DOHUK, Iraq – It was late afternoon by the time Amal, Laila and Holiya arrived at Sharya refugee camp in northern Iraq. The 90-minute car journey from their home town of al-Shikhan had left the sisters tired, and 12-year-old Holiya was struggling to keep her bottom lip from trembling.
It was barely the beginning of May, but temperatures were already topping 95F (35C), and the glare of the sun off the sides of the 4,000 white UNICEF-distributed tents left Holiya feeling disorientated. Eight years her senior, and newly conscious of her role as head of the family, Amal knitted her fingers through her younger siblings’ and strode up the gravel slope. “It’s not forever,” she said, loudly – half to convince herself. Neither of her younger sisters replied.
Sharya camp was hurriedly set up to house thousands of Yazidis fleeing the ISIS massacre in August 2014; it is currently home to an estimated 19,100 individuals, including refugees from the Syrian side of Sinjar, and internally displaced people from across Iraq.
Over three years, residents have had the opportunity to customize their tents – reinforcing tarpaulin divides with concrete bricks and sheets of corrugated iron. Water tanks sit beside sporadically functional portable air-conditioning units, and 1in- (3cm-) thick foam mattresses provide a gesture toward comfort at night. The sisters know they are lucky to have ended up here: Photos of friends’ tents on Facebook show what they’d have been in for in one of the newer camps.
But the sisters still can’t understand why they’d had to leave their home in the first place. Because this is a family of orphans, not refugees.
“A week before, we’d had a house. And a family. And we went to school. We weren’t fleeing anything,” Laila, 15, says.
As she speaks, she rubs her arm. The word “Mama” is newly etched into her skin, blood-blister red and swollen from the sharpest side of a blunt knife: an eye-watering attempt to prove that even in unfamiliar surroundings, she won’t forget where she came from.
It’s been four and a half weeks since the sisters arrived at the camp, and they’ve done their best to settle in. A Samsung television is positioned in the corner of their tent on top of an upside-down plastic box. Grey, black and brown clothes hang from a string strung from the ceiling.
“We just never expected to have to come here,” Amal explains. “ISIS were in Mosul and Talafar, but al-Shikhan was safe. We had friends and family who had to go to Europe or come to camps like this, [but] we’d always been lucky.”
Their 23-year-old brother had made the journey to Germany in 2015, and Amal had been hoping to follow suit to study law – but her parents, who the girls do not want to name, judged the route too dangerous. Instead, as the offensive against the Islamist caliphate began in October last year, the family carried on as normal. Well, almost.
Their father, six months shy of his 40th birthday, had left his job at the local courthouse and joined the Iraqi army – but his wife and daughters FaceTimed him every evening after school.
“We joked about where he was sleeping that night and how many bombs he’d seen,” Amal remembers. “He asked us about homework and how our own target practice was going.” It was a family joke: In winter, the sisters would split into two teams and hold a snowball fight in the garden. Under their father’s instruction – and to their mother’s mock dismay – they’d recently taken to fine-tuning their aim with spirals of orange peel over the dinner table.
It took nine hours for the news of their father’s death to reach them. Their mother, a 37-year-old housewife, who’d send her daughters to sleep by telling them the story of how she fell in love as a teenager with their father’s green eyes, fainted on the spot.
“They were best friends,” Laila explains, adding that for the next two months, they pushed their beds against hers to lie four in a row. “I kept my arm around her neck so I would know if she stopped breathing,” adds Amal. “I thought she was going to die on my shoulder from a broken heart.”
Three months later, when the doctor scribbled “kidney stones” on their mother’s death certificate, the sisters shook their heads. The ISIS sniper who killed their father had ended their mother’s life with the same shot, they said.
A Country Too Dangerous for Girls
Seven days after the funeral, their uncle drove them to Sharya, led them up the gravel slope to an empty tent that used to belong to an aunt, and left them there. “It’s too dangerous for girls to live alone in Iraq,” he says now. “Everyone knows the camp is for people in danger.”
Those working in the camp weren’t surprised when the girls arrived. “At our estimate, there are about 60 sets of orphans currently living on site,” says Khalida Sharya, project manager for the Women’s Rehabilitation Organization, a local NGO funded by UNICEF and focused on providing psychological support to ISIS survivors.
“Some lost their parents in the massacre three years ago, and others were held captive in Mosul by ISIS and escaped to find their families were missing. But increasingly, we are seeing orphaned female siblings being brought here – not because they’re homeless or under threat, but because society says they shouldn’t stay in their houses without a male presence. Here, the belief is that they’ll be cared for and supervised.”
Supervised maybe, but in worse conditions and at potentially heightened risk. While data documenting the number of sexual assaults in Iraqi refugee camps is hard to come by, research by the Refugee Rights Data Project in 2015 suggested that 46 percent of displaced women fear for their safety.
A 2016 study by UNICEF found that one in five children in Iraq will either die or face injury, sexual violence or recruitment into armed groups – with those in temporary accommodation deemed the most susceptible.
As Amal, Laila and Holiya carried their few belongings into their new home, Wasila Alyas watched, frowning, from the tent next door. The 30-year-old had been in the camp since its opening in November 2014 and, after experiencing harassment one too many times on her way to the public toilets, had insisted that her husband build a makeshift shower behind their tent, securing a hose from one of the tentpoles.
“That night I told him, ‘We have to help these girls’,” she recalls now. “‘We have to let them wash here.’”
All too aware of their vulnerability, Amal has stopped studying – spending her days sitting on the stretch of street outside their tent, watching her younger sisters come and go.
“I’m so scared all the time,” she says. “Holiya leaves the house to play, and I’m terrified of something happening to her. Our parents were respectable. I don’t want to let them down.” Her concern is rarely appreciated: These days, insults are thrown around between the siblings like last season’s orange peel. It’s only at night that the three come together again. Resuming formation, they lie in a row and cry quietly – Amal leaning over every so often to muffle one of her sisters’ sobs with her sleeves in case anyone hears their tears through the tarpaulin and thinks she can’t cope. Nobody has told them how long they’ll be expected to stay there.
“The last time we saw our father, he kissed us goodbye and rubbed his mustache against our cheeks. Then he walked down the path and looked back over his shoulder three times – once for each of us – and told us to take care of one another,” she says.
“But he didn’t say we would have to do it here.”