Tue Jakobsen, Communications Officer
Save the Children in Iraq
August 19, 2013
Hadeel is 28 years-old and is from Baghdad. Nine months ago, she moved 280 miles away from all of her friends and family into the Iraqi desert to work as a Child Protection Officer for Save the Children. She was the first woman to work in the refugee camp near Al Qaim.
A well-educated psychologist, Hadeel decided to do what very few others do: leave career, friends and family to live in an extremely dangerous and inhospitable place haunted by extreme temperatures and reoccurring sandstorms.
“I am passionate about child protection. I was offered better jobs back in Baghdad where I have my friends and family, but I wanted to work in child protection and so I ended up here.”
Part of Hadeel’s compassion comes from her own experience as a refugee.
“My family fled to Syria when the war started here in Iraq in 2003, and we stayed there for one year. While living as a refugee in Syria, I experienced firsthand how children fleeing their home need special care and attention. And I feel that I owe it back to the Syrian people to support them the best I can, since they supported my family and my people 10 years ago.”
The forgotten refugees
West of Baghdad, the Iraqi province of Al Anbar stretches for hundreds of miles along the border with Syria and Jordan to the west and Saudi Arabia to the south. It is mostly desert and, while it is Iraq’s biggest province, it is also the least populated. The harsh climate proves hard to live in for even the most rugged Iraqis.
The road from Baghdad follows the Euphrates Riber, and after a seven-hour drive you reach the small border town of Al Qaim. Here, close to the Syrian border, lies a refugee camp unknown by the most of the world: Al Obeidy. Compared to the well-known Za’atari camp in Jordan, one of the world’s largest, this is a small camp.
Yet more than 2,000 Syrians – more than half of these children – have sought refuge here. Dwarfed by other refugee camps across the region, Al Obeidy does not receive the attention and support needed; competition for attention is hard when around two million refugees have now fled Syria, and many millions more are still trapped inside the country.
“The families in the camp fled the insecurity of Syria but ended up in Al Qaim where the security isn’t good either. Many left family members behind and haven’t been able to get in contact with them since. And now that the border is closed there is little hope for separated families to reunite any time soon,” says Hadeel.
“The situation is very dire”
Save the Children is one of the few aid agencies working in Al Obeidy camp, and Hadeel has worked with Save the Children there for the last nine months.
“When I arrived in the camp for the first time, the conditions were really bad. It was very unclean and with a distinct smell of trash. We had serious concerns about the impact on the children’s health. And at the same time there was a complete lack of services for the refugees in the camp.”
Over the months she has been able to follow closely how the conditions in the camp have developed.
“To be quite honest, the situation hasn’t changed much since I arrived. We recently relocated to a new camp and that should have improved the refugee’s situation, but the tents here are in a very bad condition. They have been affected by the bad weather in winter and now they are contaminated to a degree where children get respiratory diseases from living in them. The situation is very dire.”
Help children cope with life in camp
The conflict has had a terrible impact on Syria’s children. Reports estimate that at least 7,000 children have already lost their lives. And stories of the abuses of children such as torture, sexual violence, beatings and threats are everywhere. The children have a great need for psycho-social support, says Hadeel.
“The children are very affected by what they have been through, though they don’t want to talk about their experiences. But from their behavior and their paintings it is clear that they have experienced things no child should. I remember one girl who came to our Child-friendly space. For the first couple of months all she drew were pictures of war and weapons destroying her home.”
How do you work with children affected by war? The recipe, Hadeel describes, is to try to restore a sense of normality in the children’s lives.
“We have a wide range of activities in the Child-friendly Spaces. Some are designed to keep the children physically active. Some are focused on getting the children to express their emotions through painting, drawing or storytelling. Others are focused on information-sharing and skill-building: learning about basic child rights or joining a computer training class. And we also try to raise the children’s awareness on issues like hygiene and health. We try to restore as many parts of the children’s normal life as possible while at the same time provide the specialized support they need.”
Hadeel has no doubt that the activities help the children adapt to life in the camp.
“We had a five-year-old girl who attended our Child-friendly Space but didn’t really participate and kept to herself. She was very sad and had clearly been harmed by her experiences in Syria. The facilitators then put a lot of effort in getting her involved while giving her room to draw by herself. And slowly, after two months, she started to open up. Now she participates in the activities and builds relationships with the other children.”
While Save the Children’s programs and activities are focused on children, the impact reaches the entire family. Parents don’t have to worry about their children’s safety while they are at the Child-friendly Space. That gives them some much needed time to solve practical problems.
“We get positive response from the parents. Their own capacity is stretched and their biggest concern is their children, so it is also a refuge for them to send the children to a safe space. We had one family with four children attending activities, who, during a focus group interview, expressed their gratitude that we could host their children”.
“We are really making a difference”
“It wasn’t an easy decision. My father supported my move. He has always support me what ever I did. But my mother and my sisters asked me not to go. They are concerned by the security situation out here, and none of them have been able to visit me out here because of the unsafe travel through Anbar.”
And life far from home can be a challenge even though you are still in your own country.
“This isn’t an easy place to live. Life here is just so different from in Baghdad. The community here is also very different. For example, I didn’t were a head scarf back in Baghdad, but here I have to. We depend on community support so it is important to follow the local customs. But my work with the children means a lot, and we are really making a difference. So it is definitely worth it.”
Hadeel finds some light in the children’s dreams for the future.
“I am especially happy about the long lasting impact we make on the children. Many of the children tell us that when they return to Syria they want to work as teachers or as children’s activity facilitators and volunteers with Save the Children. It is touching and gives a sense of hope for the future,” says Hadeel.