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Zaid al-Rawni Headshot

Despair in the Desert - In One of Iraq's Deadliest Places

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In the shell of a partly constructed school building, not far from Iraq's second city of Mosul, I met a large group of people on the brink of despair last week - nearly 800 women and children and a handful of old men.

Almost all were Christians or Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority whose faith is derived from Zoroastrianism and also reflects elements of Christianity and Islam. Those with the strength to speak had been through a terrifying time in a country that seems to be lurching from one complex and violent crisis to the next.

Everyone looked dazed and haggard after walking through the scorching desert heat for days. The unfinished school that has become their temporary home offers minimal comforts - no running water, no toilets and nothing but a rough concrete floor to sleep on. Islamic Relief is among the few organisations providing aid and support, and I was visiting from the UK to see that aid getting through to those who so desperately need it - whether Christian, Yazidi or Muslim.

My colleagues in Islamic Relief Iraq are all too familiar with the sight of traumatised people searching for shelter and refuge. Since 2005 one or another of Iraq's many ethnic and religious groups has been forced out of their homes at different times, including Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and Yazidis.

The current humanitarian crisis is the country's most severe since 2006. Since violence broke out in January 2014, over 1.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes to seek a place of safety. Many have been forced to leave with only the clothes they were wearing, and have dispersed across 1,400 locations. Large numbers are sheltering in churches, schools, mosques and unfinished buildings, as well as in makeshift camps.

Our task last week was to distribute food, water and other aid supplies such as mattresses, blankets and hygiene kits. It's part of an aid effort by Islamic Relief that has assisted over 160,000 people in the past seven months.

As we prepared to leave the relative safety of Irbil for the three-and-a-half hour drive north west towards Mosul, I have to admit that I was worried. Worried about the prospect of driving into trouble. Worried about being taken by this group or that. And worried about the reception that a Muslim organisation like Islamic Relief might receive from minorities forced out of their homes by a militant group besmirching the name of Islam.

Would fear and despair translate into anger levelled against us? Would they accept our offer of help and friendship?

After navigating some of Iraq's deadliest roads close to the front line of the conflict, skirting militant-controlled territory, we were warmly received as welcome guests. Despite all that these people had been through, the families we met were ready to share their stories and accept the hand of help and friendship that we extended to them.

In the school I sat with Sherman Haj, a woman of around 40 who looked at least 10 years older. She had arrived at the school with her two youngest children nearly two weeks previously.

Sherman Haj was still grappling with the sudden shock of how her life had been torn apart. There were long pauses and silent tears as she explained how her family fled the advance of armed militants with only the clothes on their backs, fearing for their lives.

"They came from nowhere and they have no mercy," she told me. "We have nothing left, nothing, and I want to leave this place. I want to move far, far away from here and from these problems."

This was just one family in one place of refuge in what is a large and complex emergency. When you consider that there are 1.2 million displaced people like Sherman Haq across Iraq, it really brings home the enormity of this crisis.

I have no way of knowing what the future holds for Sherman and her daughters, let alone for Iraq itself. What I do know is that aid is getting through and is providing a lifeline to many - but much more will be needed in the coming weeks and months.

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