SOS Children’s Villages is launching a humanitarian programme in the Dohuk region of Iraqi Kurdistan to help ethnic Yazidis and other internally displaced people, marking the first time that the organisation has provided such assistance in Iraq.
SOS Children’s Villages will focus on providing psychological and emotional care, economic and livelihood assistance, and Child Friendly Spaces for families at the Khanke camp in Dohuk who have been displaced by violence. It also plans to provide assistance to the community near Khanke.
There are an estimated 400,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Dohuk and more than three million across Iraq. Khanke hosts nearly 17,000 people, more than half of them under 18.
In the following interview, Alia Al-Dalli, SOS Children’s Villages’ International Director of the Middle East and North Africa Region, explains the new emergency relief programme to assist more than 3,000 Yazidis and other IDPs living in or near Khanke. Ms Al-Dalli visited the Dohuk province three times this year to assess the conditions for displaced Yazidi families.
Why did you decide to set up an emergency programme in Iraq?
The Yazidi community has been living in the Sinjar Mountain area for centuries. They have their own culture and religion. They had been living peacefully alongside other religious and ethnic communities in the population mosaic that used to be Iraq.
On 3 August 2014, ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] targeted and attacked the Yazidi community and started what the UN subsequently declared a genocide. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Many were trapped in the mountains under extreme heat for up to nine days with no food and water. Males over 14 years of age were shot and killed and buried in prepared mass graves. Young boys were kidnapped, trained to kill and tortured. Women under 30 were taken hostage and are being used as sex slaves. It is estimated that in all 5,000 women and girls were kidnapped. More than two years later, approximately 3,000 are still in captivity.
Those who were able to flee the mountains are traumatised. Those who have escaped captivity have experienced horrific human suffering. It is hard to image the horror those who are still held captive are still going through.
We at SOS Children’s Villages are experts in providing care and support to children and young people. Alongside this, our experience in strengthening families puts us in a strong position to be able to help those who are suffering.
This project breaks the traditional mould of starting emergency programmes only in areas where SOS Children’s Villages has villages. Is this programme for the Yazidi community and other affected people likely to lead to the establishment of programmes to care for children or help vulnerable families in other regions of Iraq?
As we set up the new team in Iraq and start to build our reputation amongst the community, we very much hope to extend our scope of work to serve the estimated 1.5 million internally displaced children and over 200,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq. At this stage it is impossible to say for sure what this would lead to in terms of long-term plans in Iraq. But we are dedicated to setting up a strong team and well-managed programmes that have impact.
Was the situation as you imagined when you visited Dohuk?
I have worked on complex emergencies and have spent most of my career working in the Middle East and North Africa. What I saw and heard during my trips to Dohuk was among the worst I have experienced. We knew that there were upwards of half a million people displaced and living in 18 formal and informal camps, or squatting in the area. However, when you see this in reality, it is truly heart-breaking.
What is the biggest need?
It was obvious that the Yazidi community needs psychological and emotional support to help people manage the violence and depravity they have experienced. Those who have survived captivity and escaped or have been bought back by family members have experienced the unimaginable. Women and girls have been raped repeatedly and sold between ISIL fighters. One of the hardest things they talked about, though, was no longer being in captivity but knowing that their sister or mother or friend was still enduring this torment and anguish. Those who were not captured still suffer from extreme trauma knowing what their loved ones are experiencing, or not knowing if their loved ones are alive or dead. There are nowhere near enough trained psychologists and therapists in the area to meet the need.
What else needs to be done to help?
Inside the camps there is almost nothing to do for adults, young people and children. Women mainly stay inside their tents all day and evening. Children and young people have limited to no space to play openly. Music, art and sport are therapeutic. So the programmes we are introducing will not only break the monotony of the day, but also provide an outlet for the frustration, sadness and trauma that this community has experienced.
Very few of the community are working and therefore it is imperative that SOS Children’s Villages uses our expertise in family strengthening and skills training so the community can support itself. As the majority of Yazidis generated their livelihoods from agriculture before the genocide, we will also be running an agricultural programme for young men and women so that when they are able to return home, they are able to resume their livelihoods.