Between a rock and a hard place: Iraq’s displaced children

I got on the plane to Erbil not knowing what to expect. I had mixed feelings about going back to Iraq, a country I worked in for more than three years. When I left in 2012, I thought Iraq was in a pretty good shape, I guess I was wrong.

The drive from Erbil to a town only 9 KMs away from Mosul was long. It was over 40 degrees, a typical summer day. I thought to myself “I did not miss this”.

We arrived to the town and went straight to meet families who fled the violence in Mosul just a few days before.

Ramez, a fragile 65 year old man was sitting on the floor of a room provided by the local community. He fled with his wife, sister, son and granddaughter (14). “I never expected this would happen to me. I never fled my home even during the harshest of times that Iraq went through” he said. “We walked for hours. I don’t know how we made it. I was especially worried for my wife who is very sick”. His wife Randa showed me the medications she takes. She was worried that she would run out. Even if she finds a pharmacy in the remote town, she would not be able to afford it. Ramez put out a 250 fils note (less than 25 US cents) and said “this is all I have left”.

Iraq has been going through turmoil and despair for more than three decades. Wars, sanctions, sectarian violence and economic stagnation drove millions of people out of their homes and now it was happening all over again. Driving back, Abdu, a UNICEF colleague who is about 30 years old said “All I remember of my whole life is problems, conflict, fear and instability”.

A few days later we got a call that families were arriving to Erbil fleeing another wave of violence. We immediately jumped in a car and went to meet them. Raed fled with his wife and three children from Qaraqosh, 20 minutes away from Mosul. His wife Hiba said “There were seven of us tucked in one small car. We left because my eight year old daughter Diana would not stop crying. She was really very scared of the sound of bombing”.

Like Ramez, Raed was in shock that he has become displaced. “My town was always known to host people running away from violence from all over Iraq. We used to provide them with food, houses, and schooling for their children. And now, we became those exact same people in need. I just can’t believe this”.

I met the family in a facility provided by the local church where four families were crowded in a big room with mattresses.  Hiba said “We fled with nothing but the clothes on our bodies. I don’t have anything here and I really wish I could have a shower”.

I thought about how important the hygiene kits UNICEF was providing were. A box with soap, shampoo and towels. When you’re displaced like Hiba, these could be life-saving and help people like Hiba stay clean.

The following day we rushed off to Al-Qosh (45 KMs from Mosul) to meet more displaced families. In a school turned shelter I came across a little girl eating an ice cream. She looked carefree and somewhat happy. “We arrived here this morning. I was really scared” Riva (8) said. She was clinging to Saad, her father. “We felt threatened and we left without thinking. I’m worried about tomorrow. I’m worried about tonight actually. Where will we sleep and how will I keep my family safe?” Saad said.

The school, a secondary boys’ school was crowded. All of the displaced came from the same place. Sami, a local, who was about 14 years old was helping to clean up. He said he was helping because he wanted people to feel at home and welcome.

Although a number of camps have been set up, most of the displaced people are staying with host families, taking refuge in relatives and friends’ houses, or in public and religious institutions like mosques and churches. I was humbled by the generosity of the people and how welcoming and organized they were with the little resources they had in the first place.

A few kilometers away from the school, the local health centre was holding a special vaccination campaign for the displaced children. Children arrived with their families to get the two drops against polio. Polio has sadly returned to Iraq after 14 years and UNICEF with partners mobilized not just the delivery of the much needed vaccines but also the medical staff and awareness raising among the community.

Rosa, a displaced girl from Mosul in Iraq, shows her finger-marking after being vaccinated against polio, Al-Qosh Iraq @UNICEF/2014/Touma
Rosa, a displaced girl from Mosul in Iraq, shows her finger-marking after being vaccinated against polio, Al-Qosh Iraq
@UNICEF/2014/Touma

Rosa (4) bravely sat on the chair, opened her mouth and got the vaccine. She then smiled happily as her finger was being marked. She arrived from Mosul a few days before. Her father who ran a small super market in their town said “We left in such a rush, I don’t think I locked up the supermarket. I’m sure it’s looted and I’m worried that I lost everything I had”

As we were leaving a woman stopped me. She was displaced as well and came to the clinic to vaccinate her children. “I’m really thankful that you came to see us. It really means a lot to us that there are people out there who care about us”.

We drove back to Erbil where a dedicated UNICEF team is working tirelessly running a large humanitarian response to help the people in need. I thought about what we’ve done so far: 100,000 litres of water, 3,500 hygiene kits, 1.2 million doses of polio procured. This is the little we can do to help people get by and hopefully return home soon when the wave of violence ends.

I thought about how much more we still need to do amid the growing needs and if we would be able to continue. A dollar figure kept popping up reminding me that we are short of 36 million US$. If we don’t get the funds we urgently need, many people will suffer even more.

Juliette Touma is a Communications & Media Specialist with the UNICEF Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa.

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Comments:

  1. You cut the chase and come to the heart of people’s lives, needs and vulnerabilities. Very moving in your observations of the new homeless in Iraq. The heavy human cost of sectarianism all-too-apparent.