Interview: Helping Traumatised Children in Northern Iraq

SOS Children’s Villages emergency response in the Dohuk region fills critical gaps in helping families displaced by violence

Luciana D’Abramo is the emergency advisor for the Middle East and North Africa region. In this interview, she explains how the emergency relief program is helping internally displaced people in Dohuk, one of three provinces in the self-governing Kurdistan region of Iraq.

The United Nations Refugee Agency’s newest Global Trends report estimates there are 3.6 million people displaced across Iraq. An estimated 400,000 are in Dohuk. The SOS Children’s Villages emergency program was launched in 2016 with the initial goal of helping ethnic Yazidis, thousands of whom were driven from their homes in Sinjar mountain communities during ISIL attacks that began in August 2014. A United Nations report concluded that these attacks amounted to genocide.

Today, around 17,000 ethnic Yazidis are living at the Khanke camp for internally displaced people in Dohuk. Ms D’Abramo visited the camp in late June.

Q:  What is SOS Children’s Villages doing to help those displaced by violence?

A:  Many of the basic needs such as shelter, food or water and sanitation have already been taken care of by other organisations.

Our project in Dohuk has many components, such as helping to improve livelihood skills to help strengthen single-parent families and advocating for rights of children. But what makes us special is our support in mental health and trauma, which were not really addressed by other organisations and there is a really strong need for it.

This society is conservative when it comes to mental health. Psychological problems are taboo and they are not seen as a health issue. Seeking help is really stigmatised. Yet the need is enormous. There is trauma that even regular psychologists cannot intuitively know how to deal with, due to the level of violence and suffering involved.

Our project focuses on TRT [trauma recovery techniques] for groups of children between eight and 18 to help them deal with what they have been through. With TRT, you bring together a group of 10 to 15 children and give them tools to visualise and acknowledge what they have been through, and at the same time help them build resources and tools to cope with their experience and focus on rebuilding their future. We use techniques that range from drawing to active imagination and visualisation to help them address their experience and share this process with others who have been through similar situations.

Each cycle of the therapy runs for seven weeks. Parents or guardians attend two weekly sessions where we explain the impact of trauma and what their children will learn during the therapy. The children attend once a week for five weeks. The therapy does not end when the intervention finishes. We provide children with activities they can do with their families or with other friends who may not be coming to the sessions but who also may have experienced trauma. So there is a multiplying effect of our work.

Another component of this program is providing advanced techniques to health professionals and teachers so that they can become more proficient in dealing with these families and cases, and be more effective in delivering treatment and follow-up. Our goal is to reinforce the training of health professionals so that they can keep developing these techniques and also become trainers in their own workplaces. It’s a matter of building capacity and creating referral systems while at the same time addressing the needs of children.

Q:  What types of trauma are you seeing?

A:  The sources of trauma are varied. We started out by prioritising the needs, with children who have lost parents and those who have survived ISIL attacks or captivity. They were the ones who might have experienced the highest level of trauma. Everyone who has been displaced has experienced trauma in different ways, but the intensity of the trauma makes it more critical.

For example, girls and women who were taken captive by ISIL but survived face a lot of rejection from the society and their families. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of advocacy, acceptance and forgiveness – to understand that there was nothing else you could have done to make things different, and it was not your fault that these things happened. It is important to prepare them to be able to think about the future and face the nightmares, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, numbness and even fainting associated with traumatic events of the past.

Q:  There are an estimated 3.6 million internally displaced people in Iraq – 10% of the population. Why are we focusing on the Yazidis who are displaced?

A:  Historically the Yazidi community has been the target of discrimination, segregation and attacks. But when ISIL came into play, the Yazidis were among the most affected by persecution and violence. In terms of intervention, they were taking refuge in areas where we could easily come in with lower levels of risk and a bigger impact.

But we are starting to move towards working with other ethnic communities as well. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of intercultural peace-building and tolerance in order for this society to get back on its feet. For years, Kurdistan was known for different communities living together and interacting peacefully. It will take time for things to go back to where they were.

Q:  What are the main needs for children that you are seeing that are not being addressed by other organisations?

A:  Many of the children end up dropping out of school, but not because they don’t have access to education – there are schools available for displaced children. But many of the older children see their mothers struggling and they want to start working so they can help the family. So they drop out of school and work on farms or plantations for minimum pay. This makes the situation really critical and complicated.

There is a need to help families so the children remain in school and to provide income-generating activities – especially for women. This is a very conservative society and women cannot just go out and find jobs or start micro-businesses.

Language training and skills development are also in need. Many of these communities speak only Kurdish or dialects, and with so many international organisations coming on board, there is a need for at least a minimum knowledge of English for them to get jobs. They also need communications tools like ICT [information and communications technology].

Q:  You speak of mothers worrying about rebuilding their lives. What has become of the fathers?

A:  During the attacks on many of these communities, especially in Yazidi communities, many men were executed in front of their families and the girls were taken away. Many people also died of exhaustion or disease trying to escape – or escaping through the mountains without food and water. You have many, many families in relief camps with only the mother heading the household.

Q:  Many of the people we are helping are from villages that were damaged or abandoned during the violence. Are there plans for the displaced families to return home now that conditions have stabilised?

A:  Just because their villages have been liberated doesn’t mean that people can just go back. It’s much more complex than that. Right now many of the people I met don’t have the capacity to think about going back. They’ve seen their houses destroyed and everything they owned or everyone they knew lost. People don’t feel there is anything to back to now.

One mother of seven children told me that she is so scared and so shocked by all they have been through that she and her family would rather stay in the settlement camp than go back home. There are widows who told me they don’t know how to be single heads of households. Inside the camp it’s easier to care for your children, but once you go back to a place that needs to be rebuilt, one parent alone may not be able to take care of the whole family.

You need to work on the fear, to let go of what happened, to be optimistic that you can get on your feet and rebuild what you once had. One thing we work on in therapy is having people think about what comes next. Many times when you ask about the future, the answer is. ‘I don’t know, I cannot think about that’.

We also need to remember that before all the violence, many of these families were from very humble backgrounds. Unless there is a lot of rebuilding investment and tools so that these families have the means to go back and rebuild what was once theirs, they do not see themselves being able to go back to a place to call home.

Our Response

The SOS Children’s Villages emergency response focuses on providing mental health and trauma support, livelihood assistance and rights advocacy to those in and around the Khanke camp in the Dohuk region of Iraqi Kurdistan. We are supporting:

  • 800 Yazidi children aged 8-18 living in and outside the camp
  • 1,000 Yazidi mothers and teenage girls
  • 1,700 internally displaced parents living in and outside the camp
  • 500 at-risk people in the host community

How You Can Help

SOS Children's Villages is responding to disasters and humanitarian emergencies across the globe.  Please help us continue to care for children and families who are in the direst of need.  Donate now to the SOS MAYDAY Emergency Relief Fund.