What should victory feel like?
Ask a father, like 46-year-old Taha, a successful businessman before the ISIS takeover, who now worries about feeding his five children, as he watches the dejected youth in his neighborhood whiling away their days. With the local job market in tatters, an overwhelming 80% of the youth in the city are currently unemployed.
Taha saw his once-thriving recording studio downgraded to a falafel shop under ISIS, until it crumbled to almost nothing by the end of the extremist group’s three-year rule. Many such private business were shuttered during this period, as part of ISIS efforts to control the trade and who participated in it. As a result, the local economy of the city that was once known for independent entrepreneurship quickly plummeted.
“In the old city, people don’t even have bread to eat. My shop has no electricity. How long will it take to get services back? Ten years?” The frustration in Taha´s question echoes many of our discussions with families in Mosul.
Those like Taha, who remained in the city, are still reeling from the trauma of the ISIS period, only to feel abandoned by the same international community that had hailed the Mosul operation a symbolic milestone in the fight against ISIS. Today, about 380,000 residents who fled their homes when ISIS took over remain displaced in and around the city, unable to return home despite the end of major military operations. Their houses have been destroyed or riddled with remnants of war, and in some cases they fear persecution based on perceived ISIS affiliation. Many residents live in bombed-out homes or are crammed into small rooms without basic services – any semblance of dignity or stability evading their daily existence. The end of the conflict has simply not translated to a normalization of the city’s pulse.
Funding to fully rehabilitate Mosul remains a tricky issue. While the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) found that the overall, global humanitarian support is falling short this year, Iraq´s humanitarian response system has received its share of funds. Approximately 54% of the promised aid reached the coffers, about half way into the year. But the amount of aid itself does not come close to meeting the current needs.
Mosul is in a particularly precarious situation, with US $874 million needed to repair just basic infrastructure, including school buildings. As a result, the fathers and mothers, who feel listless at the thought of not being able to feed their children, are also worried about their future trajectories, as consistent schooling has become a pressing challenge. Education in Mosul as well as in the Ninewa governorate remains critically underfunded.
The NRC’s education teams have been rehabilitating 21 schools. Our work has ranged from helping reconstruct the buildings, to the removal of unexploded ordnance. We have even removed human remains from the debris of two schools. These physical remnants of conflict are stark reminders that the situation in the city is far from normalized.
In July, another eight bodies were recovered from rubble close to the Tigris River, among them five children. On the same day, a family of five that had just returned to their home in Mosul, succumbed to an explosion inside the house, due to a booby-trap. Such incidents continue to infiltrate the physical security and the psychological well-being of civilians, with nearly every family having lost someone they know to the conflict. The need for urgent psycho-social support is immense, especially among children who witnessed horrific acts of violence during their formative years.
Alongside restoring schools, we are trying to transform classrooms into safe spaces for children. Through our “Better Learning Program,” the NRC is helping children and adolescents recuperate in the aftermath of a brutal three years under ISIS, when an estimated nine out of 10 children, in the most heavily affected neighborhoods, were out of school.
Moayad Ahmed is among these children. Now an adolescent, he was in elementary school when ISIS forced a new curriculum. He now attends Idrissi Secondary School in west Mosul that is supported by the NRC. Flanked by the semi-destroyed building, with entire sides of classrooms exposed, due to fallen walls, he points to the glaring need for support.
“We lack teachers, our school is in bad shape and needs rebuilding, we need books and stationary,” the teenage boy spells out the laundry list of support needed in his community with a remarkable calm, undeterred in his ambition to regain lost academic years.
Victory in Mosul will have been achieved when the most pressing needs of residents like Taha and Moayad are met, but helping them reach their full potential will require more than just rebuilding their schools and homes. Their social support systems must be built from the ground up and with the capacity to withstand future strife.
Is such a victory possible in the coming years? Absolutely. We are starting to see a boost in morale, as clearing operations in the old city remove the debris and displaced civilians gradually return to their homes. With 21 of the schools that we are currently supporting re-opened and operational, we are hopeful that the coming academic year will yield the results of catch-up classes, summer lessons and the overall recovery of the families and communities that we support.
The devastation of Mosul penetrated its social fabric, so its recovery must take root at the individual, familial and community levels. Children like Moayad, for whom we provide catch-up classes, have borne the most tangible, palpable rewards from our humanitarian efforts in Mosul. With a little support, these children have exhibited the power of malleability and resilience in the face of the toughest odds. We cannot fail them.