For nearly two years, Nazeeh and his friends have not been able to play soccer as a team. Since escaping from Mosul, Iraq, separately, they had had no news of each other, let alone been able to reunite.
Last week, the seven of them discovered they were living in the same emergency site for displaced people in Haj Ali. They got together on a soccer ground constructed by IOM, the UN Migration Agency with funds raised by its U.S.- based nonprofit partner, USA for IOM (formerly USAIM).
“All of us are from the same village, Al Muwali, near Mosul. We love football and used to play as a team before ISIL took over. We kept playing even when ISIL took control, until they completely banned it,” said Nazeeh, 16, who played in the team of the 12 to 16-year-olds.
ISIL did not only take away football from Nazeeh; they also took away his education.
“I lost three years of learning and the freedom to play football,” he said.
When the military offensive to retake Mosul began and reached their areas, people started fleeing.
“People from the village tried to escape the fighting and fled in all directions. My friends went to different places with their families. The team was gone; we were scattered: some went to Badoush, others to Qayara, and some to Haj Ali,” said Nazeeh, who is a fan of Real Madrid and their star player player Cristiano Ronaldo.
After fleeing Mosul in March, Nazeeh and his family were placed in Haj Ali, an emergency site home to an estimated 32,200 displaced people, mostly from west Mosul.
IOM also supports the Qayara emergency site. Of the total displaced population in both sites, 55 per cent are estimated to be children under the age of 17. As of 28 August 2017, there were 18,300 children between the ages of 0–17 in Haj Ali. The population of Qayara is more than 45,600, approximately 26,650 of whom are children.
Thanks to funds raised by IOM’s U.S.-based partner to provide displaced Iraqi children with a play area, IOM’s facilitated the construction of playgrounds in both Haj Ali and Qayara emergency sites.
“These children have been deprived of part of their childhood because of the ongoing violence. Now that they are safer, we want to ensure they have spaces to enjoy their free time, play sports and express themselves,” said Luca Dall’Oglio, CEO of USA for IOM.
The playgrounds, which provide a football ground and volleyball pitch, and children’s playground for boys and girls were erected over the space of a few weeks by skilled members of the Haj Ali and Qayara displaced communities, who were paid for their work.
The playgrounds were inaugurated by a tournament, organized by IOM with the support of the camps’ management.
Unbeknown to Nazeeh, he would meet his old teammates there.
“I didn’t know that so many of my friends were living here in the camp. IOM reunited us through this event. I am so excited to be taking part in this match, after not having played with my team for so long,” Nazeeh added.
For Nazeeh and his friends, this game felt different. They were not only playing as a team for the first time in nearly two years — ISIL had banned playing football in Mosul and changed many of its rules so it would adhere with ISIL’s strict codes — but they were also celebrating survival, freedom and being together.
Nazeeh’s excitement paid off that day; the tall boy impressed everyone with his fast running, sharp shooting and impressive tackling. Almost at the end of the game, Nazeeh scored the winning goal.
“This is my first match in more than a year. I love my friends and I love football. I really hope that we can continue to play together as a team, here in the camp and after we return to our village,” he said, beaming.
The USAIM for IOM donation also enabled IOM to provide health consultations and mobility medical equipment to 517 displaced people (209 men, 165 women, 83 boys and 60 girls) with disabilities, injuries, trauma and chronic diseases in Qayara and Haj Ali emergency sites and in Khazer and Hassan Sham camps.
In coordination with the physiotherapist of the Directorate of Health, IOM also provided 89 wheelchairs, 40 walkers and 70 crutches to people displaced from Mosul. In addition, IOM built ramps in 50 blocks to improve the mobility of physically challenged residences in the sites.
Um Sumaiyah, who also hails from Mosul, was able to walk until a few months ago.
In April, when the offensive to retake Mosul broached their area, Um Sumaiyah and her family decided to risk it all and escape ISIL’s territory.
ISIL fighters were constantly watching all the escape routes and fired on fleeing civilians to contain them and use them as human shields.
Escaping at night was common, to avoid being spotted by ISIL.
For hours, Um Sumaiyah and her family walked in the dark, fumbling through hostile territory to avoid booby traps and explosives placed by ISIL.
Unfortunately, they were spotted by an ISIL militant, who fired at them.
“We began to run as fast as we could, but in the rush, darkness and fear of being caught I had a bad fall, seriously injuring both knee caps,” Um Sumaiyah said.
The fall and injuries caused her to lose the ability to walk. Now she is mostly cooped up in the tent, unable to move around without assistance.
Um Sumaiyah is one of the 89 beneficiaries who have received wheelchairs through the USAIM donation.
Another 40 beneficiaries received walkers and 70 received crutches.
“With this wheelchair, we can help her move around, and the ramp makes it easier for us to help her reach the street and go around the camp and back to the tent,” said Aysha, Um Sumaiyah’s daughter-in-law.
The protracted conflict in Iraq has worsened the conditions of chronic disease patients. The provision of primary health care has been stretched across Iraq and displaced people with physical disabilities have limited access to specialized medical services and mobility equipment.
While our U.S.-based non-profit partner continues to raise funds to ease some of the difficulties of vulnerable displaced people in Iraq, additional support is still needed given the scale of the crisis and the immense needs it has generated.
To help Nazeeh, Um Sumiyah and other displaced peoples in Iraq, click here
This article was written by Hala Jaber, the UN Migration Agency’s Spokesperson for the Mosul crisis.