Last month, I visited four refugee camps outside of Mosul, Iraq. These camps accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who have managed to flee ISIL-controlled areas just 20 miles away; 180,000 have fled in the last month alone. Every day, at least 1,000 people arrive. Half are children.
These camps are filled with the "lucky" ones - those who got out, with only the clothes on their back and memories of narrow escapes, lost family members, hellish traumas. We sit in tarpaulin tents, offered precious cigarettes, and hear stories of children ripped from the arms of parents, of public executions, of sexual slavery, of horrors that are, as President Trump has pointed out, medieval.
Yet at the same time, his administration has vowed to slash the US budget for foreign aid, and there are those in the UK who would like to do the same, which would constitute a moral abandonment of these people and hundreds of thousands like them in other challenging situations around the world. When politicians talk of such cuts it may seem distant to a lot of Americans and Brits. But this money represents the moral commitment of a nation - an expression of care, a sign of intent, a measure of ownership of a crisis with its roots in Western policy. Worse, this threat to withdraw help is coupled with an overt hostility to refugees from these conflicts and, more recently, signs of an impatient military aggression that appears to have inflicted high, if accidental, costs on civilians - with a single bombing thought to have killed up to 200 civilians the Friday before we arrived in Iraq.
Too many of us in the US and UK are oblivious to these facts. (I was born in the States but raised in the UK: I have a horse in each race). It's a distant conflict, and one that may seem especially remote to younger people who grew up in the long shadow of the American-led war on terror. On my visit this month, I saw clearly the consequences and risks of the conflict and of our policies.
One of the most moving moments for me was meeting Ali, a father of 10, who escaped Mosul four weeks before we arrived. Here we sat in what amounted to a slum, and yet this man was overwhelmed with relief to be there. He could walk to find bread provided by humanitarian aid for his family without fearing for his life or passing corpses in the street. His 12-year-old son sat stony-faced by his side weeping at the memory of being seized from his home by ISIL fighters with a gun to his head, forced to watch a public execution, then being released on the fighters' whim.
For the people of Mosul, and of course throughout ISIL-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, awful conditions are at risk of getting worse. Humanitarian workers on the ground are petrified of the US administration's proposal to slash the budgets of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State department. That would directly affect their ability to offer humanitarian assistance offered to victims of the conflict.
It would also elevate the importance of the crucial work done by nongovernmental organizations. I was visiting Iraq in my role as Global Ambassador for War Child U.K. and Children in Conflict U.S., NGOs that greet refugees from Mosul. They are on the humanitarian frontline, providing psycho-social support to traumatised families and offering education to kids deprived of school for the last three years.
The hope that this kind of support can bring to a family like Ali's is crucial. The pride that Ali showed as his five-year-old son recited the English alphabet contrasted sharply with the despair on his face moments before. It spoke powerfully of the hope these NGOs can bring. This boy had never been to school before visiting the War Child centre in the camp. Families like Ali's will be far less likely to take up arms in years to come with such help at hand for them. Dignity drives out despair. This kind of humanitarian support is peacemaking. It's therefore also going to save the generations to come a huge amount, if that's the conversation. War tomorrow is more expensive than aid today.
NGOs are funded by the extraordinary generosity of ordinary people, but they are also funded by international aid. And those NGOs won't be able to do the work I've seen if their budgets are cut. That's why it is imperative that Congress and Americans everywhere speak out in favour of foreign aid. It's why we in the UK can't let Theresa May off the hook, when she promised last week not to abandon our commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on foreign aid.
The prospect of reduced Transatlantic humanitarian work, compounded by ongoing and even escalating military action and a rejection of refugee status for the victims of war, is more than foolish--it's dangerous. It risks leaving the region worse off and an entire generation of children and young people from these conflict areas uneducated, traumatised, unable to rebuild their countries from the ashes of war with a distrust of the West.
Young Americans and Brits in particular have a role to play. They can no longer chalk up bad policies to politicians backed by their parents. To those who say, we have enough problems at home without taking on these international challenges, we say, let us address both by tackling both. It's 'both and', not 'either or'. Our international policies, after all, are reflections of the state of our society's soul. Let's demand that our leaders represent our interests abroad by acting in the interests of those in need abroad.
Not to act is to act. Not to speak is to speak. Inaction can be a unique version of cruelty. We are at risk of abandoning the major achievements of the 20th Century - the widespread recognition that rights of protection extend to all people by simple fact of being human. The victims of the conflict in Iraq are in need of our support, so let's give it to them.