Tag Archives: Iraq

Displaced Iraqi children from Mosul now living in Baherka Camp in northern Iraq.

An uncertain future for the children of Iraq

Leaving the departures terminal in Baghdad airport is like walking into an oven. It is over 50 degrees. I haven’t been to Baghdad for three years. When I last left, I thought the country was on the right track.

Things have, however, taken a sharp turn since June last year – and not in the right direction. More than three million people have been displaced. Many ran for their lives. Children have been abducted, girls raped and tens of thousands of houses looted or seized.

It’s rush hour as we drive into the ‘International Zone’, a fortified area of about 10 square km where the United Nations offices are located. On ‘Route Charlie’ – or the ‘route of the dead’, as it was known during the 2003 conflict – dozens of Iraqi cars are queued at the checkpoint, their human cargo trying to get to work.

Displaced Iraqi children from Mosul now living in Baherka Camp in northern Iraq.

Displaced Iraqi children from Mosul now living in Baherka Camp in northern Iraq. (c)UNICEF/2015/Juliette Touma

Baghdad
At 7 p.m., we meet our colleague A’li in Baghdad. A’li’s just back from the camps of displaced people. He’s sweating. He tells us about the misery he’s witnessed. “The past few days have been sheer hell,” he says. “People were pleading for drinking water.” A’li and colleagues have been working to truck water into the area.

A’li is among some 40 Iraqi staff working with UNICEF in Baghdad, helping children and families in need. Every morning, they take the perilous journey to work. In the past week alone, two bombs have gone off in the capital, killing more than 100 people. According to the United Nations Mission in Iraq, July has been the deadliest month so far this year. “I have to leave my house at five every morning to avoid traffic and the bombs,” Omar, another colleague, tells me.

Back on the airport road, a huge placard reads: “The will of the people is stronger than the tyrants!” A few days later, mass protests take place in Baghdad. Iraqis are protesting the lack of electricity amid what has been reported as the harshest heat wave in decades.

Erbil
We head north to Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region, which last year received the highest number of families fleeing violence in Mosul and other areas. Many left loved ones behind.

Rami, 12, recounts how his grandfather disappeared when armed groups attacked his house in Hamdaniya, outside Mosul. He now lives in the Baherka camp, which is home to 1,500 children.

As we walk through the camp, I can’t help but think: “Hang on a minute – I’ve been here before.” Except I haven’t. I realize that what this camp in Iraq reminds me of is Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. The similarities are everywhere. It is dusty, boiling hot, full of tents. In a different country going through a different conflict for a different reason, people’s analogous stories of despair sound like restless shouts into the void.

Future
Iraq is spending 35 per cent of its budget on security, and the humanitarian funding is dwindling. On this visit, I keep thinking of the huge duty for aid workers. Up until a few years ago, Iraq was very close to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, especially when it came to children’s enrolment in education. Quite impressive, given that Iraq has gone through more than three decades of conflict, sanctions and economic stagnation. But, like Yemen and Syria, Iraq is now sinking into violence, killings and anguish. Children are at the very centre of the suffering.

A couple of frightening numbers keep popping up as a reminder of the challenge ahead of us: There are 3 million children out of school in Iraq, while 35,000 children under 5 die every year.

I hope that, when I go back to Iraq again in a few years’ time, every single one of these children will be sitting at a desk in a nice school, and all newborns will get to grow up into healthy babies. I wonder what Rami’s destiny will be. Will he continue to live in a camp? Will he get out and rebuild his life? Or will he perhaps, like many thousands, end up fleeing Iraq entirely, perhaps on a rickety boat, thinking, hoping, no matter the journey, life must certainly be better somewhere else?

Juliette Touma is a Communications & Media Specialist with the UNICEF Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa.

Children UNICEF

Children on the move through Europe dream of a ‘normal’ life

Mascut, 3, from Syria, plays with a ball at the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space. After waiting 6 hours in the sun to cross the border with his mother and sister, he recalls what it feels like to rest and play before embarking on the next stretch to Serbia.

Mascut, 3, from Syria, plays with a ball at the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space. After waiting 6 hours in the sun to cross the border with his mother and sister, he recalls what it feels like to rest and play before embarking on the next stretch to Serbia. (c)UNICEFMK/2015/TomislavGeorgiev

When I arrived on Saturday to the town of Gevgelija near the border with Greece, I witnessed people and children with utter desperation and fear in their eyes. Thousands of children and families on the move from conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa had pushed through a police cordon where they had been waiting to enter the country. This resulted in a stampede as exhausted and frightened people raced towards the city centre.

Amidst the confusion, children were separated from their families and left to wander down the nearby railway tracks. My colleague and I, worried for their safety, set out to find these children so that we could bring them to a makeshift protection centre until they could be reunited with their parents and caregivers. It was a terrifying ordeal for them, but fortunately, all of the boys and girls were later able to re-join their families.

Yet for most of these children, this incident was just one more hardship in their long and perilous journeys in search of safety after having been displaced by conflict from their home countries. Some 2,000 – 3,000 people, usually in smaller groups of 50 – 100, are now crossing daily from Greece into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after making the dangerous trip by sea across the Aegean. Soon they will move on to Serbia and then to other countries in the European Union.

After travelling for days on end, the youngest children in particular often arrive dehydrated or running a fever because they have been sleeping out in the open. Children and adults come barefoot, their shoes having been destroyed after so much walking.

Some families are from Syria or Iraq, while others have travelled from Afghanistan. All just want to live in peace, free from the threat of violence, displacement and death.

Lamar, 4, has travelled with her mother for just over 2 months from Syria to the Gevgelija border crossing. They are heading to Germany to reunite with Lamar's father who managed to reach Germany 4 months ago. Her mother tells us their house was burned to the ground and that they have nothing left. The hope of reuniting their family and a better life gives them courage to keep moving.

Lamar, 4, has travelled with her mother for just over 2 months from Syria to the Gevgelija border crossing. They are heading to Germany to reunite with Lamar’s father who managed to reach Germany 4 months ago. Her mother tells us their house was burned to the ground and that they have nothing left. The hope of reuniting their family and a better life gives them courage to keep moving. (c)UNICEFMK/2015/TomislavGeorgiev

Most of the children I have spoken with do not want to talk about their experiences with war. They are more interested in sharing their hopes for the future which always seems to include going back to school. Just the other day, I watched as a group of children from several different countries played together by pretending they were in a classroom. Even though they did not all speak the same language, they organized themselves into ‘pretend’ teachers and students – sharing in the same pleasant daydream of just being a ‘normal kid’.

It’s been about five days since the chaotic scene at the border and the services available for people crossing over have improved. There is a new Migrant Reception Centre about 500 metres from the Greek border and we are working with our partners to ensure that children and families arriving here are provided with essential services to help sustain them for their onward journey. A second tent at the centre is now being used as a safe space place for women and children to access support services.

Yet far more must be done to meet the growing humanitarian needs here. There is not enough shelter to accommodate the number of people passing through and many are forced to sit outside for hours in the scorching sun. More sanitation facilities are needed and there is no running water – I’ve seen parents washing their children with bottled water.

We’re here to help though and day by day, it will get better. I hope that one day soon the children I have met here will get what they want most – a normal life where they will be able to sit in a real classroom instead of an imaginary one.

Aleksandar Lazovski is a UNICEF Social Protection Specialist

RRM distribution in Kallar district, 28-7-2015, for IDPs from ANBAR , distributed to 1065 families, save the children the partner

In Iraq, reaching families caught in the fighting

RRM distribution in Kallar district, 28-7-2015, for IDPs from ANBAR , distributed to 1065 families, save the children the partner

The RRM distribution in Kalar district on 28 July reached 1,065 families. (c) UNICEF Iraq

The memory of a turning point in life – a change, a decision – sticks with you, clear as the day it happened.

“I joined Save the Children on 2nd February, 2014,” Nourshan recalled. “I had been in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, for six months, waiting to register for university.”

Nourshan, 24, isn’t from Iraq. Her home is in Aleppo, Syria, where in January 2013, she had six credits remaining to graduate from university with a degree in English Literature. “Ours was the first university to be bombed in Syria,” she explained about the abrupt halt in her education. “I remember, I was reading Othello.”

Nourshan. (c) UNICEF Iraq

Nourshan. (c) UNICEF Iraq

Nourshan is the Rapid Response Mechanism Program Manager at Save the Children. She travels around Iraq, conducting distributions of life-saving humanitarian aid. Save the Children, as a part of the UNICEF- and WFP-led Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) Consortium, has contributed to the distribution of drinking water, emergency food, and hygiene items to more than 3 million displaced people since July 2014.

At a distribution site in Kalar, on the border of Sulimaniyah and Diyala governorates in northern Iraq, three large trucks reverse to form an L-shape in a gravel parking lot outside of a police station. Nourshan calmly explains to arriving families how to register to receive the food, water, and hygiene supplies.

It’s a feat to remain collected under these grueling conditions- by 11 AM, the sun is baking the gathering crowd, there is scant shelter and it’s 49 C degree.

“The items that we’re delivering are the most important,” Nourshan says, standing by the distribution line. “They need water. They need something to eat. They need to wash their hands. It’s that simple.”

A family who received supplies during the RRM distribution in Kallar district in late July.

A family who received supplies during the RRM distribution in Kallar district in late July. (c) UNICEF Iraq

Nourshan started supporting the Rapid Response Mechanism in May 2015. She was struck by the urgency of the crisis – and the challenges posed by the mass movement of entire communities during conflict.

On 24 May, families fleeing escalating violence in Ramadi were stranded at Karatoo checkpoint, unable to pass from Diyala Governorate into Sulimaniya Governorate as fighting drew nearer. Nourshan and Save the Children had a narrow window of opportunity to reach the families as violence escalated nearby. But with the support of the RRM Consortium, and a stock of emergency humanitarian aid, they responded immediately.

“People were surprised we crossed the checkpoint to help them. We could hear the gunfire 200 metres away,” she said. When Nourshan and her team reached the families, they found a lot of people in need of medical care.

“Women had fainted. Elderly people were suffering from the heat and exhaustion.”

Save the Children alerted a service organization to the medical needs, and conducted a rapid assessment so that follow-up programming could address the families’ continuing needs for water, health, and protection services.

UNICEF, WFP and RRM partners, including Save the Children, aim to reach approximately 272,000 more families or an additional 1.9 million people before the end of the year.

When Nourshan left Syria, her plans for the future were put on hold. However, she remembers the exact day – the turning point – when she found a new purpose in helping others affected by conflict, just across the border the Iraq. In her work with the Rapid Response Mechanism, she continues that outreach – across borders and barriers – with a single focus to support vulnerable people in crisis.

“At that moment, I didn’t feel there was any difference between us. Our staff, the families, their children – we were all there together. They were really surprised to see us. I felt like we were doing something that was needed,” she said.

Chelsea Cowan is a consultant working with UNICEF Iraq.

A Yazidi girl poses for the camera. The Yazidis, are an ethnic minority in Iraq, and amongst some of the most vulnerable of the eight million people who've been affected by conflict.

Fears for Iraqi children as funding runs low

A Yazidi girl poses for the camera. The Yazidis, are an ethnic minority in Iraq, and amongst some of the most vulnerable of the eight million people who've been affected by conflict.

A Yazidi girl poses for the camera. The Yazidis are an ethnic minority in Iraq and among some of the most vulnerable of the eight million people who’ve been affected by conflict. © UNICEF Iraq/2014/Khuzaie

During Ramadan, the month in which observant Muslims take no food or water between sunrise and sunset, life in northern Iraq visibly slows down. Daytime temperatures hover in the mid to high 40Cs, so whether one is fasting or not, it’s wise to think carefully about venturing outdoors for extended periods.

“This is nothing,” an Iraqi colleague said when I remarked on the heat. “Later in summer, it’ll be 52C.”

I cannot imagine what 52C feels like. September, when temperatures start to drop, feels a very long way off.

There are hundreds of thousands of families for whom this searing heat represents a very real risk. More than three million people are displaced throughout Iraq. Many are living in tents, caravans, or unofficial shelters with inadequate services.

How will they cope? Will they have air conditioners? What about safe water, and adequate sanitation facilities? How will they protect themselves from the ever-present risk of fire and disease? Who will help them if they have extra challenges, such as illness or disability?

A Yazidi man receives a UNICEF aid kit. The conflict which has engulfed Iraq in the past year has displaced millions of people and shows no sign of ending.

A Yazidi man receives a UNICEF aid kit. The conflict, which has engulfed Iraq in the past year, has displaced millions of people and shows no sign of ending. © UNICEF Iraq/2014/Khuzaie

These are serious questions, because the scary fact is that UNICEF is running out of money to help the more than eight million Iraqis affected by this crisis.

Even taking into account Iraq’s troubled history, this humanitarian disaster is of unprecedented magnitude. And there’s no reason to suppose there’s an end in sight; last month, in one week alone, more than 20,000 people were displaced by conflict in Salah al-Din Governorate.

The United Nations estimates that by year’s end 10 million Iraqis will be affected—that’s nearly a third of the country.

Yet UNICEF is fast approaching the moment when it’ll be forced to cut back its programmes and stop some altogether. Halting critical work at the time when Iraqi children need us the most seems unthinkable. But without the necessary funds, we may have no choice.

Chris Niles is an Emergency Communications Consultant with UNICEF Iraq.

A Yazidi man receives a UNICEF aid kit. The conflict which has engulfed Iraq in the past year has displaced millions of people and shows no sign of ending.

Temor por los niños de Iraq al disminuir los fondos

Una niña yazidi posa para la cámara. Los yazidis son una minoría étnica en Iraq y, de los 8 millones de personas afectadas por el conflicto, ellos se cuentan entre los más vulnerables.

Una niña yazidi posa para la cámara. Los yazidis son una minoría étnica en Iraq y, de los 8 millones de personas afectadas por el conflicto, ellos se cuentan entre los más vulnerables. © UNICEF Iraq/2014/Khuzaie

Durante el ramadán, el mes en que los musulmanes practicantes no consumen alimentos ni beben agua entre el amanecer y el atardecer, evidentemente baja el ritmo de vida en el norte de Iraq. Durante el día, la temperatura sobrepasa los 40 grados centígrados, de modo que se esté o no ayunando, es prudente pensarlo dos veces antes de animarse a salir a la calle por lapsos largos.

“Eso no es nada”, afirmó un colega iraquí cuando me referí al calor. “En verano, la temperatura llegará a 52 grados centígrados”.

No puedo imaginar lo que se siente con una temperatura semejante. Y septiembre, cuando empezará a bajar, parece estar muy lejos.

Para cientos de miles de familias, este sofocante calor representa un verdadero riesgo. Hay más de 3 millones de personas desplazadas en Iraq, y muchas están viviendo en tiendas de campaña, caravanas o albergues no oficiales que carecen de servicios adecuados.

¿Cómo se las arreglarán? ¿Tendrán aire acondicionado? ¿Cómo accederán a agua potable y a un saneamiento adecuado? ¿Cómo se protegerán del riesgo permanente de enfermarse? ¿Y del riesgo de incendio? ¿Quién les ayudará si tienen dificultades adicionales, como alguna enfermedad o discapacidad?

Un hombre yazidi recibe un estuche de UNICEF con elementos básicos. El conflicto en que se sumió Iraq el año pasado ocasionó el desplazamiento de millones de personas, y no muestra signos de terminar.

Un hombre yazidi recibe un estuche de UNICEF con elementos básicos. El conflicto en que se sumió Iraq el año pasado ocasionó el desplazamiento de millones de personas, y no muestra signos de terminar. © UNICEF Iraq/2014/Khuzaie

Se trata de interrogantes serios porque la realidad es que UNICEF se está quedando sin dinero para ayudar a los más de 8 millones de iraquís afectados por esta crisis.

Incluso teniendo en cuenta la turbulenta historia de Iraq, la magnitud de este desastre humanitario no tiene precedentes. Y no hay motivos para suponer que el final esté cerca; el mes pasado, apenas en el curso de una semana, más de 20.000 personas resultaron desplazadas por el conflicto en la provincia de Salah al-Din.

Las Naciones Unidas calculan que para finales del presente año habrá 10 millones de iraquís afectados, esto es, casi un tercio de la población del país.

Sin embargo, se acerca rápidamente el momento en que UNICEF se verá obligado a recortar sus programas e, incluso, a suspender algunos. Resulta impensable detener una labor tan importante como la que llevamos a cabo, en momentos en que los niños y las niñas de Iraq más nos necesitan. Pero sin los fondos necesarios, es posible que no haya otra alternativa.

Chris Niles es Consultor de Comunicaciones de Emergencia de UNICEF Iraq.

Safa (14) is a Syrian refugee who fled violence two years ago and now lives in Kawergosk camp in northern Iraq.

Syria: hundreds of thousands of children missing out on education

I can still hear my children’s worried voices from the backseat. ‘Mom, do you think they will be nice? What if I won’t make any friends?’

It was the fall of 2001, my daughter was four, my son was six. We had just moved to Syria and were driving to their first day of school and pre-school outside of Damascus, full of the same nervous anticipation that millions of other children and parents feel every year on the first day of class.

My children wait for the school bus in Syria, many years ago.

My children wait for the school bus in Syria, several years ago. Photograph: author’s own

Over the next several years, that road was travelled so frequently that we knew every bump and tricky turn, they in their colourful school bus with their Syrian friends, teacher and a set of fluffy dice festively dangling in the window. I would join the other proud parents for the steady stream of school plays, sports days and end of year celebrations.

All of those memories came flooding back as I travelled that very same road to Damascus last week.The short drive from the Lebanese border to the country’s capital passed the familiar homes and housing blocks nestled in the same, sand-swept hilly terrain with patches of lush gardens, but in a distinctly different Syria for the country’s children than those days when school buses clogged city streets and ferried children to classrooms and seemingly bright futures.

Today, neighbourhoods and whole cities lie in ruin, some two million children inside Syria are out of school, while another estimated 700,000 children outside of the country are without education. Thousands of schools have been damaged, destroyed or are housing displaced families, and four million people, half of them children, have fled the horror of war, streaming into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.

All that promise for Syria’s youngest – the vast majority of whom were in school before the conflict – have given way to millions of children and adolescents being at risk of becoming a lost generation. It is the children and youth who pay the highest price for the world’s inability to put an end to a conflict that is not of their making.

Safa (14) is a Syrian refugee who fled violence two years ago and now lives in Kawergosk camp in northern Iraq.

Safa (14) is a Syrian refugee who fled violence two years ago and now lives in Kawergosk camp in northern Iraq. © UNICEF/MENA2015-00002/Hazou

Perhaps no one is shouldering the burden more than those children and families who were on the margin when the crisis was sparked some five years ago and has flared into one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in recent memory. They are often the most vulnerable, the most neglected, and the most at risk of abuse and exploitation.

The need to invest in the education of Syria’s children and youth in many ways has never been more urgent than now. School can provide a sense of normalcy in a situation far from it. It builds vital skills that children and youth need to help make a living and to one day reassemble shattered lives and communities. History has shown that no good comes out of lack of opportunity, destitute, anger and despair.

UNICEF, governments and partners are scaling up efforts and innovative ways to ensure that learning and care are provided to help stem the tide of destruction. Inside Syria, over 200 UNICEF staff are working with partners around the clock to help assist Syria’s children – not only with immediate humanitarian needs of water, nutrition and shelter, but also education. But much more is required in funding as needs are outpacing resources.

Investing in education is one of the best investments, not only for Syria’s children, but also for our collective future. It is the right thing to do, logically and morally.

Let’s never forget that the children sitting on our backseat or on the school bus one day could be the same children wrapped up in an impossible situation the next. We owe it to them and to their children to speak up and demand the same level of care and support we would want if it was our son, daughter, niece, nephew or our younger selves who were on the cusp of joining a lost generation.


Malene Kamp Jensen is a Communication Specialist based at UNICEF NYHQ.

Bushra with her youngest child Hajir.

Iraq: raising awareness on the importance of vaccination

Community mobilizers talk to displaced families in Baherka camp in Erbil, northern Iraq about the importance of having their families fully vaccinated.

Community mobilizers talk to displaced families in Baherka camp in Erbil, northern Iraq about the importance of having their families fully vaccinated. (c) Photo credit: UNICEF Iraq/2015/Niles

It’s mid-morning, in the Baherka camp for internally displaced people in Iraq, and Bushra is preparing lunch for her family. Sitting in her lap is her 8-month-old daughter Hajir, a bright-eyed cherub, who’s stuffing food into, and around, her mouth when she thinks her mother isn’t looking.

Bushra and her sister-in-law Shaha are making kuba – spice- and meat-filled dumplings. With the ease born of long practice, they expertly flatten the dough into perfect circles, fill them with meat and pinch them closed into neat crescents.

Between them, the two women have nine children. They’ve been in the camp, a former concrete factory on the outskirts of Erbil, for nine months. Violence forced them out of their homes in Mosul. But Bushra’s husband stayed behind to protect their home.

Bushra with her youngest child Hajir.

Bushra with her youngest child Hajir. (c) Photo credit: UNICEF Iraq/2015/Niles

“We have relatives back in Mosul,” she says. “But we have no way of contacting them. We don’t know how they are.”

Despite the uncertainty in their lives, the women are cheerful, and joke and chat as they assemble the family meal. It looks delicious.

This morning, the women have visitors. A team of mobilizers is going around the camp, home to about 3,000 people, talking to families about getting their children vaccinated.

Bushra and Shaha have heard a rumour in the camp that a child was left paralysed after having been vaccinated – and it’s misconceptions like these that the team want to lay to rest.

Scenes like this one are being played out all over the Kurdish region of Iraq this week, which is hosting more than 220,000 Syrian refugees and about 830,000 people displaced by conflict within the country.

The World Health Organization estimates that globally 1.5 million children die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases. Routine immunization is one of the most promising public health interventions available, but some populations, especially those from areas of conflict, remain underserved. World Immunization Week (24–30 April) is trying to close that gap.

The polio immunization campaign in northern Iraq, with generous funding from Rotary International, is a success story. UNICEF has a mandate for communication support in polio eradication, and with Rotary funding has sent 50 social mobilization teams throughout the region to high-risk areas in order to improve awareness of the polio campaign and routine immunization. Over the three-day campaign, each team aims to visit 30–40 families to impress upon them the importance of getting their children fully vaccinated.

Refugees and internally displaced people who live in camps can receive vaccinations at any time at the camps’ health centres. One challenge is to ensure that children receive follow-up vaccinations after their initial visit. So the social mobilizers have charts with a timetable that explains the immunization schedule.

Bushra understands that vaccines are not harmful to children, and that living in a camp setting makes them especially important, while also providing easier access to these health services. Hajir and all the other children have received their shots, as well as polio drops.

As she’s talking, Hajir scrambles off her mother’s lap and, for no apparent reason, bursts into tears. Her mother scoops her youngest child back into her arms to comfort her.

“We heard the rumours about vaccines, but we didn’t believe them,” she says. “I still got my children vaccinated.”

Chris Niles is an Emergency Communication Specialist in Iraq.

(c)UNICEF Iraq/2015/Jeffrey Bates

A volunteer’s commitment to helping Syrian mothers and babies

Janda, a 24-year-old volunteer health worker at Darashakran Camp for Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, starts her day early. She came to Darashakran when her family left Hassaka, Syria, two years ago and crossed into Iraq. At the time, she was enrolled in nursing school, but when her family fled the conflict she lost her chance to finish her studies.

Now in her new life Janda and a cadre of volunteers at the camp work with pregnant women and new mothers to provide prenatal and post-natal counseling and care. Mothers from Darashkran camp bring a new baby into this world about once every day, so Janda has to be alert and active. Early in the morning, with her supervisor and the other volunteers, Janda gathers her equipment and outlines the day’s work plan.

Refugee camps offer basic health services but lack the facilities and staff to provide the full range of health care that people need. To fill this gap, UNICEF and the Directorate of Health established a volunteer network that could help promote healthy behaviors and refer people who need more substantial health care to nearby hospitals.

Janda checks-up on a young baby in the camp. Neo-natal check-ups help keep babies healthy.

Janda conducts a check-up – neo-natal check-ups help keep babies healthy. (c) UNICEF Iraq/2015/Jeffrey Bates

When Janda found out about this programme she approached the camp management and volunteered her services. With her experience, Janda was selected to be part of the volunteer network for maternal-child care that UNICEF supports with funding from the Kuwait Government.

To help her and the other volunteers to prepare for their role, UNICEF and the Directorate of Health organized training on the basics of maternal and child health care provision in the camp setting. Janda has participated in three of these training courses. After her training and two years providing services to pregnant and new mothers, she knows her duties, the mothers, and their children well.

I visited Darashakran Camp earlier this month and spent a day with Janda. First we went to visit a family where a mother had given birth to a baby boy named Mamu. Mothers do not give birth at the camp, but up until delivery, and soon after the baby is born, they are back in their temporary homes. Janda’s duties as a health volunteer include neo-natal check-ups to ensure the infants are doing well after their return to the camp. Janda reflected, “One of the challenges in the camp is that we don’t have birthing facilities so we have to refer mothers to nearby hospitals for delivery.”

Low birth weight is a problem for newborns in the camp as their mothers don’t eat well, and the stress of displacement and living in camps reduces their ability to produce milk, so they have to rely on supplementary feeding.

“But we still encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months because this is best for the baby,” Janda declared.

Pregnant mothers get advice on diet and what to expect when expecting.

Pregnant mothers get advice on diet and what to expect when expecting. (c) UNICEF Iraq/2015/Jeffrey Bates

Janda spoke with the mother, Noor, also from Syria who has already given birth to two daughters, about nutrition, including exclusive breastfeeding, how to monitor the baby’s growth, as well as immunization and other health behaviors to ensure the child’s well-being. Noor told us, “I am happy here, but I hope this is the last baby I have in a refugee camp, I want to go home.”

UNFPA supports families to space births with advice, antenatal care and family planning practices, as well as supporting gynecologists and midwives to help refugees take control of their reproductive health. Janda told us that the volunteers discuss safe birthing and make referrals to the local medical clinic for other family planning services. Noor loves her children and wants to make sure she can take care of them, and that requires not only their health, but hers as well.

After finishing her visit with Noor and her family, Janda walked across the camp to see a girl newly arrived in Darashakran along with about 3000 others who fled the fighting in Kobane, Syria, just four months ago. The camp already had about 10,000 residents, and now with the influx of these additional refugees, resources are more stretched.

The 20-year-old girl, Ahlam, left Kobane with her family and made her way to Darashakran via Turkey. This is her first pregnancy, and at three months, her face expresses the worry and stress she bears after her ordeal and the fears for her unborn child. Janda talks calmly to her, and gives her advice on her diet and tells her not to let the stress get to her.

Janda stands in the camp, witht tents behind her. At the end of a long day,  she is still smiling.

At the end of a long day, Janda is still smiling. (c) UNICEF Iraq/2015/Jeffrey Bates

From the tents of the newly arrived Kobane refugees, Janda took us to the Baby Hut where pregnant women and new mothers gather. The Baby Huts give women the necessary space to breastfeed in private, to receive counseling and to let their other children play while they tend to their infants. UNICEF, with funding from the Government of Japan, has established these Baby Huts in all of the nine formal refugee camps, and is establishing them in the 25 camps across Iraq for the over 2.6 million internally displaced people as well.

So far this year, over 100 mothers at Darashkran Camp have given birth, so Janda and her colleagues have their work cut out for them. But Janda loves her job. “I love babies and children, and I’m so happy to be able to help my people.”

Then in simple French she says, J’aime mon travail, with a broad smile stretching across her face. “I miss my friends and life in Syria, and I worry about them, but I hope things will get better soon and I can go back to finishing my nursing degree.”

Jeffrey Bates is the Chief of Communications for UNICEF Iraq

On 10 February 2015, children surrender their weapons during a ceremony formalizing their release from the SSDA Cobra Faction armed group, in Pibor, South Sudan. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-0201/Rich

Children have the right to be children, not soldiers

On 10 February 2015, children surrender their weapons during a ceremony formalizing their release from the SSDA Cobra Faction armed group, in Pibor, South Sudan. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-0201/Rich

On 10 February 2015, children surrender their weapons during a ceremony formalizing their release from the SSDA Cobra Faction armed group, in Pibor, South Sudan. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-0201/Rich

This month marks ten years since my first negotiation to release ‘child soldiers’ from armed forces.

I still remember the look of fear mixed with excitement of Jean-Baptiste* as he realized he was going to go back to his family and his village in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With the help of UNICEF, he was starting the long journey during which UNICEF would help him heal, complete his education and envision a peaceful future.

Jean-Baptiste was far from the only child enrolled in the armed forces – in the four years I spent in DRC, more than 25,000 children were released and reintegrated into their communities across the troubled eastern part of the country.

As recently as last month, another 152 former ‘child soldiers’ were reunited with their families in DRC after months or even years of being apart. People often underestimate the perseverance and painstaking efforts involving in finding these children, releasing them from military life, reunifying them with their families and providing them the support they need to return to family life.

I remember vividly Jean-Baptiste describing to me how he had been forced to bury his friend who died of disease after months of living in the bush with little access to food or water, carrying heavy loads and always on alert for potential combat. Other children I met spoke of losing friends in battle, or even being forced to kill home-sick comrades who had tried to escape the group.

Last time I heard about Jean-Baptiste, he was happily at home, where he belongs, with his siblings and relieved parents. He was attending a vocational programme to learn carpentry and open a small business. His success was heart-warming though fragile as the region was still in turmoil. We even feared he might enroll again out of despair if he were not provided with the means of earning a livelihood.

DRC 2005: Former child soldiers wave to adult soldiers and civilians.  © UNICEF/NYHQ2005-0437/LeMoyne

DRC 2005: Former ‘child soldiers’ wave to adult soldiers and civilians. © UNICEF/NYHQ2005-0437/LeMoyne

As we mark the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, I cannot help but reflect on how children and adolescents are increasingly vulnerable to recruitment and use by armed forces and groups as conflicts around the world become more brutal, intense and widespread. Children end up on the frontlines sometimes by force, but more often than not they join armed forces driven by poverty, vengeance or ideology. They are used to fight but often start out in support functions that also entail great risk and hardship, serving as porters – often carrying heavy loads – look-outs, cooks or even sexual slaves.

As I worked in other parts of the world, I came across many children with the same hopes and fears as Jean-Baptiste. One of them was Samita*, who had been associated with the Maoist armed group in Nepal and rejected the idea of returning to the traditional lifestyle led by rural Nepalese women. To fulfil her aspirations, we helped her attend a nursing programme.

Whether in Nepal, DRC, Yemen, South Sudan, Colombia, Myanmar or any other country affected by armed conflict, our goal for anyone recruited into armed forces below the age of 18 is the same: release them and help them reintegrate back into the community.

How we go about doing this is tailored to each specific context and the needs of the children there. Their journey is often long, but full of promises and incredibly rewarding when we see them starting to believe in themselves, and thrive.

Former child soldiers play football, outside a UNICEF-assisted transit centre for recently released former child soldiers, in the town of N’dele, Central African Republic 2012. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0898/Sokol

Children formerly associated with an armed group play football, outside a UNICEF-assisted transit centre for recently released former ‘child soldiers’, in the town of N’dele, Central African Republic 2012. ©UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0898/Sokol

Over the past decade, amazing progress has been achieved to get children out of national armies and armed groups. However, since last year there are worries that this work might be jeopardized as several armed forces have started recruiting children once again. We are faced with the possibility of losing the ground that had been gained. We see this happening in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Central African Republic. This is harmful not only for the children and their families, but also for their communities.

To live in a more peaceful world, the last thing we need today are children on the front lines. Families and countries must value the protection of children and preserve their childhood.

UNICEF works with local partners to support children once they are released from armed forces and groups. This includes reunifying them with their families and providing them with health care, basic necessities and psychological support, as well as access to education and training programmes.

In addition to helping children associated with armed groups heal, we need to prevent the recruitment and use of children for military purposes. This includes helping children and adolescents to have access to meaningful livelihood opportunities to lessen the allure of stipends often offered to young military recruits, particularly from poor backgrounds.

In my current duty station in Gaza, the stakes could not be higher for children and the prospects of peace.

Among the concrete steps we can take are helping children to stay in school where they can learn skills that are relevant to the local job market, while prioritizing the creation of opportunities in the most impoverished and vulnerable communities.

Investing in children’s potential to help them become productive and peaceful members of society is a chance not only for the children themselves and their families, but for entire countries.

Pernille Ironside is the Chief of UNICEF’s Gaza Field Office. She has previously worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen, as well as UNICEF’s Headquarters on child protection in emergencies. 

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

The recruitment and use of children in armed forces is a violation of international law, and children who are recruited and forced to fight and kill suffer profound physical and psychological damage. Children not Soldiers, launched in 2014 by Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and UNICEF, is a campaign to make all government armed forces child-free by 2016.

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5 questions: cash transfers for communities on the move in Iraq

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On the 4th of December, UNICEF in collaboration with Dohuk Governorate started distributing USD $250 for each family living in Khanke Camp. (c) UNICEF Iraq/2014

Since January 2014, over 2 million Iraqis have fled their homes due to violence in the northwest of the country. In response, UNICEF recently signed a USD $5 Million agreement with the Governorate of Dohuk, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to provide emergency cash assistance to vulnerable families living in camp settings. Distribution began on 04 December 2014. I spoke with Emily Garin, who has led this emergency cash project in Iraq, about the initiative.

Q: What families will benefit and how are they selected?
A: The families that have been displaced into this area are all extremely vulnerable. They fled violence and most lost everything they owned. UNICEF support will be used for those families moved in camps with the most substantial needs, including: the largest families, those living in the most exposed conditions, and families in which a child is living with a disability. Families were selected based on an assessment conducted by UNICEF supporting the Government of Dohuk to distribute cash to families so they may better prepare for the cold winter. The Dohuk Development and Modification Centre (DMC) has deployed 22 accountants, security and monitors for the physical distribution of the cash.

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(c) UNICEF Iraq/2014

Q: What will each family receive?
A: Families will receive a flat amount of USD $250 in cash. Allocating $250 per family means that the UNICEF contribution will reach about 20,000 families. Many families have experienced multiple displacements, and moved to the camps after sheltering in unfinished buildings, and schools. Each has unique needs for different services, especially with the onset of winter. Cash allows them to meet those changing needs better than we may be able to predict.

Q: How is UNICEF ensuring that the grants are used as intended?
A: UNICEF worked closely with the regional government authorities to design the cash transfer programme. Key parts of UNICEF support include the preparation, assessment and provision of coupons to the displaced families with the support of 32 UNICEF facilitators. Additional finance monitors and programme staff monitored payments directly and are conducting post-distribution monitoring to follow up with families who received cash. UNICEF is present during the distribution – liaising with government authorities, beneficiaries, and ensuring the smooth implementation of the initiative.

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(c) UNICEF Iraq/2014

Q: How is this project unique?
A: This project is unique because of the agreement we’ve reached with the government regarding the distribution of the cash. The administrative capacities of the government are supplemented by UNICEF’s technical and community outreach ability. This is the strength of the initiative and it means that all USD $5 million of UNICEF’s commitment will go directly to families. This is a remarkable model of both partnership and efficiency.

Q: Having worked on similar projects in different places, what is the most interesting aspect of providing direct cash transfers?
A: For UNICEF the best thing about cash transfers is that it is an approach rooted in human rights and fundamentally family focused. Cash allows families to make their own decisions about their most pressing needs and their priorities, and to do so with dignity as temperatures drop to near freezing. For some families the most pressing concern is shelter, for others it may be food, for others, medical fees. The variety of uses for cash is borne out in post-payment monitoring that has been completed in several countries. While there is an irreplaceable role for life-saving supplies within UNICEF’s humanitarian work, our experience with cash has made it clear that cash can reach families, places, and needs in ways that some of our other tools cannot.

Chelsea Cowan works for UNICEF Iraq.