THE STORY OF SHARIFA
MAMILYAN CAMP, Iraq.
Nine-year-old Hameen laughingly fends off a rooster as she collects a dozen eggs from snow white chickens. “One time I was trying to feed the chickens, but the roosters were very naughty and they didn’t let me,” she says.
The bigger of the two roosters is especially troublesome. “It chases us and teaches the smaller rooster to chase us too,” she says with a breathless grin.
Hameen and her family are originally from Sinjar. They have lived in Mamilyan IDP Camp near Akre in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq for more than six years, after fleeing the Islamic State group (ISIS). The chickens, 17 laying hens and two roosters, were given to them in March by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), part of a project to provide a source of income and food security to 40 families in the camp.
For Hameen and her brothers and sisters, the chickens are fun new pets. For their parents, the birds are a small step on the road to creating a happy, healthy, safe life and future for their children, carving hope out of the suffering they have lived for the past seven years.
On August 3, 2014, Hameen’s mother Sharifa Jaru Qasim woke up at 7am and sent one of her sons out to buy some food for breakfast. He came back saying, “the world has turned upside down.” Truckloads of armed men were driving around the town. ISIS militants had seized control.
After two days, the family left Sinjar, going to Mosul. They were stopped by a group of militants who asked if the family were Yazidis, but on hearing they were Muslims, let them continue on their way.
From Mosul the family set out for Duhok, beyond ISIS’ reach. They drove as far as they could, then abandoned their car and walked into the fields to skirt checkpoints. With only the clothes on their backs and a few bits of food, carrying children aged 3 and 4 years old, they walked for several kilometres before reaching a road. A driver stopped to ask if they needed help. The man owned a hotel in Duhok and took them there.
The family - father, mother, and eight children - lived in a single hotel room for over five months. Everything was done in the small space: sleeping, cooking, eating. “We were ashamed and embarrassed,” the whole family living in one room, recalls Sharifa. “But I thank the people around me. They helped a lot.” The hotel owner let them stay for free and gave them food.
Strangers in Duhok, the family didn’t know anyone and rarely went out. “By the time we left the hotel, the kids were white because they did not see the sun for five months,” said Sharifa.
In January 2015, the family moved to Mamilyan Camp where, again, they were cared for by the kindness of strangers. Their neighbours in the tent next door invited them for lunch on their first day. The neighbours also shared mattresses, blankets, and pillows when it was time to bed down for the night.
Sharifa didn’t sleep that first night. “It was very cold,” she said. She sat by the kerosene stove and thought about how to set right her children’s world that had been upended by ISIS.
For Sharifa, education is essential to securing her children’s future. When ISIS first attacked, her eldest daughter was studying Arabic language at the University of Mosul and her eldest son was in his last year of high school.
While they were living in the hotel in Duhok, her daughter had to suspend her studies, but her son was able to sit his exams. And when they moved to the camp, their daughter resumed school, first for a year in Erbil and then in Sumel, near Duhok where university classes were offered for IDP students. For two years, Sharifa’s husband drove their daughter to school and back at least three times a week, until she graduated. Her son enrolled in a business administration course in Bardarash.
“I’m very proud that they both finished school, despite the hardships,” said Sharifa, who sold some of her gold to pay for their schooling.
Another daughter is now in grade 11 and has a 96% average. Sharifa sold more of her gold to cover the costs of her education, including transportation to the school in Akre. She wants her daughter to have the chance to attend university.
The family is living off government subsidies and whatever odd jobs they can get. Sharifa’s husband is a driver, but he earns barely enough to cover the cost of petrol. Their son finds occasional work as a labourer and Sharifa was once hired by an NGO to teach tailoring to other women in the camp. But none of them have found permanent, stable employment.
Sharifa is very careful with money. During Ramadan, she did not buy fruit or treats for her children as is traditional. Instead, she said, her focus is on “making sure their bellies are full.”
When UNIDO approached Aziz Hassan Tajaddin, Mamilyan Camp mukhtar, asking him to recommend families to benefit from a Japanese funded project to establish household poultry income generating activity, he thought of Sharifa. “I chose women who were really in need, the most vulnerable,” he explained. The UNIDO project aims to support the IDPs to establish a source of livelihood for themselves.
Beneficiaries were given a 10-day training course in caring for the chickens and how to manage a household poultry as a business.
Now Sharifa is woken every morning at 4am by the roosters crowing. She feeds and waters them while the children rush to search for eggs. “The children are crazy about the chickens. They are all obsessed with them,” said Sharifa. “They have lifted the mood of the whole family.”
Her thirteen-year-old son Abdulrahman knows each one - which one has a gammy leg, which one is a trouble-maker, which one has the prettiest cockscomb.
The eggs have also supplemented the family’s diet. Before the chickens, if they wanted eggs, they would have to spend 5,000 to 7,000 dinars at the shop. Now, they have eggs every day.
“It is true they are small in number, but it has made the family so happy,” said Sharifa. “I’m more than thankful for this