“I’m from Zummar, a village close to the Syrian border. It’s been three years since my family and I left there. We had to go because of all the rockets and things. It was really dangerous. So we went to Mosul.”
“I used to go to school in Zummar, but not in Mosul. I don’t know how to read or write. It’s been so long since I was in school that I don’t really remember how to. So how would I go back to school?”
Slight and with a boyish voice, Rayan speaks loudly to be heard over the chatter of people waiting under the white canvas sides of a huge reception tent for those fleeing Mosul.
The midday sun is pounding through, and workers busily assemble water and food to distribute to new arrivals. Rayan seems detached from his own suffering.
“We left Mosul ten days ago. It was like any other day, not knowing if we would live or die. I didn’t really think about leaving. My mind was pretty empty, I just picked up my bag and walked out the door. We only brought clothes with us.”
He and his family were among the first to be displaced when violence escalated inside Iraq in mid-2014. At the time, Mosul was still a safe, so his family sought shelter in the city. Until violence pushed them out again.
Poverty and a forgotten dreams
“It’s pretty hot, so people don’t want to carry things back to their tents. That’s what I’m here for. I move stuff across the camp in my wheelbarrow. People pay me 250-500 Iraqi dinar ($.20-$.40).”
Hussain is perched inside his wheelbarrow, swinging his feet while waiting to be noticed by the line of people about to pick up their water, hygiene kits and box of food provided by UNICEF with sister UN agencies WFP and UNFPA.
“On a good day I’ll make 1,500-2,000 dinar, so I can buy ice, and two kilos tomatoes and cucumbers,” Hussain says, barely enough for his family of fifteen.
In the sweltering heat, ice is a staple good that can be bought in blocks, along with clothes, noodles, fresh produce, household goods and the occasional roast chicken from small pop-up stands or the tailgates of trucks lining the camp.
Hussain and his family fled Baadosh, a small village 25 km northwest of Mosul, around three months ago, and now lives in Hamam al-Alil camp. He’s not sure how old he is, but he’s the sole breadwinner of his large family.
For him, getting an education is nothing more than a past dream.
“I don’t really want to go back to school because I’m the only one working. So if I stop, my family won’t be able to survive.”
Miriam is a small woman with strong opinions and a quick smile. For her, the end of the conflict in Iraq will be when her girls, and other displaced children, are back in school.
Her third daughter, Noora, dressed all in pink, tells us she wants to return to school so she can go to university and become a professor of Arabic, like her uncle and grandmother. She tells us proudly that they both have Master’s degrees and are teachers, and she wants to be just like them.
Noora’s older sisters have many of their mother’s mannerisms, quick to smile and speak their minds. “This is how we will help Iraq. We will go to school and get an education, then we’ll pass on our knowledge. We’ll be able to help people,” says 14 year old Hanan.
Despite being dusty, hungry and weary from traveling to the camp under the scorching sun, the four, the youngest peaking out from behind her mother’s skirt with big brown eyes and a shy grin, reflect an unbowed determination to carve a future for themselves and for their country.
“My girls will absolutely go back to school. They have to. They will study and then have careers — how else will we move forward from this?” Miriam says.
“I’ve lost two sons to conflict: one under Saddam Hussein and one to this violence. It feels like whatever happens in Iraq, I have to sacrifice a child for it,” Houda’s voice breaks and she hides her face in the folds of her black hijab.
Houda and her teenage daughter, Sara, are sitting an open tent providing people some respite from the late morning +40C degree heat in Hamam al-Alil camp, some 30km south of Mosul.
Dressed in black abayas and scarves, they are waiting among a crowd of women and children at the crowded transit area at the entrance of the camp.
“My son was working at a hospital and was forced to keep working, even though he wasn’t being paid. He was told if he stopped working, our house would be taken.
“When we fled, he could not accept that his aunt and uncle weren’t with us. So he went back to get them. On the way back to us, a rocket fell and he was killed.”
The battle to reclaim Mosul from the so-called Islamic State began in October and last week the Iraqi government declared victory over its opponents. The human toll from the conflict has been staggering. As of the beginning of June, more than 790,000 people have been displaced from the city, around half of them are children. Despite the conflict winding down, population movement and displacement is likely to continue, and UNICEF is working around the clock to support families. Read more stories from Iraq.
Jennifer Sparks is a communications consultant for UNICEF Iraq and has previously covered humanitarian operations across the Middle East and North Africa.