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Displaced in northern Iraq, a mother protects her children

By Lucille Knight and Reem Tarazi

Fleeing militants’ violent advance, a Yazidi woman keeps her family together, and keeps breastfeeding her youngest child even while on the run.

ZAKHO, Iraq, 5 Sept 2014 – A month ago, Shaha and her eight children made a long and perilous journey before arriving in this camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in an area called Warga Dalal.

After spending four nights on Mt. Sinjar, and walking through Syria for eight days, she and her children came to Zakho, in Dohuk Governorate, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. In this informal settlement for IDPs – meaning it hasn’t been planned or organized as a displacement camp – some people are living in tents donated by the Iranian Red Crescent, while others, like Shaha and her children, take shelter under blankets as best they can. The sun is very hot, and the air very dusty. 

© UNICEF Iraq/2014/Knight
Shaha, right, with some of her children in a displacement camp in northern Iraq

When we ask Shaha to tell her story, she inhales deeply and begins to breastfeed her youngest son, Ayad, who is 18 months old. Rocking gently, she tells us she is from a village called Seeba, in Sinjar district in north-western Iraq. On the night she fled, she was woken up by the sound of shooting at 3 a.m. A few hours later, she decided to leave, grabbed a few important documents, and fled with her family to Mt. Sinjar, where thousands of ethnic Yazidi had taken refuge.

Meanwhile, Shaha’s husband Shamo stayed behind to protect their home.  She believes he also fled and is in another area of Dohuk Governorate, but she is not sure.

Amid the chaos, the crying, and the sorrow, Shaha explains how her eight children stayed together as they went up the mountain. “We just held onto each other, we ran, and we didn’t let go.”

Ayad begins to stir, and Shaha takes him off her breast. Suddenly aware that we are watching her, Shaha becomes very shy. We offer words of encouragement and tell her that exclusive breastfeeding for a baby’s first six months and complementary feeding from six months onwards are basic recommendations for proper childhood development. Shaha smiles and gestures towards all her children. “I breastfed all my children, and they have always been very healthy,” she says. “On the mountain and walking through Syria, we had very little food or water, but I was able to breastfeed Ayad – it calmed him down.” 

UNICEF Iraq works with mothers in northern Iraq to promote good nutrition, health, early childhood development, including advocating exclusive and complementary breastfeeding.

In Sinjar district, according to the most recent survey results, 46 per cent of mothers report that they exclusively breastfeed their infants, but the average duration is just under two months. 

In Khanke, another area of Dohuk Governorate hosting IDPs from Sinjar, a baby boy is born. His mother, Warda (‘rose’ in Arabic) delivered him in her tent, with the assistance of her mother. Warda can’t stop looking down at her son, who has not yet been named.

Her husband explains proudly, “We are breastfeeding our son because this area is full of germs and bacteria. We want him to grow up to be healthy and be successful.”



UNICEF Photography: Support for Yazidis

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