Writer and photographer Christine Anderson recently traveled with us to Iraq, where she met baby Zaina and her family, who have been displaced by conflict.
Journey with her to meet the people she encountered along the way, and see the hope she discovered there for Iraqis struggling to survive.
She immediately catches my eye, a bright pop of color in the gray courtyard. Her name is Zaina, which in Arabic means ornament, adornment, and beauty. Crowned with a sweet pink hat and seated on the throne of her red and yellow baby walker, this little one has no trouble living up to her name.
On one side of Zaina’s courtyard is a mobile medical clinic; on the other, a modest brick building that once was a hospital but now is used in part to provide health education and psychosocial support through World Vision’s “Women and Young Children Spaces” program.
The building also houses Zaina and her family, who are among the 3.3 million Iraqis forced to flee their homes since January 2014. I am in Iraq to learn more about the needs of refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs), and this staggering number is one of many I can barely wrap my head around. Scrawled in my notebook are even more:
- More than 11 million Iraqis—approximately one-third of the population—need humanitarian assistance. Half of these are children.
- Iraq is also hosting 250,000 refugees from Syria.
- Only 20 percent of eligible IDP school-age children attend school. Lack of education combined with traumas—witnessing attacks and the destruction of their homes, losing friends and family to horrific violence, and enduring the hardships of prolonged displacement—threaten the long-term wellbeing of a whole generation.
- As the crisis in Iraq enters its third year, vital international aid programs are significantly underfunded or broke. I listened sadly to the frustrations of displaced Iraqis whose monthly food voucher—a subsistence-level $26—had been reduced to $16, then to $10, and was about to be discontinued entirely. Sixty thousand people who rely on the program would soon have nothing. And they’re just a fraction of the 4.4 million Iraqis who routinely struggle with food insecurity.
Inside the brick building, Jwan Omar, my World Vision host and translator, introduces me to Raja and Eida, Zaina’s mom and grandmother. A brown drape hung from a rope separates their living quarters from the rest of building. By IDP standards they are fortunate. Because Raja’s husband cleans the building, the building manager allows the family to occupy two rooms—a living/sleeping area and a makeshift kitchen—at no cost. They’ve been here for nearly eighteen months.
“Everything we have is donations,” Eida says as she shows us around. “We didn’t bring anything with us—no memories or pictures—just our IDs.”
Jwan and I step out of our shoes as we enter the family’s living room and settle onto cushions on the floor. Slowly, one translated sentence at a time, the women tell us their story.
Eida is the mother of eleven children. Her youngest, twenty-year-old Muthena, is Raja’s husband and Zaina’s dad. Although Eida’s husband fled with the family, he died six months later.
“We had a really nice home,” Eida says, “but soldiers burned it down. They also destroyed the home of my thirty-three-year old son. He was working at his job in a restaurant and was killed during the bombardment.” Eida’s remaining children are alive but scattered throughout Iraq.
The family fled on foot, spent the night at a nearby village, and then hitchhiked for a week until they reached the safety of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
“When we left, I was almost six months pregnant with Zaina,” Raja says, “I was so afraid for my baby. I just wanted her to be born in peace in a safe place and be able to survive. I just wanted to take care of her.”
When I ask her what her life is like, she says, “I miss my village and my friends, but I feel wonderful if Zaina isn’t sick. If she is well and in a good place, I’m happy.”
When I ask about their hopes, Eida says simply, “I want to go home.”
I heard many stories like Raja and Eida’s in the week I was in Iraq, all of them heartbreaking. But scattered among them were also stories that gave me hope. Mostly they are stories of heroes, like Dr. Omar Mussaid, Father Jens Petzold, and Jwan Omar.
Dr. Omar Mussaid was working at a teaching hospital in Tikrit when it was bombed. After the fighting temporarily stopped, he and eleven family members fled. Now Dr. Mussaid, an IDP himself, provides medical care to other IDPs at the mobile medical clinic just outside Raja and Eida’s front door.
Father Jens Petzold is a Swiss monk who came to northern Iraq in 2011 to rebuild an abandoned monastery in Sulaymaniyah. When several Christian villages were attacked in August 2014, Father Jens took in forty-seven displaced Iraqi families—230 people. In the beginning, they slept on the roof, in the sanctuary, the reception hall, and at a nearby convent. Emergency assistance from World Vision helped him to feed his guests and provide for their most urgent needs. More than a year later, 180 people still live at the monastery compound as Father Jens helps them to rebuild their lives and take their next steps toward independence.
Jwan Omar, supervisor for World Vision’s Women and Young Children’s Spaces program in Sulaymaniah, understands the loss and suffering of the displaced people she serves. When she was one month old, her father was abducted and killed in Baghdad. As a young adult, she left Iraq to study and work abroad in Canada and Sweden. She recently returned to Iraq after twenty years away because she felt such a burden to help those who are suffering here. She oversees nine health promotion sites and works long days, typically starting at 3:00 a.m. with paperwork, and not returning home from the field until 7:30 at night. “There are lots of hard days,” she says, “but if I can make someone happy, even for a few seconds, that’s a good day. I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
When I returned home and friends asked about my trip, I told them about Zaina and Raja and Eida, and the hardships of refugees and displaced people. And I told them about Dr. Mussaid, Father Jens, and Jwan—heroes who are bringing the light of hope to a country darkened by evil and suffering. I know how easy it is to turn our minds and hearts away from crises that seem overwhelming—and the refugee crisis in the Middle East is nothing if not overwhelming—but as long as there are heroes on the ground who refuse to turn away, then there is hope for a better future for those who are suffering today. I am honored to partner with World Vision in highlighting and supporting the work of those heroes.
Christine Anderson is a freelance editor and writer from Chicago, Illinois.
Join us as we help support families like Raja's in Iraq that have been displaced by conflict with healthcare and emergency supplies. Make a donation to our Crisis in Northern Iraq fund.