Displaced children: “Never underestimate people’s capacity for compassion”
Esther Press is Save the Children’s Digital Engagement Manager. In June she visited Iraq, to see first-hand our work in the country.
Every day in my job, I’m confronted by images and stories of awful things that are happening a long way away from my office.
Some of them, like the photos of poor Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body, will stay with me forever.
It was inspiring for me to see how much the world was shaken into action by that image. I just hope that, among all the horror and fearmongering, people are taking the time to think about the humans this is affecting – humans like Alan; humans like you and I.
Earlier this year I had the chance to see first-hand what it is really like for children fleeing war and persecution, when I travelled to see Save the Children’s work in Iraq.
An out-of-date picture?
Some of my friends and family got why I was going, and that this had the potential to be a life-changing experience. Others couldn’t believe I was going to a country they thought of as so dangerous.
I realised that the Iraq in people’s imaginations is the one broadcast by the media during the late nineties and early noughties.
Away from the headlines, a lot has changed, and Iraq now faces new challenges.
As the war continues in Syria, nearly 250,000 Syrian refugees have fled over the border to seek safety in the country. Alongside this, over 3.1 million Iraqis within the country have been forced to leave their homes as a result of ongoing fighting.
Since January 2014, when brutal conflict and violence escalated, many families have had to flee their homes in a matter of minutes, leaving their entire lives behind them. Many of them have decided to risk their lives in the Mediterranean – because even this option is safer than staying behind.
Numbers hitting home
However, in Iraq most of the people who have been forced to leave their homes have not chosen to head towards Europe. In fact millions of people have stayed in the country – fleeing cities occupied by armed groups for safer areas.
We’ve been working in Iraq for more than two decades. Since January 2014, we’ve reached over 500,000 Iraqis who have been forced to leave their homes. Almost half of them have been children.
Nearly 250,000 children – it’s a big statistic. But it was only when I arrived at the camps and communities where these people are living that the colossal numbers really hit me.
During one visit to Kirkuk, just 25 km from the front line, I met with a community living in an unfinished housing estate.
We provide them with clean water and toilet facilities through our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme.
Just a few kilometres down the road, people were living relatively comfortable lives, with nice apartments around a thriving city centre. Yet here was an entire village-worth of houses, all without proper roofs, windows and doors, providing shelter to hundreds of Iraqis with nowhere else to turn.
I was also amazed to hear that property developers were allowing families (often up to ten people per house) to stay in their properties and they had no plans to try and get their land back. As with the stories of generosity coming out of Europe in recent months, it’s proof that people’s capacity for compassion can never be underestimated.
In these half-built villages, and in the purpose-built camps, hundreds of children flock daily to our child-friendly spaces. They get to learn and play there – the kind of things kids do at home. Except these children don’t have homes anymore.
In Erbil I visited the Shawez child programme, an urban centre for children displaced by the violence in Iraq. These centres are commonplace for displaced children in Iraq – essentially just houses in the town, which we rent to provide them with a safe area to continue their studies.
It was strange to think that what was once someone’s bedroom was now a classroom – with rows of children seated on mismatched chairs desperately vying for the teacher’s attention.
Later, the director of the Shawez centre explained that funding for these regular classes was running out. Soon, these children would have nowhere to go to continue their education.
I fought back tears as she spoke about how important education is for children going through the turmoil of conflict. Getting an education was something I never questioned – so I’d never really appreciated its importance, or what it must feel like to live in fear of it being taken away from me, until now.
It’s not just the lessons that are priceless. For these children, education provides access to psychological support from peers and teachers and, in the long term, holds the key to a better future.
What is home now?
Every child I met during my time in Iraq had the same hope for the future – all they want is to go home. Yet the homes they remember no longer exist.
At one camp, staff told us that a young girl and her family had just received news from a family member that their home in Tikrit had been bombed.
Just like that, that little girl’s life was turned upside down. What must it be like for a child to live with that kind of uncertainty?
But as I listened to this story and watched the girl playing with her friends I realised that, for these children, life goes on.
They have no control over their circumstances and they don’t even attempt to make sense of it. They’re just doing their best to get on with the only life they know. With the right support, love and protection, they can be far more resilient than we give them credit for.
No time for excuses
The age of information means that we now live in a global society. There is no excuse for ignorance, and no excuse for ignoring the plight of others.
I was so proud to see the impact of our work in Iraq – helping children who could so easily be forgotten. But we have a long way to go before the challenges we face are overcome.
As we drove back to the office one day a staff member told me that he was just 16 when he fled the war in Iraq. He travelled through 10 different countries, without his family, before ending up in England. As soon as it was safe for him to do so, he returned home to Iraq.
That was nearly 15 years ago, but around the world today, we’re still working with so many children who are going through the same turmoil. As a global society we need to show compassion and be there for them.
It’s heartbreaking that so much time has passed and so little has changed.
Our teams are on the ground in Iraq, providing children and families forced to flee their homes with urgently-needed aid.