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Feria, a 31 year old refugee from Syria, is a polio vaccinator in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. ©UNICEF/Iraq-2014/Brecher

Feria, a 31 year old refugee from Syria, is a polio vaccinator in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. ©UNICEF/Iraq-2014/Brecher

By Alexandre Brecher

Iraqi Kurdistan, March 20, 2014 – It is early morning in Gawilan refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Feria, 31 years old, readies herself for the day`s work. She is one of the many refugees who fled violence in Syria to find shelter in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan. She left Damascus 18 months ago with her husband and two young sons, aged seven and nine, when the levels of violence became unbearable. Back home in Syria she was a social worker, helping the poorest people of her neighbourhood.

“When I arrived in this camp, the NGOs and the UN agencies took good care of me and of my sons”, she said. “I received food, shelter and support. It was not the comfort which I was used to in Damascus, but it was enough for us to survive the cold winter. Nevertheless, seeing these aid workers helping people like us, I wanted to be one of them.”

Feria met some staff from the World Health Organization (WHO), and she told them about her work experience to convince them she could do something for the community. At that time, in response to the outbreak in Syria, WHO and UNICEF, along with the Kurdistan Regional Government, were launching an accelerated series of polio vaccination campaigns – every month, instead of twice a year – in order to ensure all refugee children are sufficiently immunized against this terrible disease.

“Polio campaigns are very important for children under the age of five”, explained Feria. “The oral vaccine is the only way to make sure they won’t be infected and to avoid polio spreading into the camps.”

From tent to tent, Feria and her colleague Ahmad give children two drops of polio vaccine. It is the fifth day of the campaign and over the past days Feria has vaccinated hundreds of children. If ever she misses a tent because the family is not there, she comes back – not a single child should be missed, otherwise the virus can spread.

“After what these children have gone through they should not be sacrificed!” says Feria. “One day, they will go back to Syria. One day, we’ll all go back to Syria.”

As she mentions her home country, Feria starts staring into space, maybe to hide a tear she can’t control.

“I miss my childhood, the place where I grew up, the place where I got married, all these light-hearted moments. I remember them as if they happened yesterday. My husband and I just bought a house, in Syria we had stability…”

In a blink, 31 years of happiness vanished when bombs started falling on her neighbourhood, and when electricity and running water were cut.

“I don’t know how many people died there. Hundreds? Thousands? We lost communication with our loved ones when we took the long road towards Iraq.”

Working as a vaccinator in the camps is for Feria a way not to forget where she came from, and a way to make here exile more meaningful. At the end of the day, she will go back to Syria, where she will have the opportunity to rebuild, along with millions of those Syrians who fled the war.

“Countless challenges are waiting for us over there. I don’t want polio to make the rebuilding effort even more difficult. Here in Iraq, we have started the struggle to make Syria free of polio again”.

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