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Children Orphaned By Battle Against ISIS Remain Vulnerable Amid Conflict


U.S.-backed Iraqi forces drove ISIS out of Mosul a few months ago. But the impact that ISIS and the battle had on some of the city's children will last forever. Those children have lost a parent or perhaps both parents. NPR's Jane Arraf introduces us to some of them. A warning - this story contains disturbing descriptions of violence.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In this camp for displaced Iraqis near Erbil, boys and girls play games led by a child-care worker. Across the road in a trailer used by social workers, a little girl named Kawkab sits down. She's wearing fuzzy, pink pants and a matching top with hearts on it. She's 10 now. She doesn't remember if it was two or three years ago that her mother was killed. But she can't forget the images because she was there.

KAWKAB: (Through interpreter) They shot her with an assault rifle. They shot her, and she died. And they threw her off the bridge.

ARRAF: Kawkab's talking about ISIS. We're not using her last name because of security concerns. She and her mother were in Mosul when a cousin in the police came to their house and begged her mother to help him escape. ISIS was killing policemen. She agreed to take them, and they were caught in an ISIS checkpoint and her mother killed as punishment, while Kawkab watched.

KAWKAB: (Through interpreter) I asked them, why did you kill her? She's my mother. She didn't do anything. They said, why did you help that guy - your cousin - escape? And then they said, that's why we killed her.

ARRAF: At the camp, Kawkab has been getting counseling from the U.N.-funded Terres de Hommes Italy, a children's aid organization. Her father is still alive. But without her mother, she's facing a tough future. Kawkab was in second grade before ISIS came. But she never learned to read or write. Here, she doesn't go to school. She lives in a tent with her father and five brothers. And as the only girl, she's responsible for the housework.

KAWKAB: (Through interpreter) My father told me to quit school. It's better to be at home. There's no benefit in school.

ARRAF: Ammar Mohammad is a social worker at the camp. He says the children who lost parents tend not to have friends, and they don't trust anyone. They have no financial support. The boys work for next to nothing, and the girls are often forced into teenage marriages.

AMMAR MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) Sometimes, inside and outside the camps, people take advantage of them.

ARRAF: Neither the Iraqi government nor aid groups know how many children have lost parents in the three-year battle by ISIS to hold territory in Iraq. But in between those killed by ISIS, the children of slain ISIS fighters and those whose parents were killed in Iraqi or U.S. airstrikes and mortar attacks, most aid officials believe there are more than 1,000 just in Mosul alone. Although some like Kawkab are getting help, most aren't. Almost everywhere you go around Mosul, you meet kids who've been left to fend for themselves...

AMMAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: ...Like Ammar. He's 16. He had to help bury both his parents. When I meet Ammar, he's wet and shivering. He's just swum across the river. He says he's looking for an organization that can help his paralyzed sister. I have him sit in our car. And he tells me his story.

AMMAR: (Through interpreter) We were walking, and ISIS was firing from the building. They were shooting at us. They killed my mother and father and wounded my sister.

ARRAF: That is as they were trying to leave west Mosul during the battle in June. His sister ended up paralyzed. It's considered shameful by tribes here to send children to orphanages. And Ammar and his sister live with their uncles. But they don't like us, Ammar says about his uncles.

AMMAR: (Through interpreter) They don't feed us. If I can find something to eat, we eat. I don't, we don't.

ARRAF: They live in an unfinished building, a construction site. Sometimes, he gets food from Iraqi soldiers in the street. He says his older cousins beat him up. Ammar dreams of being a singer. He asks if he can sing a mawwal - verses he wrote. This one is about his mother and father.

AMMAR: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: "Mother, I came and sat by your grave, and I whispered to you," he sings. He doesn't have a phone, and he's afraid of his uncles, so he says he can't keep in touch. An Iraqi soldier listens to his story. And then he tells me there are a lot of kids like him.

AMMAR: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

AMMAR: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.