Displaced Iraqi Children Unleash Their Talent

Performers greet an excited crowd at the Dibaga’s Got Talent show. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

We get a phone call just as we’re pulling into Debaga 2 camp, about an hour’s drive east of Erbil.

“We’re cancelling the event. It’s too dusty and windy. Everything is blowing down.” The muffled voice of a staff member from UNICEF’s partner Terre des Hommes (TDH) is barely audible through the phone.

By the time the conversation is over, we’ve pulled up at the child friendly space which UNICEF supports in the camp with the contribution of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the governments of Germany and Canada.

Chairs are set up. People are milling around. The fence line is packed with children hoping the event will go forward.

After about half an hour, the situation is reassessed and it is pronounced that the Debaga’s Got Talent show will go on.

Colorful balloons and banners are quickly hung, the music is turned up, and the chairs begin to fill.

The first group to perform, the ninjas, take a quick break from stretching to pose for the camera. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

“Backstage” in one of the UNICEF tents, a team of ninjas is stretching out and getting ready to tumble. A group of young men in matching tan traditional clothing wanders through, while a cluster of girls in the corner check their props.

The tent houses the controlled chaos of nerves, last-minute coordination, sound checks and final run-throughs of routines.

The judges are in place, and the MC is at the mic. The ninjas are up first and stalk out in all black, breaking into kicks, tumbles, cartwheels. They are followed by an array of singing, poetry recitation, and dancing acts.

The judges (left) saw an array of acts that included dancing, recitation, drawing, and acrobatics. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

One group of girls reenacts a family being displaced from their homes, baby dolls and school books spread across the floor. The group lead goes from girl to girl, asking about her family. They point her on to girl after girl, until finally they are reunited.

Back in the backstage tent, a team of hip hop performers is in a huddle. The spokes of a wheelchair show through the cluster of excited boys. Youssef sits inside, listening as his teammates talk through their routine one last time.

I’d met Youssef earlier this year. At the time, he was relatively housebound — a congenital condition has left him with twisted legs and underdeveloped arms. TDH had been working with him, picking him up from his tent and bringing him to the child-friendly space — the same location as the talent show. He loved the trampoline; it was a way to feel free, as well as get some relief from endless sitting on damaged limbs.

Despite his disability, Youssef is very social. “He loves playing with other kids,” his mother Fadia says. “It’s been great for Youssef to go to the child friendly space. He can just be a normal kid, playing with other kids. TDH is teaching all the kids how to respect each other, so Youssef doesn’t get made fun of there.”

Youssef doesn’t let his handicap get in the way of performing. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

Indeed, Youssef is an audience favorite. His hip hop group closes the show with more tumbles, and he pulls out some pretty cool breakdancing moves to tumultuous applause and raucous shouts of “Youssef!”. His wheelchair is long forgotten as he propels himself across the floor.

All acts have performed, and the results are in. All the contestants are lined up. Youssef’s group faces stiff competition in the form of the traditional dance group in matching tan that we’d met earlier.

The two teams competing for first place wait to find out the winner. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

“The winner is…,” the MC takes a dramatic pause worthy of television. “…Youssef and his group of breakdancers!”

Loud pops from crackers full of colorful confetti let loose a burst that will surely be decorating the camp for weeks to come. Performers and organizers alike celebrate, breaking into their own impromptu dance.

Youssef is beaming.

“Whenever I play with other kids, I feel like I can fly.”

Funding for UNICEF-supported child friendly spaces goes towards activities like this talent show, which give displaced children the opportunity to develop creative skills and break the monotony of life in the camps for displaced people. Regular activities at the child friendly spaces include psychosocial support for children who have been negatively impacted by conflict, as well as recreational and educational activities to give children a place to be kids.

Jennifer Sparks is a communications consultant with UNICEF Iraq.

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