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Iraq: “I couldn’t imagine that we were finally united.”

By Chris Niles

Kidnapped by militants and held captive for months on end, a mother and son are reunited with the boy’s father. While the family now lives safely in a camp for displaced people, the emotional wounds remain – as they do for tens of thousands of children in Iraq affected by conflict. 

ERBIL, Iraq, 30 July 2015 – Farhan*, 3, looks like any toddler, splashing about in a tiny plastic paddling pool, his arms darkened by the sun and a mischievous glint in his eye.

© UNICEF Iraq/2015/Niles
Farhan, 3, plays with his new toy car as his mother looks on, in the tent where they live in a camp for displaced people in Iraq's Kurdistan region.

More than a month has passed since Farhan and his parents came to a displacement camp in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.

“He’s a lot better,” says UNICEF Child Protection Facilitator Jwan. “When he first came here he was very aggressive. He wouldn’t make eye contact. I brought him presents, but he refused them.”

Today the UNICEF child protection team is again checking in on him and his family, but Farhan is not bothered by the attention. He climbs out of the pool, gets dressed and is happy to receive the gift of a small red car. He clutches it close, fascinated by its interior, opening its doors and peering inside.

His mother, Wafa, stays back, watching him quietly, her face betraying no emotion. Yet it’s only because of her courage and resourcefulness that the family is here at all.

A desperate decision

Eight months ago, Wafa and Farhan, members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, were kidnapped in Sinjar. For nearly three months they were moved around Iraq before being taken to Syria, where they were imprisoned for five months.

“They didn’t treat my son and me as humans,” Wafa says. “We were hit and kicked every day.”

Farhan was forced to memorize the Koran and viciously beaten when he couldn’t remember the passages.

When their captors finally threatened to sell Farhan, the idea of being separated from her son pushed Wafa to make a desperate decision.

“I had no option,” she says. “I decided it was better to die fully in one second than die a little every day.”

Wafa had noticed that the wife of their captor often left the apartment where they were being held to shop and visit friends  – something that her husband had forbidden her to do. So she threatened to tell the woman’s husband about her daily outings unless she helped Wafa and Farhan escape.

The plan worked. The wife led them to a Syrian family who sheltered them for four days, and then contacted Farhan’s father, Yakup, in Sinjar. He worked tirelessly, and after many weeks of moving from one point to another, he managed to reunite them.

© UNICEF Iraq/2015/Niles
UNICEF child protection facilitators keep a close watch on Farhan, who spent months in captivity after being kidnapped.

“The escape was like something out of a movie,” Yakup says.

Local helpers escorted Wafa and Farhan to the Syria-Turkey border. Farhan’s father then enlisted an uncle to cross the border and bring his wife and only child back to Iraq, where he was waiting.

“I just froze when I saw them, because I didn’t know what to do,” Yakup says.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Wafa says. “I couldn’t imagine that we were finally united.”

The need for protection

There are at least 1.5 million children displaced by conflict in Iraq, and the incidence of grave violations, particularly against religious minorities, is skyrocketing – at the same time as the money to meet their needs is running out.

As part of an international appeal, UNICEF is asking for $20 million to support protection activities aimed at helping 75,000 children like Farhan who have been brutalized by the conflict.

For the family, although safe and reunited, the psychological and emotional wounds are raw.

There are no visible scars on Farhan, but he wakes screaming in the night and has spontaneous nosebleeds. When planes fly over, he closes the windows and turns off the lights, afraid that he’s being attacked.

“He’s still terrified,” Yakup says. “But with time and help like we get at these child-friendly spaces, he will become a child again.”


*Some names in this story have been changed.



UNICEF Photography: Support for Yazidis

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