For most children, the first day back to school is not something they look forward to.
But for children who haven’t set foot inside a classroom in two or three years, the thought of returning to school is filled with excitement and celebration.
Nisreen is one of millions of children across Iraq who have lost so much, including years of learning. Nisreen’s family did the best they could to survive and maintain a sense of normalcy for more than two years under the oppressive rule of ISIL. The idea of leaving their home and all they had ever known for a safer location was terrifying.
Then it got worse. Much worse.
Nisreen’s family were forced to flee
Last summer, the fighting escalated in the town of Qayyarah, where Nisreen and her family live, just 60 kilometres outside Mosul. Nisreen’s father Tariq recalls, “ISIL harassed us so much we had to leave our houses. Our town became a battlefield. The situation was bad. They humiliated us. There was no food. They restricted us in all our activities.”
Fearing for their lives, they fled to a village across the Tigris River. “It was difficult,” Tariq says. “At one point we went for eight days without food.”
For weeks the fighting consumed Qayyarah. Eventually ISIL retreated, but not without leaving a path of destruction in its wake. They lit oil fields on fire that burned for months and filled the sky with toxic fumes. They burned down homes, torched fields and stole cars, furniture and even livestock.
Nisreen could see the fires burning from the village they took refuge in and worried they would never be able to return. Despite the total devastation and loss of almost everything they owned, Nisreen and her family were overjoyed when they were able to go back home.
Nisreen’s younger siblings watch the fires
from the rooftop of their home. Photo: Mackenzie, Iraq, 2016.
However, while houses and roads can be rebuilt, the horrors of war cannot be erased. And children pay the heaviest price — they have lost parents, siblings, even their own limbs. What they have seen and heard, the fear they have felt, will never be forgotten. These innocent children will carry these scars for the rest of their lives.
How UNICEF is helping
While ISIL has retreated, for now, and the news coverage wanes, UNICEF remains. UNICEF is on the ground in Mosul, Baghdad, Erbil, Basra and other areas throughout Iraq, providing water, shelter, food and other humanitarian assistance.
Equally important, we’re working to give the children of Iraq, who haven’t been able to return home like Nisreen and are still living in refugee camps, hope for the future by getting them back to school. It’s a small step on the path to normality and allows these children, who have lived through unimaginable trauma and have known so much pain and suffering, to feel safe and to put their minds to work on something other than despair and darkness.
Nisreen’s neighbours get ready to go to school.
Photo: Mackenzie, Iraq, 2016.
However, while Nisreen’s school has reopened, so many other children linger in camps, losing precious time, longing to read, learn and make plans for the future.
It’s no wonder more than 2,000 children have enrolled so far in the eight UNICEF temporary learning spaces in the camps near Mosul. That’s 250 students per tent!
There is more to be done
As you can imagine, there are simply not enough school supplies, books, desks — even teachers. Even in schools like Nisreen’s that have reopened, there is almost nothing left to allow them to resume their studies.
After the nightmare these children have been surviving in for the past two years, this is a pivotal moment to help them reclaim their education and give them hope for a better life. These are Iraq’s future teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, labourers, farmers, scientists and technicians. They are the ones who will rebuild Iraq when peace returns.
If we fail to protect and nurture these children now, an entire generation may be lost.
“I used to be in the 6th grade, but then ISIL destroyed our lives. Before I was going to school, and I was happy. I met my friends and studied with them. I miss them a lot,” says Nisreen.
Nisreen’s neighbour is standing in front of his family’s burnt out car.
Photo: Mackenzie, Iraq, 2016.
Each child in each picture represents many millions of children who desperately need our support, not our tears.
We can bandage their cuts and bruises. We can give them food and shelter. But without school, there is no future.
Without school, there is no hope.
Without school, there are no dreams.
Without you, there is no compassion.