Among Iraq’s displaced, creating safe spaces for children

A broom sweeps across concrete. Low chatter. Dishes scrubbed with a rough wire brush. An errant soccer ball bounds off a wall. These are the day-to-day sounds of life among a group of 35 Iraqi families from Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in northern Iraq, who have fled their homes and have taken refuge in a school in Erbil. 

Every other Tuesday, the crackling of an old speaker coming to life interrupts these sounds. And then – “Everybody do the hamster dance!” The song brings children from their makeshift rooms and streaming into the inner courtyard. 

Teenage group leaders –  known as mobilizers – try to arrange the jumping, clapping, wiggling bodies into neat rows. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t matter – everyone is smiling and dancing, even if they aren’t following the steps quite right. 

UNICEF Iraq, with funding from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, supports these activities for displaced children. Each month, this programme reaches approximately 1,100 children in 11 non-camp settings around Erbil, providing them time to forget their difficulties through playing games, making art and joining in team sports. 

Across Iraq, additional Communications for Development (C4D) activities reach nearly 11,000 children and families every month. But it’s not just for the children. “It’s two hours of peace for the parents,” says Abdullah Rashid, from one of UNICEF’s implementing partners. 

A peaceful moment 

Nisha Meelis*, a mother of three who has lived at the school for nine months, agrees. In listing what she misses from her home in Qaraqosh, she cites what many others do, as well – the simple things. “I miss my friends, our house, the garden,” she says. 

But with a wistful look toward the low classroom ceiling, she adds, “I also miss our rooftop. It was where we could find a bit of peace and privacy.” Though it may not be a rooftop with a garden view, while the children’s entertainment programme is running, Nisha has a moment for tea with a friend without having to worry about her three energetic youngsters. 

Meanwhile, the teenagers here get the opposite – something to do. With ripped jeans and well-combed hair, Dina Zayya, 18, is a typical teenager. But she suddenly seems older when she talks about fleeing her home in Qaraqosh with her family last August. 

“After we left, the fighters who came destroyed our house,” she says. “They took everything.” Looking at the ground to help hold back tears, she explains that what little they did have when they arrived in Erbil –  the family car and her mother’s gold – they’ve had to use to sustain the family. “We sold it to survive,” she says. 

Dina goes on to say that she doesn’t know what the future holds, and she misses school. But at least for now, the monotony of life in this temporary settlement is alleviated by her role as a mobilizer. As she visits displacement sites around Erbil with ten other facilitators, leading dance sessions for younger children and teaching art lessons or screening films, the job gives her a role to play. 

Her favourite part? “I work together with my younger sister.” Two hours after arriving, the programme staff start to pack up. But before they do, the mobilizers ask for one last dance. This time it’s not a cartoon hamster tune, but something much closer to home: an Assyrian song that prompts a traditional dance. 

A circle forms and the facilitators and children finally manage to coordinate and jump together in a graceful, gleeful circle, while the adults on the edges of the courtyard look on and laugh. For a few minutes, a piece of home brings remembrance of a home at peace.

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