In the summer of 2014, an onslaught by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forced thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, including the small Yazidi religious sect. Yazidi men, women and children hid in the Sinjar mountains in western Iraq, surrounded by the extremist group.
They relied on U.S.-led coalition airdrops of water and food as Iraqi helicopters tried to extract the injured, old and young. Finally, Kurdish forces broke the ISIS siege and secured a humanitarian corridor for the Yazidis to escape on foot to the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
Not all of them managed to escape - accused by ISIS of being devil-worshippers, hundreds of women and girls were enslaved by the group, and thousands of their men were murdered. “They killed everyone without differentiating - women, children, the elderly, young men,” said Abbas Sabry, a 21-year-old Yazidi teacher and poet from Sinjar.
This mass displacement has left thousands still living in tented refugee camps nearly two years later. Around half of the 20,000 Yazidi refugees who settled in Khanke camp near Dohuk are children. The UK-based AMAR foundation wanted to help educate Yazidi children, but also to help them process the trauma they have suffered.
This is where Kitabna, a non-profit organization based in the Middle East, came in. It writes and illustrates books specifically targeted at refugee children that are a resource for teachers with few materials, but also tap into sensitive issues in a child-friendly way.
Teaming up with Kitabna and global education organization Firefly International, AMAR produced two books and distributed 6,250 copies to the five camps around Dohuk. The organizations also trained local Yazidi teachers how to deliver the materials.
AMAR project officer Carmen Little said although there is a long local history of oral storytelling in the community, “the concept of reading written storybooks is still relatively new.” The first book was about a group of frogs that live in a lake beside two refugee camps and want to bring the two communities together.
The second book is about an injured starling that is nursed back to health by a young refugee girl. The books - with colourful, full-page pictures - are written in English, Arabic and a dialect of Kurdish. “We imitate the frogs and the birds so we can plant some smiles on the children’s faces,” said Sabry, who is one of the teachers that AMAR trained.
Little said the books “subtly reference issues of displacement, losing family members and missing home,” in an attempt to get children to open up. For example, “The Starling with the Broken Wing” reads: “But in the camp, Iman did not feel like everyone else. She also wanted to fly home” like the bird.
As the book progresses, Iman makes friends in the camp and realizes everyone wants to fly home. Firefly’s Maria Chambers, a teacher and specialist trainer of child trauma therapy, said: “So many of [the children] have seen terrible things: neighbors and friends dying, things that no one should see, let alone children.”
As a result, many Yazidis lost the trust and companionship they had felt with their Arab neighbors. “There’s a lot to do now to rebuild that trust,” Chambers added. That message shines through in “The Lake Where Frogs Lived.” Although you might be different from your neighbors - who for displaced Yazidis are Kurds and Arabs - you do not need to fear them.
“The level of awareness of trauma [among the community] is very low. Their understanding is to bury it and not talk about it,” said Chambers. “But you don’t have to live with this for years. It can be a relatively quick process [to address]. To have someone say ‘I’ve slept three nights running for the first time in years,’ that feedback is so rewarding.”
Chambers and the AMAR team looked at identifying signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and preliminary steps to help. Sabry said he just wants the kids to know that people still care about them. “The children felt more relaxed and happier [after the sessions], but they still stay sad,” he said. “Because I’m one of the refugees, I can feel what they feel, and I can see the look of sadness in their eyes.”
In recent months, Iraqi government and Kurdish forces have retaken territory from ISIS, including areas around Sinjar. For many waiting in camps around Dohuk, their thoughts turn to home. However, this poses different challenges such as fears over security, destroyed infrastructure, desecrated towns, and integrating back into their homelands.
While one project is trying to help children cope with their traumas, no one yet knows what hardships lay ahead. In the last page of “The Starling with the Broken Wing,” the injured bird, now nursed back to health, leaves to rejoin his family. The lasting message is clear: Despite the hurt, one day we all get to go home.
By James Haines-Young