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Abdelrahman Qaid Mofuk fled with his family when violence broke out in his hometown of Mosul.
Abdelrahman Qaid Mofuk fled with his family when violence broke out in his hometown of Mosul.
Francesco Semprini

QASYAR — Ahmed is wearing a Barcelona soccer jersey with Argentine superstar Lionel Messi’s name on the back. Rasheed has Rodrigo Palacio's from Inter Milan, while Samad is sporting the Chelsea shirt of Brazil midfielder Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior.

While their heroes compete in the World Cup on the other side of the world, these Iraqi children are refugees in their own country after the latest jihadist offensive. Holding onto these players' dreams is a way to try and cling to the very innocence of youth threatened by the upheaval around them.

We are in Qasyar, near Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the first camp for internally displaced people has quickly been set up over the past two weeks. Many of the people here have fled from the northern Nineveh province, where various cities have fallen into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militias. There are almost 3,000 people here — just a fraction of the 500,000 people believed to be on the run from the jihadist offensive that began on June 5.

UNICEF, the World Food Program and other United Nations organizations are here, where tents have been erected, and where water, vaccinations, generators and food are available.

From the fallen cities, the domestic refugees have come to be surrounded by Kurdish nationalist guerrillas — the Peshmerga. A number of the people who have come are of Turkmen minority, as well as Assyrian Christians, but there also Shia who fear both ethnic and sectarian repression. Everyone is attempting to cross this imaginary border between Iraq and Kurdistan. There is a constant stream of cars, pickup tricks, motorcycles, even tractors. There is a bit of everything on these 88 kilometers of roadway on the way to the Qasyar displacement camp.

At the entrance, along the right side is the queue for registration, and everyone must have their documents checked. Some people will continue on to the nearby city of Erbil — to relatives or friends, or for the wealthiest, to hotels — but the rest of them stop here in this field.

The process has a second checkpoint, then you are assigned a tent or put on the waiting list for one. The entrance to the camp is controlled by guards armed with AK-47s, and there are separate containers for those in charge and the humanitarian programs. Walking through the rows of tents, where grains of sand get into every single crevice, these "guest" families look at us with suspicion; it’s the children who act as ambassadors. They ask for their photographs to be taken in their soccer jerseys — a "World Cup" of colors and smiles that contrasts so sharply with the reasons that brought them here.

Just leave

Houd takes my hand and brings us to the tent where he lives. The women in his family are preparing their frugal donation for Ramadan that began on the day I visited, while his brother greets us: "Houd will begin school in September," he says, "and we hope that we will be able to send him."

The family had fled Mosul, the second city in Iraq, which ISIS swiftly captured last month. "The police weren’t there and neither was the army. We couldn’t do anything except leave," says the brother. "We have a shop there — who knows if we’ll be able to go back to it."

Going back is, for now, out of the question. "There is no water and the toilets don’t work. Those people ISIS are in control of everything. They are violent speculators." Not everybody thinks like that, however, and one person tells me, on condition of anonymity: "They are not terrorists, they are Mujahideen," or Muslim freedom fighters.

"Who said that it would have been worse with them? Looking back, those who govern us are to blame for what has happened," says a woman who refuses to give her name.

To further understand, we must go back to last August, when 250,000 Syrian refugees arrived, finding shelter in 12 Kurdish camps. At the beginning of this year a second wave came, but this time it was 400,000 Iraqis, who came from Anbar and were heading north and east, fleeing government repression against Sunni protests caused by terrible economic and political conditions — as well as the arrival of ISIS from the Al-Qa’im pass.

The current movement is thus the third wave, triggered by the ISIS offensive. "I’ve never seen a crisis like this in my life that continuously displaces people," says Marzio Babille, head of UNICEF in Iraq. "We are concerned about the ethnic and religious minorities displaced by the guerrillas."

The UN estimates that one million Iraqis have been forced to flee — of them, 48% are under 18, and 20% under the age of 5.

"We are working to avoid losing an entire generation," Babille continues.

That means being able to guarantee them security and education. Of course, right now, children like Ahmed, Rasheed, Samad and Houd, are also wondering how events are destined to unfold in Brazil.

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