As we give out water and supplies in a dusty warehouse north of Tikrit to a group of people who have escaped life under the Islamic State (ISIS), an unexpectedly joyful scene plays out.
Families reunited after two years
These children, women and men have walked for days – in many cases through minefields – to escape life under ISIS. Now, for the first time in two years or more, there are reunited with their loved ones.
I see two young boys hug and then run off to play, hand-in-hand. A man embraces his wife for the first time in 26 months. His children and extended family huddle around him, chatting and crying.
“Living hell” under ISIS
Islamic State shattered this man’s leg with a bat because he was 30 seconds late to mosque. Now, he walks with a limp.
He tells me that he was “living in hell”.
People tell me about something called the “execution letter”. If you attempt to escape once, ISIS makes you sign a contract agreeing that, if you try again, you will be executed.
Risking it all
To escape ISIS, families have put all their life savings – and their lives – into the hands of smugglers. Many walked across mountains at night, where they risked treading on landmines or capture by armed groups.
The stares, ragged clothing and chapped lips of children as they arrive here testify what they have been through since leaving.
We take a man, who has been blinded by shrapnel on his journey here, by the hand and lead him into the screening site.
Layla has just arrived in the town of Qayyarah, 80km south of Mosul, where we work and hand out emergency supplies.
She tells us about her escape. After her husband refused to join ISIS, fighters took their belongings and burned them all in punishment. Then they took her husband.
Layla and her eight children fled with nothing but their clothes, and some bribe money to secure their safe passage through the minefields.
We give her water and supplies. But she says: “The only help I need is an education for my children. We have nothing, but this is my biggest worry.”
Education is what we are going to provide for Layla’s children – and as many others as possible.
What we’re doing
We’re opening mobile education tents in Qayyarah, like the ones we already run in Tikrit. We’ll also provide food, water and shelter for people fleeing ISIS.
We know from our work in countless conflicts that a safe space for learning can transform a child.
It provides a routine, helping them get back on track and recover from the trauma of war.
We will help the hundreds of families who have already fled areas around the city of Mosul.
And if the hundreds of thousands of people expected to flee Mosul arrive, we’ll be here to help them too.
Interested? Read more:
- Iraq in photos: Children flee fighting
- Mosul: the situation in Iraq’s second biggest city explained
- Iraq: Islamic State recruiting children as young as 12 as fighters
Names have been changed to protect identities.