Mosul has been a site of civilization for more than 5,000 years and, through that time, blossomed into Iraq’s second largest city – a cosmopolitan mosaic of ethnic and religious diversity. It has served as a meeting place for Arabs, Kurds, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and others over the millennia and has been home to one of the most important academic and medical centers in the Middle East.
Typically inhabited by over 2 million people, this gemstone in Iraq’s crown fell under the brutal occupation of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in June 2014. Since that time, it has witnessed unimaginable atrocities at the hands of ISIS: women are brutally raped, teenage boys are burned alive for refusing to adhere to ISIS ideology, citizens attempting to flee are shot, drowned, and worse. The need to rid this ancient and once beautiful city of the evils of ISIS is abundantly clear and the Iraqi Security Forces, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, U.S.-led coalition, and other allies are risking their lives to accomplish that very task.
But in order to reach Mosul, forces must approach from the south, up the Tigris River, past cities like Sharqat and Qayyarah and hundreds of smaller villages and hamlets, encountering ISIS militants all along the way. As they do so, approaching from the opposite direction are tens of thousands of innocent civilians fleeing for their lives while trying to avoid being caught in the crossfire. As of today, over 95,000 men, women, and children have fled the increasing violence in this area as they search for safety. Their only hope for survival is to walk for as long as two days in triple digit temperatures in order to reach one of two transit sites before they can be driven to a camp for displaced persons. The UN and aid agencies cannot meet these individuals at their origin, because it is simply too dangerous.
If the children and families survive the arduous journey to a transit center on foot, they arrive thirsty, hungry, bleeding, and oftentimes very ill. And because military operations are quickly displacing more people than relief agencies can accommodate, the sheer number of new arrivals means that needs far outstrip available resources.
When the challenges of this situation became evident, the Soccer Salam team sprang into action in order to help address the unmet need. We immediately began assembling rapid response meals and have so far delivered nourishment to over 20,000 individuals arriving on foot at one of the transit sites. As many as 300 people are arriving per day, and as they wait to be driven to a displacement camp, we are providing them with dates, water, cheese, bread, and encouragement. As Soccer Salam’s coordinator in Baghdad, Hala al-Saraf, put it: “We need to maintain the flow of food and water. Just the basics. Inexpensive, but continuous and lifesaving.”
Our on-the-ground partners at the Iraq Health Access Organization have teamed up to also provide basic medical care. In fact, since we have been at the transit center, three expecting mothers have celebrated the birth of their children in this relatively safe setting. While far from ideal, the health and safety of the newborns is a sign of hope. But the aid we have been able to provide is limited to the contributions we receive from the public.
Fortunately, we know we are doing the right thing – but we need to do more of it as the military advances and hundreds of thousands of more innocent civilians flee the area. Lise Grande, the coordinator of the United Nations relief efforts in Iraq, issued a statement last week saying exactly what we are thinking: “we are very worried that we won’t be able to prepare in time… We’re grateful to all of the donors who have stepped forward, but we need a lot more resources. With time running out, funding needs to go to the right agencies—to the ones building the emergency camps and providing the latrines, water and health services for these camps.” EPIC and our Soccer Salam partners are part of these agencies and we want to do more.
We know that displaced families face uncertain conditions, uncertain wait times, and an uncertain level of safety after fleeing from their homes, but together there is every reason to hope that tomorrow will be better. Every contribution makes that hope more possible and every contribution is urgently needed. As Ms. Grande concluded, “We can’t wait any longer to get ready. We have to move now.”