Interview with Bernd Ruf on the mission in Northern Iraq


Mr. Ruf, you have recently been in Northern Iraq with a team of Emergency Pedagogues in order to help the children there. Please picture the situation on site.

During our mission in August/September 2014 part of our work took place in Khanke, a small village at the Mosul Dam, about half an hour from Dohuk into the direction of Seemel. At the edge of the village a provisional emergency quarter was put together, which housed about 5000 refugees. A Kurdish merchant named Ali Zdin put this camp together with his own funds.
Apart from five UNHCR tents he paid for all other tents and scantly manages to feed the people with three tons of rice per day. A tanker brings a daily load of water to the camp. It is barely enough to drink, and certainly not enough for hygienic purposes or to wash clothes. There are no toilets. Only a short while ago two doctors began to look after the many ill and wounded refugees. Ali Zdin is no singular case. There is a lot of help and solidarity for the refugees on behalf of the initiative of private persons. This is the only reason why a humanitarian disaster could be averted. In August/September the temperatures climbed up to 45°C and now winter is right around the corner, which could dramatically change the situation for the worse. Besides the camps of the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), the refugees also camp out in building shells, which have neither exterior walls, nor sanitary facilities. In such buildings winter will also put the inhabitants to the test.

How and where exactly did the Friends provide help in Northern Iraq?

As all victims of traumatic events, the child refugees in Khanke need safe and secure places to process their trauma. This includes exterior places and places within the children’s soul, as well as their own body. Without this basic security traumatic experiences cannot be processed.
The emergency pedagogic crisis intervention team put up a Child Friendly Space in an open field, which could accommodate up to 800 children and adolescents per day. When the interventions took place the site was cleaned and fenced off. The emergency pedagogic work begun with a communal opening circle where the participants took part in rhythmical exercises and sang songs. Then eight workshops with more than 100 children per group followed. At the end of the day the groups were rejoined in a big concluding circle, in which the exercises of the opening circle were carried out in reverse order. Countless adults surrounded the field and thus created a sheltered space for the children’s activities. Many of them took part in the pedagogical activities, they painted, felted and rhythmitised just as their children did. The parents are just as traumatized and need help.
In Dohuk we worked in schools which, during the holidays, were repurposed as refugee camps. In order to grant sustained help we trained Kurdish volunteers who currently carry on the work.

What do the people need most urgently? In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges?

The people’s sorrows are immeasurable and what they experienced is inconceivable. They need water, food, medication, warm clothes for winter and security, stability and a place where they belong. Of course they also need psycho-social help as not to fall ill due to what they had to experience. In my opinion the biggest challenge at present are the upcoming winter months, which the people will spend outside. It is hard to assess how the security situation will develop, but the refugees live in constant fear and under the continual threat of the IS.

What was your most moving encounter?

In a humanitarian mission in which one works with the weakest of the weak there are many touching moments most of which can hardly be described in words. One encounters parents who want to send their own flesh and blood along with strangers in order to offer their children a better future. One encounters little people who have fallen completely silent and huddle in a corner where they are eaten up by fear.
I was particularly touched by an encounter with an eight year old girl. We worked at a school in Dohuk where refugees were accommodated in the classrooms. A mother led her daughter through a door. The girl’s body was taut and she was completely intimidated and frightened. She crouched close to her mother at the threshold of their preliminary home. Her mother provided the necessary shelter for her. Finally the mother led her daughter towards a circle of children who were kneading and sculpting. Afterwards they sang
and clapped their hands. I cannot recall the exact moment when the child took part in the activities, first shyly, then more and more engaged. Suddenly her face relaxed and she beamed, her bodily posture changed from a stooping to an erect posture. We documented the development with pictures. When, after only 20 minutes, the girl took the centre of the circle and sang a song for everyone, me and my team were deeply moved. These are the moments which prove that our activities indeed bear meaning for people that live in a state of emergency.

Is it more difficult to help people to overcome traumatising events in times when traumatising atrocities are documented by cell phone cameras? Certainly the refugees in Northern Iraq have dozens of recordings that document the violence of the IS against people. How do the people cope with this?

One part of a traumatic experience is the continual repetition of the trauma. It is characteristic to repeatedly expose oneself to the situation. In order to save children from such recordings, it is necessary to train the parent’s awareness. We also offer counselling for parents in which we explain the effects of a trauma and what they as parents can do for their children and for themselves. Many parents are overwhelmed by their children’s change in behaviour. They might tend to aggressive reactions, start to wet their beds again, or stop talking altogether. Not only cell phone videos, but also talking about the events might be difficult for the children because they might be transported back to the traumatising events. Of course one needs to distinguish between a traumatic recollection and a detached, matter-of-fact report. When such problems occur we always depend on the cooperation with parents and local pedagogues.
Let us come back to the initially mentioned emergency pedagogic methods: at every crisis intervention we painted with the children. In Northern Iraq we realised that the children’s paintings were subjects of traumatic relief as they repeatedly drew violent scenes, blood, ambulances and weapons. Through guiding them to certain motives the children can be led away from such paintings of traumatic relief. For example a tree with strong roots that are firmly anchored in the ground. This motive has a meaning: Strength, stability, and orientation- and this is just what traumatised children need and these are the kind of pictures that need to be set against the traumatic internal pictures and those on digital devices.