Healing hidden wounds

Amina’s left hand dangles uselessly after being injured by a mortar strike. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

Friends Amina, 11, and Samah, 8, are among the children receiving psychosocial care at their recently rehabilitated school — Fahardee Primary School — has 1,500 boys and girls attending in two shifts, including children displaced from west Mosul. The two girls look very small and a little lost.

The city and many of its people bear the physical marks of the violence that engulfed this side of the city until just three months ago. Perhaps less obvious is the mental impact on the children who have borne witness to or directly experienced violence. Some have been injured. Some have lost families and homes. Many feel they have lost their futures.

UNICEF’s partner, HOPE, is carrying out psychosocial support through art, theater, play and recreation that help children express and overcome their experiences of violence and anxiety.

“Many times, when children first come, their drawings show war. Sometimes they will draw before and after pictures, showing their life under Daesh and then showing how Mosul has changed. Over time, their drawings start to show more mundane things like flowers, landscapes from around Iraq, landmarks in Mosul, or signs of peace like doves,” says Abdullah, one of the HOPE staff.

Children’s drawings reflect an array of subjects, some showing scenes of daily life. Others more explicitly show the damage and recovery of a life affected by conflict. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

Samah’s eyes show a spark of confidence, and Samir, one of her teachers, leans over to tell me that Samah is one of the success stories of the psycho-social program being run at the school. “When she first came, she didn’t play with the other girls. She didn’t want to go to school and she didn’t really speak. She was really unwell,” Samir says.

It’s hard to imagine this outspoken girl staying silent. “We had to leave our home because of the fighting, and we went to live my uncle in west Mosul. We went back to our neighborhood (in the east) when it was safe. I’m feeling great because we’re back home. The best thing is that I’m healthy now.” School is no longer a struggle for her. “I love coming to class. Math is my favorite.”

Hajer was not ready to talk about her experiences. Many children across Iraq have been affected by violence over the past three years and are in need of psychosocial support. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

While speaking with Amina and Samah, some of their friends have quietly slipped in to sit next to them. Hajer is a pale girl, wrapped in a light headscarf. She is not ready to speak to us, but she is joined by another girl, Aya who has quite a bit to say. Aya has only been in school for a month, having fled to east Mosul just recently with her family.

“I am not happy, I’m really worried. The rest of my relatives are still in west Mosul and my house has been destroyed.”
— Aya

We try to ask her about her hopes for the future, but she circles the conversation back to trapped family. “She can’t focus on anything else yet. She’s still too concerned about her family. We have more work to do with her, but there’s only so much we can do when the children still have loved ones at risk,” Samir explains.

While she is speaking, boys Ammar, 14, Mohammed, 12, burst through the door with a flourish. Despite being at an age of restless energy and activity, after their dramatic entrance they sit quietly.

Mohammed’s story is the hardest to hear.

His parents were killed in a mortar attack that destroyed his house. Mohammed’s long and gangly legs are riddled with scars and marks where he was injured with shrapnel. Even after six months, he is not completely healed because doctors have not been able to remove all of the fragments. He lifts a pant leg just above the ankle to show a makeshift bandage.

Mohammed looks through the window of his classroom in Fahardee School in east Mosul. ©UNICEF 2017/Anmar Rfaat

Despite his injuries and loss, he is smiling. “I am happy now. I’m feeling very good. I’m living with my uncle and his family and I come to school every day. What I want more than anything is to just have a safe life. Secure. And not just for me, but for all kids.”

“Now that I’m an orphan, I know how bad it is and I don’t want anyone else to be like me.” — Mohammed

Children’s suffering has reached new heights in the escalation of violence over the last three years. As a result of disrupted livelihoods, broken families, displacement, and lack of resources, over 5 million children across Iraq are now in need of humanitarian assistance.

Getting children to attend school, where they can also access the psychosocial care, is the first step to giving children a chance at having a better future.

Active boys participate in an art class as part of psychosocial support for children affected by conflict. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

Ahmed, 9, had never been to school before. He would have just been school age when Mosul came under the control of the so-called Islamic State and regular classes became difficult to access.

HOPE visited his family, and was able to convince them to send him to school. After attending a few psychosocial sessions, facilitators noticed that he liked to draw, so they gave him some paper and colored pencils. He loved them.

“All he wants to do is draw. He could draw all day every day!” says HOPE staff Abdullah.

Ahmed likes to draw houses. Very neat houses with straight lines and bright colors. No bullet riddled walls, collapsed roofs, or tangles of barbed wire. “This is what I think Mosul will look like again,” he says.

Jennifer Sparks is a communications consultant for UNICEF Iraq.

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