When I visited Iraq last year I drove up to Zawa ridge from where you can look down on to Duhok or if you look to the south, on clear day, you can see Mosul. At night Duhok is a bright and bustling mini metropolis illuminated by headlights, street lights and a giant flashing ferris wheel. The lights in Mosul went out when ISIS arrived in June 2014, now it is occasionally illuminated by artillery shells or lines of tracer arcing into the city. As I sat there drinking sweet Kurdish tea I remember being struck how different two places a mere 30 minute drive apart could be.
A little over a year later and I am back in Duhok. I haven't been up Zawa ridge yet, it is getting chilly and the tea makers have packed up for the season, but I have been to Zelikan where the UN, International and Local NGOs have built one of the many new camps that will home those currently fleeing Mosul. Zelikan is only 15 minutes drive from Mosul, it is beside a river and nestled in the lee of Mount Alfaf. Now is probably not a good time to climb Mount Alfaf to look down on to Mosul, though if I did the ancient monastery there might still provide a cup of tea. But what I have seen again, this time at ground level, is the huge difference a short distance can make.
As I write this around 3,000 people have arrived at Zelikan in the space of a few days and around 45,000 have fled elsewhere. We mustn't underestimate their journeys which have not been straightforward and will have taken a lot more than 15 minutes, but they have now made it to a safer place. Many of those arriving are young children who, for over two years, have been deprived of their basic rights as human beings and their particular rights as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. One of the most concerning abuses of these rights is in the area of education. Under ISIS schools were taken over and the syllabus changed to teach only Quran and Jihad. Children also have a right to play and under ISIS they could not play outside, run, shout or do many of the things necessary for children to develop healthy social skills. A lot of children have witnessed terrible terrible things and they have a right to health care and support to process that trauma.
In Zelikan, from day one, War Child and other NGOs were here to welcome children and start the long process of repair. These children carry scars, some of them physical, that will take a very long time to heal, but they are taking the opportunity to run, to shout and to play outside without fear. Soon schools will start in the camp, gaps in education can be filled and psycho social support will be provided to help children overcome trauma.
Sometimes a small distance makes an immediate difference, but to make a lasting change will require much more.
Once ISIS is ejected from Mosul international interest will doubtlessly shift elsewhere, but these children need education and lasting physical and mental health support, both here in Zelikan and once they return home. What's more, all the children still in the camps of Duhok, Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad and countless other places of refugee around Iraq also need continued help.
We must support these children and pressure our governments to do the same. There is a strong humanitarian imperative for this, but it is also in our interests to avoid 1.6 million children in Iraq growing up with no education, huge burdens of trauma and no prospects.