Stories from the Field – UNICEF Iraq: They’re afraid to leave the camps
“I was heartbroken,” William Kollie said. “These children are so frightened.”
UNICEF Iraq’s Acting Chief of Child Protection had a rare experience this week when security restrictions in Baghdad were eased, allowing him to visit some of the tens of thousands of families displaced by violence in Ramadi and Fallujah.
“For the first time, I could see and talk to children in these communities and understand in their own words their needs and fears,” he said.
The father of five visited two camps in Khadra’a and Jamea and was shocked by what he encountered. “Children are very afraid because of the situation they are in,” he said. “They’re afraid to leave the camps. It’s hot. They have nowhere to play, and nothing to play with. They miss their friends. They need a normal environment around them.”
The camps are about two weeks old and have minimal infrastructure and services. However, UNICEF has worked to provide the basics, including water and sanitation.
“I’m very proud of what we have been able to do here in such a short time,” Mr Kollie says.
Many of the displaced are being helped by people living in the camps’ vicinity.
On the day Mr Kollie visited Jamea’a, a local man provided, in commemoration of his father’s death, food for the entire camp. Locals have opened up their homes to women who need to change their clothes or to bathe in private. People from the local communities also supply the camps with water.
“We didn’t have to ask for water. Local children were bringing it for us until we had to say we didn’t need any more,” Mr Kollie says. “It just shows how generous they are, even though they’ve been displaced.”
While the basic material needs are being met, Mr Kollie’s job is to ensure that children’s lives can return to normal as soon as possible.
School is one of the safest places for children in conflict. It not only protects them, it gives them a vital sense of normalcy,” said Kollie. However, many parents in the camps are afraid to send their children to nearby schools because of the security risks. And those children who were previously out of school are unable to enroll again until the new school year starts in September. UNICEF supports child friendly spaces and temporary schools help children maintain a sense of routine and remain within their community, which is important for their own well being.
Giving children the chance to do normal things like play, is also crucial in times of crisis.
“There’s a very big need for toys and spaces to play,” Mr Kollie said. “On our visit one colleague brought a few small balls and soon about 50 children were scrambling to get them and, well, be children.” UNICEF is providing toys and psychosocial kits to these camps to help children have and enjoy a sense of normalcy.
By Chris Niles, Emergency Communication Specialist for UNICEF Iraq.