The number of displaced people in Iraq continues to grow at a fast pace due to the continued violence in the country. Today, there are an estimated 3.3 million people displaced in the country, including more than 200,000 Syrian refugees.
Huddled into small tents in makeshift camps, these vulnerable families and their children struggle to survive. Temperatures drop below freezing at night.
In response to this worsening humanitarian crisis, SOS (SOS) Children’s Villages will open a new Emergency Response Program in Iraq. The program, due to start early this year, will provide psychological care and livelihood support to displaced families in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, with an initial focus on the Yazidi community.
Alia Al-Dalli, the director of SOS Children’s Villages Middle East and North Africa Regional Office, visited Iraq three times last year to assess the need in the Kurdish region.
Was the situation as you imagined when you visited Dohuk?
Al-Dalli, who is from Iraq, explained in a recent Q&A the acute need for humanitarian aid
I am an Iraqi. I have worked on complex emergencies and have spent most of my career working in the Middle East and North Africa. What I saw and heard during my trips to Dohuk were among the worst I have experienced. We knew that there were upwards of half a million people displaced and living in 18 formal and informal camps, or squatting in the area. However, when you see this in reality, it is truly heart-breaking.
This is an arid desert with mountains surrounding everything. There is dust everywhere. There are rows and rows of gray tents for as far as the eye can see. Families live in tents with less than a meter separating them from their neighbor’s tent.
On our initial assessment in January, temperatures were as low as 2 degrees Celsius [35 degrees Fahrenheit]. In June on our second assessment there were days when they exceeded 40 degrees [104 degrees Fahrenheit]. Living in these tents in such extreme temperatures is debilitating.
What is the biggest need?
It was obvious that the Yazidi community needs psychological and emotional support to help people manage the violence and depravity they have experienced. Those who have survived captivity and escaped or have been bought back by family members have experienced the unimaginable. Women and girls have been raped repeatedly and sold between ISIS fighters. One of the hardest things they talked about, though, was no longer being in captivity but knowing that their sister or mother or friend was still enduring this torment and anguish.
Those who were not captured still suffer from extreme trauma knowing what their loved ones are experiencing, or not knowing if their loved ones are alive or dead. There are nowhere near enough trained psychologists and therapists in the area to meet the need.
You say that some people have been “bought back” by their families. What do you mean?
Children collect water in the Yazidi Khanke camp.
We were told repeatedly that families are contacted by ISIS or a middleman and sent photos of their loved ones with a price tag on them. For between $1,000 and $5,000 you can buy back your daughter, son, mother, or other loved one.
We met a matriarch in her late 70s who showed us the messages and photos she had received. She borrowed money to buy back her grandson who was kidnapped at five and released at seven, having been made to watch beheadings, forced to change his religion, taught how to use weapons, and beaten constantly on his fingers and toes. When we met them, her grandson had been back with her for 10 days and was extremely aggressive with everyone in the room—kicking, hitting and biting them.
The lady then showed us a photo of her daughter with her three other grandsons. The look in her daughter’s eyes in the photo continue to haunt me. It is hard to imagine the absolute desperation one must feel when they can only borrow enough to rescue one family member, knowing that they have to choose among loved ones and abandon the others.
Alongside training workers in trauma and emotional care, you will also be running sports classes, skills-based programs and income-generating activities. Why is this?
Inside the camps there is almost nothing to do for adults, young people and children. Women mainly stay inside their tents all day and evening. Children and young people have limited to no space to play openly.
Music, art and sport are therapeutic. So the programs we are introducing will not only break the monotony of the day, but also provide an outlet for the frustration, sadness and trauma that this community has experienced.
Very few of the community are working and therefore it is imperative that SOS Children’s Villages uses our expertise in family-strengthening and skills-training so the community can support itself. As the majority of Yazidis generated their livelihoods from agriculture before the genocide, we will also be running an agricultural program for young men and women so that when they are able to return home, they are able to resume their livelihoods.