She is only 36, but looks about ten years older. Her name, Ghaniyah, means wealthy woman in Arabic. But she sleeps in the open with her husband and four children on thin mattresses opposite a construction site, separated from the sky by a poorly fixed strip of cloth that hangs overhead, blowing in the wind.
After they had to run for their lives a second time, they sought refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in this desert that has become a camp for displaced persons. The camp has swelled from 5,000 to 38,000 in less than six months.
Both government and aid agencies struggle daily to provide shelter, clean water, food and other basic services to families like Ghaniyah’s, displaced from some of the poorest regions of this country. “We used to have farmland in Salah al-Din,” Ghaniyah says. “But armed groups drove us out and we fled to Hawija two years ago.”
Her children have not been to school in a while. “We stopped sending them after some schools in the area were attacked. We were afraid they would get hurt.” Hawija is 210 kilometers north of Baghdad, one of several towns the Iraqi government has battled to recapture from armed groups as it sweeps northwards to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
More than 213,000 people have been displaced along that route since May 2016 – many of them driven further north to camps like Debaga. “We left Hawija because of the hunger and the bombing, and ended up here,” she says. Not all the displaced people in Debaga live in the open, though many do.
The first families to arrive are housed in pre-fabricated shelters, preparations are underway to house newcomers. UNICEF and partners provide new arrivals with food, hygiene kits, drinking water and other essentials to make this terrible experience a little more bearable. UNICEF has also built sanitation blocks for latrines and showers.
In the unfinished school, a crowd envelops the aid workers who distribute blocks of ice. A woman in a lilac headscarf walks out, cradling a cold block with both hands. “It’s for drinking,” she tells me. In this dusty camp where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius – a little ice can make all the difference.
For two years, Omar, 15, and his family lived under the harsh rule of armed groups in his village of Haji Ali. When the Iraqi army advanced to retake the nearby city of Qayyarah last August, his family were dubbed government sympathizers and expelled from their ancestral home.
“We walked about a kilometer to the banks of the Tigris and waited there until the battle was over. We cannot go back home because the village still comes under fire.” Omar tells me he spends his mornings in a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space and reads books in the afternoons. I ask him where he learnt to speak English so well. His eyes light up.
“Back home we had a wonderful English teacher called Younis. His classes were so interesting I wished the whole school day would be one long English class.” After a pause he adds, “I don’t know where he is now.”
Like many Iraqi children, Omar’s schooling has been interrupted many times these past three years, but he hopes that won’t stand in the way of one day becoming a translator. A UNICEF-supported school is due for completion this October, in time for the coming school year.
It will have capacity for 850 children and will operate in three daily shifts – not enough to educate the estimated 8,600 school-age children already in the camp. Over the next few weeks, more than a million people could be displaced by the battle for Mosul, nearly half of them children.
The UN has appealed for US$284 million to meet the humanitarian needs of families affected by violence. And in places such as Debaga, these needs are only expected to grow.
By Farah Dakhlallah