Last week, in a dusty tent, I found myself sitting and talking with a group of mostly Yazidi women who one year ago were forced to flee from Sinjar when ISIS took control of the area. Each a mother of young children, the women told difficult stories of how the children struggled to cope with the what they saw and experienced, some having had to leave their grandparents behind, some having seen other children abandoned on the way, and others seeing dead bodies all around them as they left.
In the midst of concerns about the numbers of people who might want to seek refuge in the UK, it’s easy to forget that most people affected by conflict never leave their own country.
In 2014 alone 2.2 million Iraqis were forced to leave their homes and have taken refuge in other parts of Iraq; many in the relative safety of Kurdistan, northern Iraq (the green area on the map), where the mothers I spoke to now live.
Funding for the crisis in Iraq is far from meeting its target and so conditions in the IDP (internally displaced person) camp I visited are poor. Families live in tents and electricity is usually off for most of the day, leaving people with no protection from the summer heat which can reach almost 50 degrees. In the complex context of Iraq where it’s difficult to know what will happen next, and the country is also home to thousands of Syrian refugees, it’s not easy to feel hopeful for for these families.
Over the last ten days I’ve been part of a team evaluating the emergency response of a local child-focused NGO which never planned to deliver humanitarian relief but in the midst of the great needs they’ve seen around them have massively increased and developed their work to respond. In the IDP camp I visited they are the only organisation providing services for children.
Children love having a safe and fun place to go and spend time, and the child friendly spaces act as an entry point for the team to identify children in need of further support and to work to support the whole family. This is possible here because of this organisation’s long-term focus on work around keeping children safe and their deep knowledge of the local context and systems that come from having been present in northern Iraq over many years.
Children’s lives are changing through the work of the team I met with last week. One of the mothers told me that after the crisis her son simply stopped speaking and spent all his time alone. He was initially reluctant to go to the child friendly space, but since starting to attend regularly he has begun to interact with other children again, and now wants to go so much that he wakes his mother up early in the morning to take him. Although it’s unclear how soon there can be any sense of resolution to the complex crisis in Iraq and Syria, this local organisation understands and acts on the critical reality that children’s lives cannot simply be put on hold while we wait to see what happens.
In the really difficult contexts we see all around us today, I’m believing more and more deeply that the key solution lies in supporting and resourcing local organisations like this who are already there on the ground, already passionate about working alongside the most vulnerable in their location, already equipped to work in their environment and willing to stay when media attention and funding fades. I believe that the more visible these stories of local people caring and acting for children become, the more chance there is that we can see a world where, even amidst the most difficult circumstances, children can be safe and hope for a positive future which can become a reality.