEF along with other UN agencies is working to provide emergency assistance for these families.”
It is estimated that more than 200,000 Yazidis remain stranded on the Iraqi side of the border, with many expected to cross into Syria in the coming days.
“We heard horrible stories about the Islamic State’s practices so we decided to flee during the night,” says an elderly man. “I was worried about my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren. Walking was not easy for an old man like me but that was the only solution we had.”
Local humanitarian actors including the Kurdish Relief Association Rojava, the Kurdish Red Crescent and NGO Al Ihsan started relief efforts when the influx began last week.
“We have very limited resources,” says Nisreen a young volunteer with the Kurdish Relief Association. “People keep arriving in huge numbers. As soon as we think a family is settled in a tent, we find 10 more who just arrived.”
Kurdish locals in Syria are welcoming the exhausted arrivals, and at the first encounter, offering snacks and water: “We are all here to at least offer a smile for the arrivals after what they have been through,” says a young volunteer with Rojova, based at the transit reception point at Mabada.
UNHCR and local humanitarian actors have provided more than 500 tents, but the need is huge and new children and families keeps arriving. There is a real potential for an outbreak of disease at the camp due to poor hygiene conditions, lack of water chlorination and inadequate water drainage.
“We just want a safe place,” says Roshan, a mother of six who arrived at the refugee camp yesterday (12 August). Her children were covered with dust and had only basic clothing. “All countries are in war. I am tired,” she says.
In a statement issued 5 August, UNICEF called on “those who have influence to immediately grant children and women free and safe access to areas of refuge and respect the special protection afforded to children under international humanitarian and human rights law.”
Razan Rashidi is a UNICEF Communication Officer who visited the Nawrouz refugee camp in Syria.