Column: Iraqi crisis, Part 1 — Don't forget about refugees

Canada and its allies are at war with the Islamic State, a jihadist army that has captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria and is ethnically cleansing entire regions of ancient communities.
Week after week, the Islamic State commits unspeakable atrocities, capturing news headlines and sparking the righteous anger of many Canadians. Clearly, the Islamic State is a dangerous, destabilizing force that must be defeated by the community of nations.
However, the world must also take action on the humanitarian front, increasing assistance to those Iraqis who have had to run for their lives.
According to UNICEF's January 2015 status report, "over 2.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are displaced across 2,412 locations in Iraq."
In a diverse media landscape that bombards people with vast amounts of information, it's difficult to hold the attention of Canadians, even when it comes to the compelling humanitarian crisis in Iraq.
However, there are good reasons for Canadians to stay tuned to the issue, according to Dave Toycen, the soon-to-retire president of World Vision Canada, a Christian humanitarian organization.
"I think it's really important for Canadians to stay engaged, because it appears we are going to continue to have some of these problems, particularly in these very focused violent contexts," Toycen said in a telephone interview from Erbil, the capital city of the Erbil Governorate, which is located in the semi-autonomous, Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq.
"It is women and children who are suffering the most in this kind of environment," he said. "They really are victims of decisions being taken by others that are making a nightmare out of their lives."
During his time in Iraq, the World Vision Canada boss met with displaced Iraqis as well as Syrian refugees who fled the bloody civil war in their homeland. And he said that the refugee and IDP populations in Kurdistan are diverse, and many among them have lost their homes and/or loved ones to the violence.
"Civilians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds have been displaced by the violence, including minority communities such as Yezidis, Christians and Turkomen, as well as Shiites and Sunnis," agreed a representative of Development and Peace, the Canadian branch of Cartias Internationalis, which is the humanitarian agency of the Roman Catholic Church.

Column: Iraq crisis, Part 2 — Displaced children need help

War scars children, robs them of their childhood and educational opportunities, and exposes them to communicable diseases. However, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are doing what they can to protect and nurture children in war-torn Iraq. 

Last summer, the Islamic State, a transnational jihadist movement, launched a lightening offensive, capturing large swaths of territory in Iraq. And most Iraqis were caught off guard, forcing many to flee to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. 

The Islamic State's campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass murder has generated a massive humanitarian crisis that threatens to overwhelm NGOs. "We simply do not have enough money to support everyone," Jesse Thomson, director of CARE Canada's Humanitarian Assistance and Emergency Team, said in an email. 

The basic needs of many displaced Iraqis simply aren't being met. "When our team visited the camps, we saw a lot of children wearing plastic sandals, T-shirts and shorts," Thomson said. "When driving through Dohuk and other towns, you can also see a lot of people living in unfinished buildings," she said. "Some of them do not even have plastic sheets to protect themselves from the cold." 

According to Thomson, "the environment the displaced Iraqis are living in is terribly harsh, especially for children, women, elderly and people with disabilities." For example, with only tents for shelter from the winter cold, it's only a matter of time before many the IDPs get sick. "Many people -- especially children -- are suffering from respiratory diseases," she said. 

According to UNICEF's top official in Iraq, the ongoing conflict is taking a heavy toll on the country's displaced children. "The future of children in Iraq is uncertain," Colin MacInnes, the UNICEF representative for Iraq, said in an email. 

"Continuing violence in the country has meant that more than one million children who have been forced from their homes are still out of school, and many are routinely subjected to violence and violations of their rights," said the Nova Scotia-born MacInnes, who is currently stationed in Erbil, Iraq. Living in refugee camps is tough on children. 

"I think the health issues are probably the most critical in some ways, because there is diarrhea, colds and pneumonia," said Dave Toycen, head of World Vision Canada, in a telephone interview from Erbil. "And especially with the really young children, they are really vulnerable and can be profoundly affected and even die as a result of conditions like that," Toycen warned. 

The conflict in Iraq has left many families broken. "Many families have fled without a male head of the household," Thomson said. "The men have either gone missing, or were captured or killed." In addition, Thomson reported that "many (displaced) women have experienced sexual and other forms of severe physical violence." 

As a result, these women are fearful and don't want to leave their tents unescorted. "There's no question that numbers of the children have been traumatized by either what they've seen, or what directly happened to them," Toycen said. The psychological wounds suffered by the IDPs are too much for humanitarian NGOs to handle. "The existing services are not sufficient to cope with the magnitude and the severity of the survivors' trauma," Thomson said. 

"For children, the risk of psychosocial distress is particularly high." Since the onset of the crisis, UNICEF has supported psychosocial services for approximately 34,284 children. According to CARE's Jesse Thomson, "75% of the displaced children are still out of school, so they spend their days in the camps, missing out on vital education." She said that there are few constructive activities "to take their minds off the horrors they have lived through." 

Displaced children are not currently able to access schools in the Kurdish region, agreed Guy DesAulniers, Development and Peace's emergency programs officer for Iraq. The NGO is the Canadian branch of Cartis Internationalis, the humanitarian agency of the Roman Catholic Church. "Even if this situation changes, most do not speak or understand Kurdish, and the sheer number of IDP children would overwhelm the school system," DesAulniers said in an email.