Three women sit together in a crowded church in the Soran district, a three-hour drive from Erbil, the capital of Kurdish Iraq. A young girl seated with them is restless, staring at the ceiling, scanning the room. She should be in school but her family, like the others here, are among the 1.9 million Iraqis displaced by the ongoing conflict.
Almost half of the displaced have sought safety in Kurdish-controlled Iraq. The United Nations reports that at least 2.8 million will need food assistance this winter. While they have escaped a war, they do not have the resources necessary to feed their families.
In the church pews, Siham, 33, is seated with her sister, Eveline, 28, and sister-in-law, Thiqara, 33. It is the first day of a World Vision food voucher distribution, supported by the World Food Programme. Over 19,000 families—115,800 people—will benefit from this program over the next three months which will provid families with food vouchers, a value of up to 150,000 Iraqi dinars ($130 (USD)) per family each month (or $26 (USD) per person per month).
Siham is one of 120 household representatives attending this meeting inside the local church because displaced families, approximately 500 people who have no other place to go, occupy all other community spaces in town.
“We are 20 families staying in a room in the church hall across the street,” Siham says, explaining her makeshift living arrangement. “We fled together at the same time.”
All of them are from Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s largest Christian city, now emptied of the minority Assyrian Christian community who had called it home for centuries.
“Before the conflict, my husband was a day labourer. He worked hard. We put all of our money into building a new house in Qaraqosh. The [militants] have taken our house now. They have taken everything,” Siham says.
“Before the conflict, my husband was a day labourer,” Siham says. “He worked hard. We put all of our money into building a new house in Qaraqosh.” She hesitates before adding, “The [militants] have taken our house now. They have taken everything.”
“They took my toys,” Maria, 7, the youngest of Siham’s three children, chimes in.
Siham’s family, like others who fled here, brought only their personal documents and identification cards. “We thought to bring clothes for one or two days. We’re still wearing them,” she says. They had no idea they would be away from home for so long.
“We thought to bring clothes for one or two days. We’re still wearing them," says Siham.
“We didn’t bring anything for winter,” she explains. “But, the church and the local community have given us clothing.” Many families, like Siham’s, have no liquid assets, no way to purchase much-needed items to survive the winter. Until now, they have relied upon donations, even to eat.
The World Vision/World Food Programme food vouchers provide Siham’s family and others an opportunity to choose what they eat and prioritize their purchases based on their needs. The vouchers can help restore a sense of normalcy in a life that may seem to have lost all other control. Recipients can redeem their vouchers at designated stores.
Father Yatroun is the local priest at the Chaldean Church where Siham and other families have gathered to learn more about World Vision’s assistance programme, beneficiary feedback systems or hotlines, and where vouchers will be distributed. “The vouchers will help these families a lot,” he explains. Father Yatroun has worked in this community for 13 years. “Because the vouchers will provide [families] with eggs, milk, rice, whatever they choose, the families and the church can prioritize other assistance, like medicine. Families will save money that otherwise would have been spent on food.”
"The vouchers will provide [families] with eggs, milk, rice, whatever they choose, the families and the church can prioritize other assistance, like medicine," says Father Yatroun.
But food is not Siham’s only concern. She worries for the future of her three daughters. “My greatest concern is their education and returning them to school,” the mother says. She watches them play in the churchyard, while she waits in line to receive food vouchers.
Many parents agree that the hardest part of being displaced, at least for their children, is their lost education. They speak of education as an integral part of a child’s growth, and as something that is not easily replaced.
“The children here are not able to go to study. There are no schools for our children, no teachers, no places to take the kids,” Siham says. “They are with us throughout the whole day,” she adds; her sister, Eveline, next to her, nods in agreement.
“The children here are not able to go to study. There are no schools for our children, no teachers, no places to take the kids,” Siham says.
Even when there are spaces in local schools, the transition is very hard for displaced children as the curriculum is in Kurdish or Syriac language. Siham’s eldest daughter, Miriam, 12, was permitted to attend a local school, but it was difficult because she couldn’t understand the language. In Qaraqosh, her classes were always taught in Arabic. She was a good student. Her favourite class was math.
“When I grow up, I hope to become a doctor,” she says thoughtfully, holding a finger to her chin. “I want to help my people. Provide them with treatment, so when they are sick, I can make them better.” Her younger sister, Maria, 7, is not one to be left out, and interrupts her sister: “I’m going to be a car mechanic. I will fix planes, too,” she says. “We will fly to Germany.”
Miriam, smiles, enjoying her sister’s whimsy, but recognizing the reality as far more complicated. “I want a future,” she says. “I dream of an Iraq that is safe.”
World Vision is providing food fouchers to displaced famlies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. You can help support our work here.