Skip to main content

Eddie Izzard: In Syrian refugee camps, another day of childhood is lost

By Eddie Izzard, special for CNN
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Fri July 19, 2013
UNICEF UK Ambassador Eddie Izzard with 10-year-old Muhammed and his family in Domiz Syrian refugee camp, northern Iraq.
UNICEF UK Ambassador Eddie Izzard with 10-year-old Muhammed and his family in Domiz Syrian refugee camp, northern Iraq.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two-year-old Yousef fled to Northern Iraq from Syria with his mother and sister for their safety
  • They moved into a large settlement of improvised homes, near Dohuk
  • Eddie Izzard says three quarters of refugees do not live in formalized camps
  • "The needs in these communities are dire," writes Izzard

Eddie Izzard is a British comedian and actor who ran 43 marathons across the UK for the charity Sport Relief in 2009. He is also a UNICEF ambassador. To donate to UNICEF's work with Syrian refugees please visit www.unicef.org.uk/eddie

(CNN) -- Yousef is two years old and lives in a refugee camp in Iraq. Her mother tells comedian and UNICEF ambassador Eddie Izzard that she wants to return to her country, but will not jeopardize her children's safety. With every day that passes in their life as a refugee, she fears that they are losing another day of their childhood.

Yousef (not his real name) is two years old and lives in a shack that once sheltered animals. He arrived in Northern Iraq from Syria a few months ago. In Syria he lived in a nice home, in a nice area - full of middle-class comforts. But planes began to whirr through the skies and bombs began to fall in his region. The power supply diminished and the police disappeared.

UNICEF UK Ambassador Eddie Izzard meets Yousef\'s mum.
UNICEF UK Ambassador Eddie Izzard meets Yousef's mum.

And, one day, a group of men came to the house and threatened his young sister. His mother said enough. So, Yousef was bundled up, packed into a car and set off to the border, where his mother carried him and his sister across to Iraq.

Syria's forgotten refugees

The family lost everything in Syria -- their house, their roots, and most of their loved ones. They followed in the footsteps of the only relatives who had already fled and moved into a large settlement of improvised homes, not far from Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk. An uncle had found the shell of a shelter for sheep and goats. They built up walls and covered holes with tarpaulin. Sixteen people moved in. There are now three rooms, with a family sleeping in each.

I traveled to Northern Iraq with UNICEF to report on the growing catastrophe facing Syrian children. I was surprised to find that three quarters of refugees are in Yousef's situation and do not live in formalized camps. Instead, refugees cram into overcrowded, rented flats; shacks they have built from scratch, or converted dwellings. Others squeeze in with family members.

Syrian photographer documents destruction
Stemming the Syrian violence
U.N.: 5,000 Syrians dying every month

Refugees find a home where they can. There is not enough space in camps for everyone. Domiz refugee camp alone was designed for 15,000 people and is already home to 45,000. There are 160,000 refugees in Iraq and the number is anticipated to more than double by the end of the year to 350,000. Towns, cities and wasteland soak up the overspill.

The needs in these communities are dire. One young refugee girl I was told about had been out of school for two years and had forgotten how to read. Keeping children safe from harm and abuse is also problematic in fractured and ad hoc settlements.

And -- perhaps most crucially as the temperatures hit 45 degrees - there is not enough clean water or sanitation facilities for everyone. With cholera epidemics most common in September, the threat of disease looms large in people's minds.

UNICEF, along with the Kurdistan Regional Government and other humanitarian organizations, is doing everything it can to get aid to children and their families who need it -- safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, specialist psychological support, education and health services. A dedicated plan to cater to the needs of urban refugees in northern Iraq is currently being drawn up with partners including UNHCR.

But numbers are huge and expanding -- and there are not enough resources to go round and not enough funds to scale up existing programs. UNICEF has only a third of the money it needs for the year in order to deliver vital aid. At the moment, the agency simply cannot help everyone it wants to.

Yousef's mother does not know how long they will have to stay in Iraq. She wants to return to her country, but will not jeopardize her children's safety. She fears her son and daughter will forget Syria and they are growing up without the education, basic services and protection they deserve. With every day that passes in their life as a refugee, she fears that they are losing another day of their childhood.

Syrian refugees plead with U.S. secretary of state in Jordan

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eddie Izzard.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
updated 7:41 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 2, 2014
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
updated 5:19 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
What caught our experts' ears was as much about what he didn't address as much as what he did.
updated 6:19 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
The three-year war in Syria has claimed 162,402 lives, an opposition group said Monday, as the raging conflict shows no signs of abating.
updated 9:41 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
Official: The U.S. believes a jihadi featured in a suicide bombing video in Syria is Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha who grew up in Florida.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
For the first time, Britain has convicted someone of a terrorism offense related to the Syrian civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT