THE BLOG

Iraq: The Plight of the Forgotten People

27/03/2016 19:07 | Updated 27 March 2016

There are currently over three million people in Iraq who have been forced to flee their homes due to the violence and destruction caused by Isis and other internal sectarian conflicts. The country is also hosting some 250,000 of the millions of refugees who have fled the war in Syria. Most are living in tiny Portakabins in vast camps, or are scraping together enough money to rent a very basic home in an unfamiliar place, where finding work, schooling or medical care is incredibly difficult.

I had the privilege of travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan last week to meet a tiny fraction of these people, to sit on the floor with them and hear their stories.

I met Amina, who escaped from Aleppo in Syria after Isis beheaded her brother and her husband went missing. She came to Iraq with her younger sisters, four-year-old son, elderly parents and 10-year-old nephew. Amina's mother needs a wheelchair and her father has struggled to find work, so her teenage sisters do long hours in a cake factory - their dreams of getting an education long-forgotten. Meanwhile Amina, supported by Christian Aid's local partner REACH, has trained to be a hairdresser.

Between them they earn just enough to rent a three-room unfinished house, with holes in the windows and walls. Here, the seven of them spend all of their time. They talked wistfully about returning to Aleppo one day but, given the immense devastation there, they must know deep down that their home no longer exists: for now, it is just a dream.

Amina said that if she could, she'd contact a smuggler tomorrow and risk the treacherous journey to Europe, for a chance of getting a more skilled job that would allow her to send more money back to her family in Iraq, but she couldn't leave her son.

I also met families who had fled Mosul, in central Iraq: Christians and Yazidis who knew that Isis would kill them because of their faith; Muslims who knew that Isis were evil enough to kill anyone and did not want to risk getting caught in the cross-fire.

One family had owned a car sales business and three homes. Now, however, three generations were living in three rooms, with the men queuing for hours for infrequent, casual labour and the women learning how to make clothes to supplement their meagre income.

They too talked fondly of Mosul's beauty and their desire to return home. But they know that while Isis occupy the city, infrastructure is being destroyed and thousands of make-shift bombs are being left as booby traps. Even if Mosul is recaptured from Isis, it is likely to be years, not months, before they can return home safely: years before there are schools for their children, hospitals they can rely on, and enough resources to rebuild their homes and businesses. In the meantime they are powerless, trapped, their lives on pause.

Political leaders are focused on securing a military victory over Isis, which is of course important. But when it comes to improving people's lives and security in Iraq, this is just a starting point, not the end. Meeting Iraq's immediate humanitarian needs will cost at least $861m, according to UN estimates. So far donors have committed just 9% of this. Without this money, vulnerable people will not receive shelter, water, food or healthcare, potentially triggering a humanitarian catastrophe in a once well-off country.

More funding will also be needed for years to come to support the process of de-mining areas that Isis leave, to rebuild homes, roads and basic services and help people get back on their feet. Without sufficient support from the international community, conditions will be rife for new strands of extremism, perhaps in a similar mould to Isis, to flourish again.

But physical infrastructure is much easier to rebuild than the social infrastructure ruined by war. Many people I met mentioned feeling betrayed by neighbours, or afraid of persecution on ethnic, religious or political grounds. Rebuilding trust takes time, so the process of reconciliation will require great leadership from within Iraq and outside it.

If I'm honest, it was difficult to avoid slipping into despair and despondency while in Iraq. With its complex problems, I expected people to have lost hope and indeed, some sadly had. But I was repeatedly struck by their dignity in the face of adversity: no act of human kindness, however small, was wasted. By providing food, medicines and training to refugee families and displaced people, and by working to defeat the ideology of extremism in future generations, Christian Aid's partners were providing small glimmers of hope in a dark place.

Let's ensure that Iraq doesn't become another "forgotten crisis". Even if the fighting ends, the international community must turn the money currently being spent on military efforts to repairing the damage done and to building a peaceful, secure Iraq - for the sake of these and many, many other families.

For more on Christian Aid's work in Iraq or to donate to its Iraq Crisis appeal, visit the Christian Aid website http://www.christianaid.org.uk/emergencies/current/iraq-crisis-appeal/index.aspx

Comments

CONVERSATIONS