* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It’s been about two years since 11-year-old Iraqi refugee Samer* has been held by his mother, or played with his four brothers. He has never met his new baby sister.
“I miss them so much,” he says, sad eyes on the concrete floor of his temporary home in sprawling Al Hol camp in the northeast of neighbouring Syria, about 200km west of Mosul.
Along with thousands of other Iraqis, Samer took a dangerous journey to escape ISIS – even a dirty, polluted camp in Syria is a safe haven after the brutality of life under the terror group.
Now living in an unpainted, and as yet unheated, breeze-block shelter with two small rooms, he shyly peers at me as he tells the agonising story of his separation from family.
In late 2014, to celebrate a Muslim holiday, the family drove from their hometown to nearby Mosul to visit Samer’s grandparents.
When it came time to return home, it was decided Samer would stay back for a little while longer. Then ISIS closed the roads and he was trapped there for about 18 months.
Strict rules imposed by ISIS meant he couldn’t even speak with his parents on the phone, as simply owning a SIM card could equal a death sentence. Samer couldn’t go to school because of the extremist curriculum - ISIS taught children how to make bombs and shoot guns, and that one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets.
Then, six months ago, his parents transferred US$800 to fellow members of their tribe in Mosul, who planned to flee the city with the help of smugglers.
“We were very frightened, thinking, ‘when will we be captured’?”
But they made it to safety, and ever since have been trying desperately to get Samer back to his parents.
The authorities want somebody to confirm his identity before he can cross the border back into Iraq – but his parents’ efforts and those of his carers in the camp have come to nought.
Samer doesn’t know when he’ll see his family, but his face lights up when he tells me that now he frequently speaks with them on the phone - although each call ends with his mother’s tears.
Like Samer, Noora* – a pretty girl with big, round, dark eyes and a red headscarf – hasn’t seen her parents for two years. But unlike Samer, there is no hope of reunification.
She looks much younger than her 14 years as she burrows into her carer’s blue headscarf as the older woman, Aliya*, tells me her tragic story.
She says they were neighbours in a town in the Iraqi governorate of Salah al-Din, when Noora’s parents were killed in an air strike.
Aliya’s sad, tired eyes well up with tears as she describes Noora’s suffering.
“Yesterday I saw her crying and listening to sad music, so I gave her some money to buy some sweets. I feel a lot of pity for her when I see her crying.”
They fled to Syria four and a half months ago, leaving behind Noora’s brother, who stayed with an uncle.
Aliya says she cares deeply for Noora and treats her like her own daughter.
“She is very kind, very respectful, she understands everything, she is very smart.”
Noora says she misses her home, her brother and everything about her neighbourhood. But most of all she misses her parents.
“I feel very sad when I remember them.”
But she is grateful for the love that surrounds her in her adopted family.
In the bare, dusty streets of the rambling camp, I meet Mohamed*.
Now living in Al Hol with his children and grandchildren, it wasn’t the war that separated him from his baby niece, but the treacherous voyage to reach safety.
She died from the cold, he says, while the family waited to be registered through a screening point on the border.
“People were living in the open air, no blankets, there was heavy rain, nobody could do anything,” he said.
“She was seven months old when she died. She was very pretty. We buried her here in the camp.”
Save the Children has so far identified more than 25 children living at Al Hol camp who have been separated from their parents, or are unaccompanied by any family member, like Samer and Noora.
Our child protection workers will work to reunite Samer with his parents, and will assess the needs of all these vulnerable children. That may mean connecting them with health services, supporting them through our recreational programs, or distributing vouchers to pay for things like clothes and food.
Everybody I spoke to at Al Hol just wants to return home as quickly as possible. They want to rebuild their broken lives. But they know they will never be the same.
Ali Mohammad is a Child Protection Officer for Save the Children in northeast Syria.
*denotes names changed to protect identities