When children at Domiz camp in northern Iraq drew pictures of the violence they had witnessed in Syria, a lot of my colleagues commented on how the pictures “spoke for themselves”.
But when a teenage girl explained her drawing in more detail, it was much, much worse. The building being bombed in her picture turned out to be her school, the stick figures on the ground were fellow students “dying while they were going to school”, and the drawing, she said, was intended to show “how afraid [she] was while planes were bombing the school”.
The pictures were in an exhibition at the camp a few weeks ago, and gave a powerful window to what is still going on in children’s minds, even months after they have left Syria. But it was only recently that I heard from some of the children, in their words, about what they had drawn.
After the exhibition, UNICEF wanted to ask the children a little bit about their drawings. Due to language barriers and lack of interpreters, a volunteer child support worker spoke to the children and took notes in Arabic for translation later. I was concerned about talking to children about pictures that held difficult memories for them, so I paid close attention while they spoke, prepared to halt the discussion immediately if they looked uncomfortable or hesitant. But the children were enthusiastic, crowding around, competing to tell their stories first.
I sent the written quotes to a colleague to translate. While I waited for his response, we celebrated Children’s Day at the camp with a day of activities run by UNICEF and other organisations. There were games and sports, children packed one of the camp schools for performances of singing, dancing, poetry and jokes, and another art exhibition by children at the camp was opened.
This time though the pictures at the exhibition showed happier scenes – children playing, or images of life in the camp. It was a great day in Domiz, seeing so many children playing and happy.
So it was a jolt back to reality when the next day my colleague sent through the translated quotes describing the pictures of Syria.
“My drawing is of planes and tanks attacking the city and bombing schools, homes and mosques,” an 11-year-old girl had said.
“There are tanks in the street where the school is,” explained a 15-year-old.
“My drawing is of dead and injured people in the street because of indiscriminate bombing,” said another 11-year-old.
It was a reminder that while children can often still play, laugh and smile, there is a lot they are still coming to terms with, and ongoing support is needed to give these children a chance to recover.
UNICEF has warned of the risk of a “lost generation” of Syrian children. Hearing from these children what they have been through makes that risk very real. A child cannot recover from watching her school bombed and her friends killed without professional, sustained support.
At Domiz camp, UNICEF supports a Child Protection Unit, which helps identify vulnerable children, as well as two safe spaces (known as a Child Friendly Space and Youth Friendly Space), which provide hundreds of children and youths with psychosocial support and recreational activities. But there’s an estimated 13,000 children at Domiz camp, with more arriving everyday. We need to increase the facilities that we have to support them recover.
Last week the UN – including UNICEF – launched a funding appeal for its response to the Syria crisis. It was the largest ever appeal that the UN has ever announced. Behind the headline figures of billions of dollars are the children of Domiz camp that need our help. UNICEF’s funding appeal for Iraq is still only 35 percent funded. More funding is needed to support these children and give them a chance of recovering from the violence that they have witnessed.
Wendy Bruere is an emergency communications specialist with UNICEF, currently working at Domiz refugee camp for Syrians in northern Iraq
You can donate to the UNHCR urgent appeal here