Learning to Smile Again: Saving Lives and Relieving Suffering in Al-Dora, Iraq

02/06/2016 16:36 | Updated 02 June 2016

Nine-year-old Haneen has not eaten for days and often cries herself to sleep.

Born with physical disabilities, Haneen is unable to hear, speak or walk since birth - issues that would be challenging in any environment, let alone in a camp outside of Baghdad for people who have fled their homes.

The young child is among the millions in Iraq who were forced from their towns and villages due to conflict and violence. She now lives with her family in a tent in Al Kasnazaniyah camp in the Al Dora district of Baghdad, where International Medical Corps - with support from the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) - runs mobile medical units to provide healthcare, mental health programmes, psychosocial support and other services.

That is where Farah, a psychosocial outreach worker with International Medical Corps' mobile medical unit, first met Haneen and her family. She recalls how a routine visit to the tents in the compound became something much more.

"I was almost finished with the visit in Al Kasnazaniyah when a woman approached me - her face was covered, yet I still saw the sadness in her eyes.

"'Can you see my daughter?' was all she could say before she started crying, so I followed her inside the tent - and that's where I saw little Haneen."

Farah learned Haneen's story from her mother - the little girl had been born with a condition that had left her incapable of moving on her own.

"She refuses to look at anybody," Haneen's mother explained. "She hasn't eaten for two days and she cries all the time.

"She cries for hours until she falls asleep and then wakes up only to continue crying."

"I returned home that day with grief on my face and pain in my soul," says Farah. "I immediately contacted my manager to get advice from him and did some research on how I could follow up on this difficult case."

Every day Farah would visit Haneen in an attempt to break the cycle of isolation and sadness. She worked step by step to build a simple dialogue - mostly through hand signals - with Haneen to build trust and a connection.

"Day by day, Haneen started to improve and look happier," Haneen's mother says gratefully. "If Farah doesn't visit she keeps waiting for her and missing her all day."

But Farah's dedication to Haneen and her family didn't stop there.

When Haneen turned nine, Farah and the International Medical Corps team organised a small celebration for her birthday - complete with a birthday cake and candles.

"This was the first birthday party in Haneen's life," her mother says.

"Our family is poor - and even before we were forced from our home, birthdays were not a priority - especially because Haneen's treatment was so costly."

Now when Farah visits, Haneen always gestures to her phone wanting to look at photographs from her birthday party - with a huge smile across her face.

The ongoing violence has forced over 3 million Iraqis from their homes and another 3 million people are estimated to live in IS-controlled areas with limited access to essential healthcare services. International Medical Corps has been in Iraq since 2003 supporting the conflict-affected communities with health care services and psychosocial support.

With funding from ECHO, International Medical Corps also operates mobile medical units in Iraq. Learn more about our work in Al Dora here: