Upon my recent visit to Iraq, I saw the intense psychological distress that over 500,000 Iraqi Yazidis1 experience every day. They have had to abandon their houses and families in order to o survive the violence of the armed group calling itself the Islamic State, who’s made lightning-fast advances throughout the country.
All of them suffered the horrors of war in some way, and many of them are still plagued by the effects of post-traumatic stress. The vast majority of the victims are under 18.
What can we do for these uprooted youths, forced to live far from their homes in camps or makeshift shelters? What happens when the closest school is four hours away on foot and so overcrowded it cannot accept any new students?
This is why for the last few months Development and Peace, in partnership with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), has been involved in a project to create youth centres that provide these kids in dire need with a safe space.
Thanks to our project, over 900 children have access, twice a week, to a tent, the inside of which resembles a classroom.
On site, an intervention team offers children a variety of activities and a positive environment in which they can feel safe. Women account for at least 50% of each team, as children are more likely to confide their psychological distress to a woman. Furthermore, some of the staff hired to run these centres are displaced people, in an effort to provide them and their families with extra income.
Thanks to our partners’ experience with other displaced populations, and after consulting the target population during the analysis phase of the project, it was decided to offer five types of activities in the centres:
- Recreational games for children;
- Informal education, by age group, with an emphasis on building vocabulary;
- Team-spirit building activities;
- Peaceful conflict-resolution activities; and
- Activities in which children can talk about the stress they’ve experienced.
These spaces are also used by the staff to assess the wellbeing of the children, and ensure that they receive the psychological care they might require. Already, close to 50 children have been diagnosed with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have been referred to a specialist who will be able to give them proper care.
These centres are not meant to replace real schools, but in a context of mass displacement and overcrowded classrooms, they ensure that children can continue their education while on the waiting list to enroll permanently in a local school. Without this interim program, a whole generation might struggle with learning issues and face a bleak future.
Here are a few children I had the privilege of meeting:
Lisa, age 11, thanks us for creating this centre. She likes the activities offered, but wishes she could take Arabic lessons.
Shamo, age 12, loves it when we teach him some English words.
Randy, age 12, is grateful when teachers manage to make him forget “the things he’s seen” and hopes to become an engineer.
1Who are the Yazidis? They are a Kurdish-speaking community of about 600,000 people. They are among the oldest ethnoreligious groups of Mesopotamia, where their belief system appeared over 4,000 years ago. The Yazidis are being persecuted by the Islamic State for refusing to convert to Suuni Islam.