A Lifeline for the Displaced in Iraq

Providing shelter, clothes and health care for Iraqis driven from their homes by Da’esh

Wesal is a displaced Iraqi who fled her home in Sinjar with her family when Da’esh attacked. She said: “When [USAID’s partner] installed windows and doors we felt safe to live here. Before, there was nothing. It was like a ghost house.”

In providing humanitarian assistance to many of the 3.3 million people displaced in Iraq since 2014, it becomes clear to me that the true heroes are the individuals who have endured Da’esh’s brutal onslaught and somehow find the strength to go on.

When I hear the stories of those who survive, I am reminded of why I am here serving as the leader of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in Iraq.

We see the man whose life has been turned upside down by Da’esh fighters, who destroyed his fields, killed his sons and kidnapped his wife and daughters in spite of his best efforts to protect them.

We see the despondent mother who lost her husband and her children.

We see an innocent child who lost his parents, his brothers and sisters, his toys and his hope for the future.

Through these individuals, we ultimately see the millions of Iraqis who have suffered untold pain, hardship and trauma — like Wesal, a woman from Sinjar.

Dakheel, Wesal and their son fled their home in Sinjar when Da’esh attacked. The family now lives in an unfinished home in Iraqi Kurdistan that USAID partners upgraded by installing windows and doors.

When the conflict in northern Iraq drove Wesal and her family from their home, they found refuge in an unfinished building hundreds of miles away.

Their new “home” lacked windows and doors. It had no running water or sanitary facilities and only one room with rough, unfinished gray walls and a cement floor. Many displaced families like Wesal’s seek refuge in makeshift shelters rather than organized camps.

That’s when the DART, representing the American people, stepped in.

We partnered with an NGO to install windows and doors, protecting Wesal and her family from the harsh winter climate of northern Iraq. Handrails were added on unfinished staircases to make them safer for her children, and waterspouts, toilets, septic tanks and showers were installed in the house to help prevent disease.

While the home remains far from luxurious — the kitchen area consists largely of a table made from a wood plank, cinder blocks and a small gas burner, and the family stacks their sleeping mats against the wall so they have more room for daily activities — it affords protection and warmth to a family who has lost virtually everything.

For a family who was forced to flee for their very lives, the assistance is more than a better place to live. It is a statement that lets them know people a world away are thinking of them and reaching out to help them.

Wesal’s building has new doors and windows, protecting the family from the elements.

Of course, the family still dreams of the day when they can return to Sinjar, where they had a four-bedroom house and a garden with trees, but they are immensely grateful for the assistance they have received.

“We were in disbelief,” Wesal said, describing her family’s reaction when they heard they would receive the upgrades. “We thank you so much for this.”

Wesal’s story is only one among millions of displaced Iraqis who receive support from the American people.

When over a half million Iraqi children faced a winter without warm clothes, the American people stepped forward and provided 550,000 sets of clothes. In western Iraq, children in Ramadi who had been forced to serve as human shields for Da’esh and ran from snipers and IEDs to escape, received some of these clothes once they reached safety.

When a local school in Ninewa reported a chickenpox outbreak among several students but no doctors or medical facilities to treat them, a U.S.-supported mobile health team traveled to the village to assess the situation and provide treatment.

These mobile health teams are especially important to serve displaced populations that are often dispersed in remote areas. The team’s doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other medical professionals treated 19 villagers with chickenpox. They also taught students and teachers about preventing and treating chickenpox.

With funding from the American people, the World Health Organization sent mobile medical units to provide medical assistance to thousands of displaced Iraqis from liberated areas in Ramadi and in Sinjar.

These clinics treated elderly patients, children who had been injured, men with diabetes and pregnant women. All of those treated had recently escaped Da’esh-controlled territories where they faced hunger, water shortages, a lack of medical treatment and the horror of being used as human shields.

Many Iraqis fleeing Da’esh are finding refuge in buildings that were never designed to be homes. USAID and partners are upgrading many of these spaces to include basic services and a bit of privacy — a big step in reclaiming the dignity that many families lost when they fled their homes. / Courtesy of the International Organization for Migration

Thousands of other Iraqis who fled Da’esh and settled into camps and abandoned buildings far from home also face the danger of deadly landmines leftover from previous conflicts. Young children who play outside of camps are especially at risk.

The DART works with an NGO to provide mine-risk education programs for children living in camps in Ninewa, Kirkuk and elsewhere. Children receive instruction on the dangers of landmines through interactive games and other means in order to reduce their risk of death or serious injury.

These are just some examples of programs that are implemented in Iraq with support from the American people.

Through this support for Wesal, her family and millions of other Iraqis, we continue to improve the lives of men, women and children who have literally had their world torn apart.

They are the ones that make this work so worthwhile and why I am proud to be a part of it.

About the Author

Ron Mortensen leads the Disaster Assistance Response Team in Iraq for USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.