As life in their home town near the Iraqi city of Mosul became increasingly dangerous, Ali’s parents decided to escape with their children. 

Under cover of darkness, Ali, his parents and siblings and some of the family’s close friends crept from their homes and set off southwards for safety.

The group of 23 split into two groups to avoid detection, well aware of the consequences they would face if caught. Their goal was Debaga camp, where they had heard UNHCR was offering shelter and protection.

In one terrifying moment, the plan fell apart.

Armed men caught sight of the group and began shooting indiscriminately. Ali witnessed a neighbour shot dead in front of him.

Only five of their group survived the ambush. Ali hasn’t seen his parents or siblings since, and believes they were captured and killed. He knows that his family home was destroyed in retaliation.

“I especially miss my mother. I want to see her every day. She always called me the brave boy, the strong child,” he says.

Displaced Iraqis arrive at Debaga camp, south of Mosul, after a treacherous journey

Ali, aged 14, is now living in a communal shelter for lone children in Debaga camp

Ali now lives in a large shelter for unaccompanied minors run by UNHCR, where trained staff ensure he is safe, fed and warm.

Ali’s story is devastating, but it is not unique. UNHCR registration staff are currently reporting a crisis of unaccompanied and separated children arriving at camps and reception centres worldwide.

These children are exceptionally vulnerable to malnutrition, disease and exploitation. UNHCR must locate them in the crowd as soon as they arrive at camps to protect them from falling prey to trafficking and abuse.

As well as covering their basic needs for food and shelter, UNHCR also provides them with education, safe places to play and counselling to help them deal with the trauma they have experienced.

“I feel safer here,” Ali says, watching volleyball with other orphaned children. “I have started to make a few friends. But all the time, I just think of my family.”

Every child deserves to be safe from violence and abuse, to receive an education and to have caring adults watching over them.

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