Hope Amidst the Despair in Northern Iraq


Nadira in her new kitchen provided by IOM Iraq in Shekhan camp. © IOM/Taryn Fivek 2015

By Taryn Fivek

Nadira turns the pages of her family photo album with the pain of loss etched on her face. Sitting with Nadira and her teenage daughter Sa’ada in their tent at Shekhan camp in northern Iraq, IOM Iraq staff learns of the immense loss their family has faced, through the photos they share.

“Before we were displaced, we spent a lot of time together as a family. We had lots of parties and picnics together. We all lived in the same neighborhood,” Nadira pauses, pointing at a wedding photo in the album.

“This is my niece. She has four children. They were all captured by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). We heard from them three days ago, but they have no idea where they are or what will happen to them.”

She turns a page to show another photo.

“This is Sa’ada playing cards with me and my mother when she was little.” Nadira’s eyes fill with tears. “My mother died of a heart attack as we were fleeing Sinjar. My father died only three days later of a broken heart, and we had to bury them both far from home, in Zakho.”

Sa’ada and Nadira represent just one family out of thousands that fled violence from Sinjar in the summer of 2014. Nadira, her husband, her two daughters and son were able to escape, but the journey to safety was marked by hardship and loss for the Khalil family.

“My husband was working at a checkpoint, and he got a cell phone call that ISIL were approaching. He came home and gathered us quickly – we had no time to pack. I was fortunate to have the photo album in my hands. We passed an ISIL checkpoint by lying about going to our farm, and once we were safely past, we abandoned the car and continued on foot in the middle of the night.”

“We headed towards Sinjar mountain and were there for far too long. My daughters saw horrifying things. There were women throwing themselves off of the mountain out of despair. Others attempted to quench their children’s thirst with their own tears. We continued walking until we reached friendly soldiers who helped us to safety in Kurdistan.”

The family photo album with some happy memories for Nadira. © IOM/Taryn Fivek 2015

Nadira continues her painful story. “When my husband went back to Kanesour after it had been liberated from ISIL, he found that from our neighborhood, him and his two brothers were the only men who survived. Everyone else had been decapitated, and we assume that the women and children had all been kidnapped. We saw the bodies of some of my brothers on social media. This is how we found out they had been killed.”

Uncertainty continues to haunt their displacement.

“My friends and I used to go out shopping together,” says 16-year-old Sa’ada, showing IOM staff a photo of her hometown market on her phone. “Now I don’t know if they are dead or have been sold as slaves.”

Despite all the uncertainty, Sa’ada’s eyes brighten up a little when discussing the new facilities at Shekhan.

“I will definitely go to school when it opens, and I hear there will be groups for women and girls that I can participate in,” she says, referring to the IOM psychosocial programming that will be offered just a few steps from their tent. “It gets so boring sitting in this tent all day with nothing to do, but miss my friends.”

When asked if they plan on returning home, Nadira expresses hope. “When our hometown was liberated from ISIL, we were finally able to re-bury my parents next to their relatives. The front line is still too close for us to go back for now, but perhaps one day we can return.”