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After fleeing violence, Iraq’s displaced children face a deadly winter

By Jeffrey Bates

In the mountains of northern Iraq, UNICEF is rushing to provide winter clothes for children before temperatures drop to freezing, but serious shortages remain.

MANGESH, Iraq, 29 October 2014 – When her village near Sinjar mountain was attacked last summer, 11-year-old Zeynab fled with her family to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where many Iraqis as well as Syrians have sought refuge from fierce fighting that has taken an enormous toll on civilians.

An adolescent girl holds a younger girl in one arm and a box of winter clothes in the other, in Dohuk, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-2036/Khuzaie

Zeynab wore only her sandals, track pants and a t-shirt.

“We left everything at home, and I only brought one change of clothes,” she says. “We didn’t have money to rent a house, and now we’re living in a mosque. When it rains, water comes into the mosque.”

An estimated 1 million people have found safety and temporary shelter in camps, in empty school buildings and in rural mountain hamlets in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. While some people were able to escape with bundles or suitcases to carry their belongings, many weren’t so lucky.

Now those who came here for safety are facing an entirely different threat: the cold Kurdish winter, which has arrived early this year in the mountains of northern Iraq, bringing frigid winds and freezing rain, and causing people to shiver through the night. A shallow flood of muddy water has overtaken many of the camps.

For the displaced, home is now a small tent with a dirt floor and thin flap for a door, or for others, a partially built apartment building with no exterior walls, leaving them exposed to lashing wind and rain. Such shelter is better than nothing, but not enough for the chilling weather that will sink to freezing or below in just a few weeks.

With concrete floors and no heating, even the inside of the mosque where Zeynab lives has become bitterly cold.

“Every night I cover up with a blanket, because I didn’t have anything else to wear,” she says. “Some nights it felt like we were going to die from the cold.”

 

Race against time

“We are in a race against time. These children survived conflicts to reach safety, but now they face new challenges,” said Marzio Babille, UNICEF Representative in Iraq. “After the horrors and brutal violence many of these children suffered in the Sinjar mountains, UNICEF cannot accept excess mortality because of the impact of harsh winter conditions. More resources and a faster, more targeted response to reach the most vulnerable is needed to save these children.”

UNICEF and its partners in civil society and government have begun a massive effort to distribute boxes of clothing to displaced children throughout the Kurdistan region. Many of the goods have been procured with funds donated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Each box contains winter coats, trousers, sweaters, hats and winter boots for children between the ages of 3 months and 14 years. About 223,000 boxes of shoes will be distributed in the region.

But these kits will reach only about half of the children who need protection in the region, which experiences the country’s coldest temperatures. Unless additional funds are secured, nearly 250,000 displaced children will likely go without warm clothes this winter.

“The demand for these clothes is huge,” says Maulid Warfa, Emergency Coordinator for the UNICEF office in Dohuk Governorate, in northern Kurdistan, where most of the displaced are concentrated. “Everywhere our trucks go, you see families patiently waiting in line for hours to keep their children warm.”