Silva and Abdulrahman

Akre, Iraqi Kurdistan Silva 10

Silva is a beautiful, seven year old Syrian Kurdish girl with bobbed hair and dark brown eyes. She is tall for her age and but stands listlessly holding her father’s hand, avoiding our eyes and uninterested in the other children around her. “She is sick”, says Abdulrahman. “I am on my own. I can’t find work because I have to look after her all day.” My friend and I were in the middle of a children’s art project so he invited us to his room to talk later. “Go to the back of the camp and then up the stairs – you’ll find us in the darkest corner.”

They are in their underwear when we arrive – struggling with the midday heat in their tiny room on the roof of the fortress of Akre. For decades a feared and brutal prison, Akre’s bare cells have been converted into rooms for Syrian refugees. Silva and Abdulrahman are only two, so they take the smallest one; around 3m x 4m, built to house a water tank or generator on the roof of the prison. It has bare concrete walls and an ill-fitting metal door that does little to keep out the smell of the communal toilet set up in the stairwell below. Silva 9 Abdulrahman pulls on a dijdasha and then dresses his daughter, gently smoothing her hair back with clips. He divorced his wife three years ago and since then he and Silva have been on their own. As we sit on the floor and talk, she grabs my moleskin notebook and sniffs it intently, stroking the cover and then suddenly grits her teeth and twists, crumples and rips it until her father snatches it back. She crawls around me, snaking her arms through mine until she gets to the notebook again. Then a cartoon comes on the TV and she jumps up, bouncing and laughing to the music. “She loves music and dancing”. Silva 7 According to her medical notes, Silva has “autism spectrum disorder with severe social and academic impairment. She needs continuous social support, with management in specialised centres.” Instead she lives on the roof of a prison with only her father to dress her, calm her when she gets upset, change the nappies that she still has to wear, and feed her. Silva 3Abdulrahman pleaded with us to get his daughter to a country where she could receive specialist care. They abandoned their home in Kurdish north-west Syria earlier earlier this year, as Daesh (IS) closed in, and fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. All of their relatives had been split up and ended up in different regions and countries. Now his money was running out, he said, because he had to stay home to look after Silva all day and couldn’t look for a job. All we could do was recommend him to go through the appropriate UN channels. With well over a million Syrian refugees or internally displaced people in the small region of Kurdistan however, these processes are long and often futile.Silva 6 As we left, picking our way carefully down broken steps, slimy with waste water, Silva began to wail. Later we went for tea with another resident of the camp and asked if she knew about Silva and her father. Oh yes, she said, one eyebrow raised. I pressed her further; wasn’t it strange Silva’s mother left her? “He must have beaten her. No mother leaves her child without reason.” In fact, she continued, the rumour was that he had divorced three wives. Curling her upper lip into a sneer, she said “he asked a woman in the camp to marry him recently, but only on the understanding that she stayed at home with the girl all day and never left her alone. Can you imagine?”