Erbil, Iraq - Eight-year-old Hiwa is delighted when she gets to pet the birds and puppies brought by a group of volunteers to Iraq's Qushtapa camp.
"We are already friends. I sing with the birds all the time," Hiwa told Al Jazeera.
In the Qushtapa camp for displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in Erbil, dozens of children between the ages of three and 18 have been participating in this volunteer-run animal therapy programme. Dogs, birds and even chimpanzees are brought in for the children to play with. They also spend time drawing and learning about the animals.
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The programme is run by a small group of volunteers led by US army veteran Jeremiah Jones. Retired from the US army for two decades, Jones last year decided to join Kurdish forces fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group. He returned to his home state of Montana in 2015 after several months of fighting, but this past June he came back to aid the Dwekh Nawsha Christian militia in northern Iraq.
|Organisers say that many children exhibit a sense of peace when they interact with the animals [Abdelazizz Ahmed/Al Jazeera]
"While with the Christian militia near Dohuk, I saw thousands of children fleeing conflict zones, and their psychological trauma struck me. I wanted to figure out how best to help them," Jones told Al Jazeera, noting he had heard about the successful use of animal therapy for a range of mental health issues, and decided to give it a try.
"The children were very helpless and young. I thought of them like my own kids; they definitely needed help, beyond more fighting," he said.
The response to the animal therapy programme has been hugely positive, Jones added: "Whenever the kids hear of our arrival, they flock to us, and we are overwhelmed by them - especially after seeing and hearing their reactions to the animals."
The ongoing war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria has created a massive displacement and refugee crisis, with millions of people forced to flee their homes. Tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis and refugees from neighbouring Syria have streamed into the camps of Iraq's Kurdish region, nearly half of them under 18.
The children are victims of war, and the best way to help is to psychologically heal them.
Sulaiman Tameer, a Dohuk-based animal rights campaigner who has been volunteering with the animal therapy programme at Qushtapa camp, says it has helped to bring the affected children some relief from the war surrounding them.
"The children are victims of war, and the best way to help is to psychologically heal them," Tameer told Al Jazeera. "Animals can help the children psychologically; various research has shown this, and it is certainly applicable to children affected by the wars in Iraq and Syria."
Tameer said he has already observed the benefits of animal therapy at Qushtapa camp, with many children exhibiting a sense of peace as they interact with the animals.
"When I first came to this camp to find out about these children's lives, most of them looked empty and hopeless," he said. "But when we started, over a month ago, teaching the kids how to draw animals, and handing them birds, we could see them becoming engaged and creative. They had something to think about other than their current living conditions."
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Amy Beam, who works with a Kurdish organisation that has helped to facilitate the release of Yazidis from ISIL captivity and aided them in travelling on to Germany, said that most of the children she has encountered have dealt with unspeakable horrors. In addition to killing their families, ISIL has reportedly trained Yazidi children as suicide bombers and used them as human shields during air strikes.
"The children who managed to escape, and those for whom we facilitated their release, were forced by Daesh [ISIL] to witness killings, beheadings and torture," Beam told Al Jazeera. "We need to help them as much as we can and protect them."
Syrian refugee children have also been found to be at risk for a range of mental health issues owing to high levels of trauma, with nearly 80 percent having experienced a death in the family and a third having been personally kicked, shot at, or otherwise physically harmed. Many are already displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tameer warned that if the situation continues amid ongoing international apathy, a generation of children will grow up with irreversible psychological side-effects.
Meanwhile, back at the Qushtapa camp, Jones and his small team of volunteers will continue their work, bringing birds and puppies to children who eagerly need the positive interactions.
Regardless of the ongoing war, he noted, "Every kid loves a bird or bunny."
Source: Al Jazeera News