Over 7,000 new Syrian refugees – nearly half of them children – have fled the conflict in northeastern Syria and arrived into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Many of them are women, children and the elderly. Almost all of them walked long distances through the night, hoping to reach safety. They arrive in physical and mental distress.
“A bomb fell near our house and my 4-year-old son is haunted by that experience. He remembers everything, including the sound of mortars and explosions,” said Awaz Subhi, a mother of three children who fled from the town of Kobani with her young family.
In the camp, UNICEF is working to set up Child Friendly Spaces to support the mental health needs of children
“Even when they play, they enact the fighting. The memories are always with us,” she added sadly.
This is not the first time the family crossed the border as refugees, she explains. Awaz and her family first came to northern Iraq in 2014 fleeing from the so-called Islamic State and stayed in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, for 11 months before going back home.
“I want peace for my children, but it’s difficult to imagine life ever getting back to normal,” she said with weariness of someone who has witnessed too much conflict. “We are barely breathing. Our lives have been destroyed.”
UNICEF and partners are providing lifesaving assistance to vulnerable people at the Iraq-Syria border crossing. We are distributing water and other essentials before the refugees are transported to the camps where they are provided with shelter, food, water, and basic relief items, including sanitation; medical teams are available if assistance is needed.
Dalil Suliman had a similar story: “The air strikes started late at night and carried on throughout. As soon I could, I sold my motorbike and paid a smuggler $400 to show us the way out,” said Suliman, who fled from Ras Ain with this family of five.
“The children tried to be brave as we walked to the border, but they are starting to understand the meaning of war.” he added.
“The journey to safety was extremely hard and the children have endured so much,” explained Hamida Lasseko, UNICEF’s Representative in Iraq.
“Our priority is to re-introduce a degree of normalcy in their lives as quickly as possible and to identify the most vulnerable children, including those who have been separated from their caregivers while fleeing the violence,” she added.
UNICEF’s mobile child protection team have so far identified nine unaccompanied children at the Sahela border near Duhok and Ninewah. Six children have already been reunited with their families, two have had their family traced and are awaiting reunification and one child is still in process with those looking for family.
In the camp, UNICEF is working to set up Child Friendly Spaces to support the mental health needs of children as well as establishing temporary learning spaces so that they can quickly resume their education. Health and Nutrition teams are also in action, working to vaccinate all children under 15 against polio and measles in order to prevent disease outbreaks.
In addition to the new refugees, Iraq continues to host over a quarter million Syrian refugees who arrived in the country following the conflict in Syria in 2012 and 2013. The refugee response in Iraq remains highly underfunded and it needs increase; there will be a need to quickly mobilize additional resources to respond to the humanitarian needs of the increasing number.
Laila Ali is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF in Iraq.