Baharka camp, Erbil, Iraq – Thirteen-year-old Dunya can neither speak nor hear, but she has learned to narrate through sign language how her father was killed by fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
She points to her stomach, tracing the route of the bullet with her finger – in through the abdomen and out through the back. Then she touches her leg: A second bullet to his calf stopped her father in his tracks, and he crumpled to the floor.
Dunya draws a moustache on her face using her thumb and index finger to indicate “Dad”, explained her mother, Muntaha Ali. She believes her husband was killed in June 2014 because he was a Shabak, an ethnoreligious minority, most of whom are Shia Muslims.
Ali, a lively mother of four with an easy laugh, left her native Mosul a month after the murder of her husband and relocated with her children to northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
“My children saw the killing. They were in shock,” Ali told Al Jazeera. Her husband, Sulaiman Abbas, was a taxi driver from Mosul.
Today, the family lives in a small porta-cabin in Erbil’s Baharka camp, along with more than 4,000 other displaced Iraqis. Most of them fled Mosul following the rise of ISIL.
Dunya and her three siblings are just a handful of the thousands of Iraqi children who have lost parents to ISIL.
Although there are no comprehensive statistics on the number of children who have been orphaned since the fall of Mosul in June 2014, CNS Foundation, a local NGO, has identified 712 orphans – defined as children who have lost one or both parents – living outside of official camps. The group did not have numbers for orphans living within the camps.
Meanwhile, UNICEF has documented 588 cases this year of “unaccompanied” children, referring to children whose parents are either dead or missing. Restricted humanitarian access to much of the country means that these figures are likely underestimates.
, I have no choice but to raise them alone. Before, my husband would provide for us, but now, we ask God for help.”]
These children are at great risk, said UNICEF communications specialist Karim Elkorany. “If they’re alone, they’re much more vulnerable to other dangers, such as recruitment and sexual violence,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite Dunya’s tragic circumstances, she and her siblings are fortunate to have a resilient mother.
“I work hard to raise them well, [but now], I have no choice but to raise them alone,” Ali said. “Before, my husband would provide for us, but now, we ask God for help,” she added, holding her youngest child, seven-year-old Eisa, in her lap.
Like his older sister Dunya, Eisa was also born deaf and mute and communicates through hand gestures. Unable to use words to recount the trauma of losing his father, Eisa draws his hands together to imitate the shape of a gun. “He cries when he asks about his father,” Ali said.
Ali said she and her children have yet to receive support from the government. A few months ago, the Kurdish regional government approved extra financial support for families missing a parent, but it has not yet been implemented. In the meantime, displaced families rely on aid organisations to provide food and clothing. Though the porta-cabin that the family has come to call home is warm and inviting, water from recent heavy rainfall leaks through the ceiling.
Nazar Amin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Sulaimani, told Al Jazeera that the orphans of Iraq’s war will likely experience “behavioural disorders, conduct disorders and even emotional disorders, including depression and probably anxiety”.
Some orphans, like seven-year-old Khaled, were not old enough at the time their parents were killed to remember them.
Khaled, who is from Mosul and also lives in Baharka camp, was just two years old when al-Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor to ISIL, killed his parents. His father was an Iraqi border guard, which Khaled’s uncle believes is the reason he and his wife were killed.
Today, Khaled is cared for by his aunt, Nada Salem, and uncle, Rakan Sulfej. The couple has officially adopted Khaled and his two older siblings, 16-year-old twins Zaynab and Hamed.
If there are no family members available to take care of orphaned children, they are placed in foster care, explained UNICEF’s Elkorany. But Iraqi families often have large kinship networks that can take in orphaned children, he noted.
“It’s not correct to send children to orphanages. In our culture, it’s not the thing to do. I couldn’t leave them – I’m like their mother,” Salem told Al Jazeera as she sat on the floor of the family’s dark porta-cabin.
Sulfej was quick to take in his niece and nephews, moving them from Mosul to Rabiaa, a town on the Iraqi-Syrian border where he lived with his wife and children before ISIL took control of it. The Kurds later retook Rabiaa from ISIL. “It has been hard, but God is helping us,” said Sulfej, who struggles to provide for his seven children as well as his brother’s orphans.
Sulfej tried to set up a shop in Baharka camp to supplement the family’s income, but after two months, the camp management shut it down, saying the ground it was built on was unsafe. While the three children receive $300 from their father’s pension every two months, the extra $12 a day that Rakan made from the shop had enabled the family to live more comfortably.
“I’ve lost some 450,000 dinars [$375] because I’ve been closed for one month,” Sulfej told Al Jazeera.
The coming of winter is likely to bring further struggles for the family, who live in a crowded and leaky porta-cabin. “We need winter clothes and food items,” said Salem. “There is not enough for us because we are too many.”
Sixteen-year-old Zaynab said she often daydreams about her parents and her life in Rabiaa, where she helped her aunt look after the younger children. “I’d like to go back to Rabiaa. It’s home to me,” she said, clutching her younger brother’s hand. Zaynab admitted she has taken on the role of a mother for her younger brother, even quitting school to look after him.
Despite the parental responsibilities she has acquired since her parents’ death, she still reminisces about her past life, when her only role was that of a child.
“I remember the time we spent together, sitting and laughing. I remember going to the market, my mum taking me to school,” she said. “I stopped going to school after we moved to Rabiaa.”