In Iraq, reaching families caught in the fighting

The memory of a turning point in life – a change, a decision – sticks with you, clear as the day it happened.

“I joined Save the Children on 2nd February, 2014,” Nourshan recalled. “I had been in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, for six months, waiting to register for university.”

Nourshan, 24, isn’t from Iraq. Her home is in Aleppo, Syria, where in January 2013, she had six credits remaining to graduate from university with a degree in English Literature. “Ours was the first university to be bombed in Syria,” she explained about the abrupt halt in her education. “I remember, I was reading Othello.”

Nourshan. (c) UNICEF Iraq
Nourshan. (c) UNICEF Iraq

Nourshan is the Rapid Response Mechanism Program Manager at Save the Children. She travels around Iraq, conducting distributions of life-saving humanitarian aid. Save the Children, as a part of the UNICEF- and WFP-led Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) Consortium, has contributed to the distribution of drinking water, emergency food, and hygiene items to more than 3 million displaced people since July 2014.

At a distribution site in Kalar, on the border of Sulimaniyah and Diyala governorates in northern Iraq, three large trucks reverse to form an L-shape in a gravel parking lot outside of a police station. Nourshan calmly explains to arriving families how to register to receive the food, water, and hygiene supplies.

It’s a feat to remain collected under these grueling conditions- by 11 AM, the sun is baking the gathering crowd, there is scant shelter and it’s 49 C degree.

“The items that we’re delivering are the most important,” Nourshan says, standing by the distribution line. “They need water. They need something to eat. They need to wash their hands. It’s that simple.”

A family who received supplies during the RRM distribution in Kallar district in late July.
A family who received supplies during the RRM distribution in Kallar district in late July. (c) UNICEF Iraq

Nourshan started supporting the Rapid Response Mechanism in May 2015. She was struck by the urgency of the crisis – and the challenges posed by the mass movement of entire communities during conflict.

On 24 May, families fleeing escalating violence in Ramadi were stranded at Karatoo checkpoint, unable to pass from Diyala Governorate into Sulimaniya Governorate as fighting drew nearer. Nourshan and Save the Children had a narrow window of opportunity to reach the families as violence escalated nearby. But with the support of the RRM Consortium, and a stock of emergency humanitarian aid, they responded immediately.

“People were surprised we crossed the checkpoint to help them. We could hear the gunfire 200 metres away,” she said. When Nourshan and her team reached the families, they found a lot of people in need of medical care.

“Women had fainted. Elderly people were suffering from the heat and exhaustion.”

Save the Children alerted a service organization to the medical needs, and conducted a rapid assessment so that follow-up programming could address the families’ continuing needs for water, health, and protection services.

UNICEF, WFP and RRM partners, including Save the Children, aim to reach approximately 272,000 more families or an additional 1.9 million people before the end of the year.

When Nourshan left Syria, her plans for the future were put on hold. However, she remembers the exact day – the turning point – when she found a new purpose in helping others affected by conflict, just across the border the Iraq. In her work with the Rapid Response Mechanism, she continues that outreach – across borders and barriers – with a single focus to support vulnerable people in crisis.

“At that moment, I didn’t feel there was any difference between us. Our staff, the families, their children – we were all there together. They were really surprised to see us. I felt like we were doing something that was needed,” she said.

Chelsea Cowan is a consultant working with UNICEF Iraq.

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