Despite the unseasonably sunny weather during our visit in mid-February, it was obvious from the outset that the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) and Syrian refugees in northern Iraq are not somewhere any of us would choose to live with our families.
On day one, I had travelled to Harsham IDP camp outside Erbil, Iraq, to meet with the Unicef staff who are working around the clock, providing essential services to children and working diligently to protect them from the dangers they face. The scale of the crisis in this region is huge. Over the last five years, 245,000 Syrian people have fled to Iraq to escape the conflict in their country.
Around 97% of these refugees have been received in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that I was visiting. Within Iraq itself, there has been a mass displacement of over 3.3 million people from their homes since early 2014, half of whom are children. One statistic in particular frightened me: 70% of refugee children in Iraq have now missed at least one year of school.
I can’t imagine this happening to my own children. Unfortunately, it is a direct result of the destruction and abandonment of schools due to the ongoing conflict in the region, which has left almost five and a half thousand schools destroyed or out of use. Here in the UK we’re calling for the Government to prioritise education in emergencies by signing up to the Safe Schools Declaration, sending a clear message to the world that schools must not be attacked or used for military purposes.
In Harsham, I met 16-year-old Ahmed. He and his family had fled Iraq’s second city, Mosul, along with 600,000 other people, in June 2014. Thanks to Unicef and its partners, Ahmed and his siblings are attending school in the camp, but there are still so many more children in danger of missing out on an education.
Up to half of children in refugee camps in Iraq are unable to attend school, putting them at risk of becoming involved in child labour or as is the case for many girls, getting married early. Ahmed loves football and is the goal keeper in the camp team, but he told me he was worried about his future after school.
Ahmed was helping out in the child-friendly space within the camp, which Unicef has created for younger pre-school children. There I also met the child protection team, who told me that over 10% of the children in the camp attend their sessions. The most common issues were post-traumatic stress disorders related to the children’s displacement and flight from home. This often presented as sleep disorders or bed wetting in younger children.
Older children faced hazards associated with going out to work; one boy recently lost an arm in a building site accident. Children in Iraq also face the same range of issues that children face anywhere in the world, from minor behavioural issues to serious learning impairment. Unicef is funding the child protection team, social workers who are doing an amazing job of supporting families to deal with these issues in some of the most challenging circumstances.
Imagine a family of six living in a single tent and one child has a sleeping disorder – everyone is affected. There are also over one thousand Syrian families living in nearby Qushtapa refugee camp.
Although described as a transit camp, some have been there several years. Hamed and Zarga welcomed us into their tent and proudly described the adaptations they had made to make it habitable for their three children, Dahel, Hozan and Nidhal. All of the children attended the Unicef school in the camp and the two eldest wanted to become doctors.
Although they’d had limited education themselves the parents were keen to encourage and support their children. Last year, Unicef provided education to 500,000 children in Iraq. It was lovely to see the children throughout the camp with their bright blue schoolbags carrying Unicef text books. The importance of education in giving hope for the future has never been clearer to me.
As we left the camp, a group of three young boys ran along the mud road of the camp with kites sailing high behind them. The image reminded me of the very powerful book, “The Kite Runner” by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini. It was uplifting to see these boys happy and playing together.
Thanks to Unicef and its partners, the schools, child-friendly spaces and protection activities we support are providing essential hope and security, so that some day Ahmed, Dahel, Hozan and Nidhal will be able to fulfil their dreams and we can ensure that a whole generation is not lost to the despair of conflict.
By Mark Devlin