By Courtney Trenwith
At least 1.8 million refugees and internally displaced people are seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, weighing heavily on a region already struggling to stay afloat. Locals say they are doing what they can but are desperate for more international aid
On the outskirts of Erbil, a well-fortified mini-city of makeshift shelters has been cobbled together; they can hardly be called homes but they have become just that for 1,500 refugees and internally displaced people seeking refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
At the entrance to Hashem Camp, a young boy squats over a picture book, while a girl not much older skips across the dirt pathway and pushes back a wooden gate precariously hinged to a piece of steel that acts as the wall to her family’s quarters in this mishmash of clay, tin and tarpaulins.
The children appear resolute, unfazed, their shining faces bearing smiles. But their parents’ dark eyes, lacking any spark, reveal a different story.
In a back corner, Sheikh Makmoud Al Halaf Al Ali Abu Al Seif is hunkered down with his two wives and 21 children. Eighty kilometres from Bashiqa, the village east of Mosul where he had been chief until ISIL stormed through in August 2014, Sheikh Makmoud continues to garner respect in spite of the dilapidated surroundings to which he has been banished. But he does not see it that way.
“What should I say? I was at the top and now I’m at the bottom,” he says. He has warmly welcomed us into his quarters and we step onto a loose wooden plank covering a dirt drain and push aside the piece of tarpaulin acting as a door.
Not even the most influential, the wealthiest nor the bravest escaped the wrath of ISIL when the militant group besieged Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. Their shock arrival sent thousands fleeing – the closest haven they had was the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
It was about 11.30pm on June 9. “I got a phone call – Mosul had fallen,” recalls Sheikh Makmoud, dressed in a pristine white kaftan and sitting crossed-legged in his majlis, hand-built with clay. As he speaks, a teenage boy serves us water and sweet tea; his family may have been stripped of all its material wealth but not even ISIL could steal their pride in hospitality.
Although at the time state media insisted Iraqi and Peshmerga forces still controlled Mosul, Sheikh Makmoud says he instinctively gathered his large family, including a policeman cousin and a brother-in-law in the army, and fled.
“It was very difficult – people wanted to take things with them but there was no time, just save your life,” he continues, without emotion.
A short time into their escape, they ran into a shootout and were forced to abandon their cars and break up into smaller groups. “If a smaller group gets killed it’s better than all of us gets killed,” he says. By the time they walked to safety in Kurdistan, six relatives had been lost. Sheikh Makmoud has never heard from or of them since.
Now in the relative safety of Hashem Camp, his children have access to some education and health services. He admits they have been taken care of, “but this is still not my home, not my land”.
“The worst thing is it’s taken so long [for Iraqi forces to retake Mosul],” he laments. “I’d hoped after one or two months the Iraqi army would come back and get rid of Daesh [a derogatory term used to refer to ISIL].”
It is a statement that echoes through the camp: we want to go home.
Kurdish authorities are, the refugees admit, taking decent care of them despite the enormous toll having 1.5 million internally displaced peoples [IDPs] (mostly from the fallen cities of Fallujah, Sinjar and Mosul) and another 300,000 Syrian refugees has on a region already buckling under the pressure of an economic crisis.
There are 44 camps in the autonomous region, viewed as a relative safe haven compared to the rest of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
“The idea is everyone in Kurdistan must have a home, whether the home is a concrete home, a pre-fab home or a tent,” Awat Mustafa, project and operational director for the largest refugee charity in Kurdistan, Barzani Charity Foundation, says.
“We don’t want to be like any other country, we want to give opportunities to people. [But] 28 percent of the population of Kurdistan is either an IDP or refugee,
so imagine, it’s a huge number of people who live [in Kurdistan who are] non-
Kurds; this makes it very expensive for us as a charity and for the government to manage everyone.”
Mustafa concedes there is some discrimination when directing funds: “IDPs are treated better than refugees to be honest”. Under international law, the Iraqi government is responsible for its own internally displaced people, meaning the tight budget it has to take care of the 1.5 million displaced citizens leaves little left over to cater for the Syrian refugees.
Even amongst the IDPs there is favouritism, Mustafa says. “In different areas, different sectors, different ethnicities maybe have been treated [differently] for political or religious [reasons]… and sometimes [due to] accessibility,” he says. “Not everyone is willing to go to Sinjar Mountain [for example]. If I ask you to go to Sinjar Mountain, you’re going to say, ‘it’s too dangerous, too far, no need to worry’.”
But up to half of the Syrian refugees in Kurdistan are living in the community and some even have found work. Industries such as media and hospitality are overflowing with Syrian refugees.
“Wherever you go you’ll find a Syrian, they’re hard-working people,” Mustafa says.
But the reality is that the majority of refugees and IDPs in Kurdistan are reliant on the government and charities for items as basic as blankets, food and sanitary items.
The burden is only likely to worsen, particularly if a plan to retake Mosul, 85 kilometres from Erbil, is put into action.
Mustafa says the influx of Sinjar residents, including thousands of Yazidis fleeing what has been described as an attempted genocide in the months after August 2014, saw 9.9 million food parcels mobilised in 45 days, with the help of the World Food Programme.
“We never said we provided them with a five-star meal but… we managed to prevent hunger and starvation,” Mustafa says. “I would guess this would happen again in [relation to] Mosul.”
More than 4,200 residents in Mosul, where about half of the population is believed to either support the Sunni militias or be indifferent to their presence, fled to Syria in May, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Currently, moving west towards the war-torn country is their only option, with ISIL fortifying other routes. But if Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by an international contingent, push towards Mosul, tens of thousands of refugees are expected to flood into Kurdistan.
The emergency could occur even sooner, and with little notice, albeit for a different reason. The engineers of the nearby Mosul Dam have warned the failure of its banks is imminent. The ensuing flood could kill as many as 1 million people – even more without adequate evacuation plans.
Water pressure has been building up as winter snow melts, at the same time as the bedrock becomes weaker and more porous, while gates that would normally be used to ease the pressure by allowing water to run through are stuck shut.
If the dam fails, the water would arrive in Mosul in four hours and reach as far as Baghdad, at the other end of the country, in 45 hours, Nadhir Al Ansari, an Iraqi engineer warned in March.
The dam’s former chief engineer Nasrat Adamo also has warned that the dam would only survive with 24-hour maintenance. That was cut when ISIL briefly held the dam in 2014. Machines used to grout the foundations have since been looted and there is no cement available.
Mustafa says being prepared for such a catastrophe is one of the Barzani Charity Foundation’s priorities.
Until then, it is working to improve the living conditions in areas such as Sinjar, in Iraq’s west. The town was liberated in November 2015, after being held by ISIL for about 15 months. The mostly-destroyed regional capital desperately needs clean water, as well as a school and a master plan has been approved to renovate the trashed government institutions and public services, Mustafa says.
Sinjar also was the scene of an attempted genocide of Yazidis, a minority indigenous group. An estimated 5,000 were murdered, women were abducted and horrifically abused and the majority of the population (an estimated 650,000 in Iraq) became refugees, mostly in Kurdistan.
Through her charity Seed Foundation, Sherri Talabani, the wife of Deputy Prime Minister Qubud Talabani, is providing psycho-social services to address mental health concerns of the victims, many of whom are Yazidi.
“We have a population traumatised and people have experienced extreme violence. How could a mother or father care for their family if they’re so traumatised? So we decided to focus on psycho-social support to help people heal and recover, because we felt that was the best chance they have to re-integrate into society, to be self-sufficient and to support themselves,” Talabani says.
But suggesting to war victims that they participate in counselling has not been easy. “[Psychological services are] not what they ask for; they’re asking ‘how can I feed my family? How can I get education or health care?’” Talabani says.
The support is provided in multiple subtle formats including vocational training in skills such as furniture making, livelihood training, parenting classes, recreational activities such as knitting and woodwork, and talking to refugees during free cooking lessons.
Children are offered activities including sport and music. In the main camp where Seed operates, Akre, only 1,300 of the 6,000 children attend school, making the charity’s programmes their only positive engagement, Talabani says.
The programmes initially targeted women but have been so successful, men have called out for help too. “Men are very, very underserved in this conflict,” Talabani says.
Already marginalised before the war, the opportunities provided through the social programmes have had a positive impact.
“Many of them have been held in captivity and escaped Daesh… Some still have family members in captivity with Daesh. Many were subjected to sexual violence in their home or community. [Now they] definitely feel like they’re engaged in something positive, they have fun and making friendships is part of the healing process,” Talabani says.
But about half of the 1.8 million refugees and IDPs in Kurdistan are not in camps. They live in the community, either in unfinished buildings, the homes of relatives and friends, or for a fortunate few, in rental accommodation.
The popular resort town of Shaqlawa, 50 kilometres north-east of Erbil, has been nicknamed ‘Shaklujah’, because about 65 percent of the population are now refugees from Fallujah, the besieged city north of Baghdad, where Iraqi forces are about three weeks into an offensive to recapture it.
Four thousand families from Tikrit also have changed the demographics of Soran district. Hardly a village or town in Kurdistan has not received IDPs.
“In some areas like Shaqlawa, IDPs and refugees are double the number of the regional population. So it’s not easy for the host community to take it but still [they do], because… we know the suffering of being a refugee, we have been refugees in 1991 and we know what kind of pain it is. That’s why the feeling is very much mutual [towards the IDPs] despite the effects of refugees on job opportunities, on services and electricity, besides the economic crisis we have.”
Kurdistan’s ability to lobby for assistance is hampered by its status as a territory within the sovereign borders of Iraq. Any international aid must be approved by the central government, which is locked in political disputes with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Mustafa says the UAE and Kuwait have been Kurdistan’s greatest supporters, including “very strong relations” with the Emirates Red Crescent, which has had the longest presence of any GCC organisation working with refugees in Iraq.
Emirati citizens have sponsored almost 6,000 orphans, with the number increasing monthly during the war with ISIL.
The Kuwaiti foreign minister has supported charity organisations to register in Kuwait to aid nationals’ support.
Saudi Arabia only opened its consulate general office in Erbil in February but Mustafa says the kingdom has already showed “their willingness to help”. “For us we want it now, but for them they have to make some diplomatic applications, but we have no doubt they’re going to be in hand as well.”
But Mustafa hopes for more from residents in the Gulf.
“Sometimes when somebody can’t give, they can pray for us,” he says.
The refugees themselves are also praying – to return to their previous lives.
Near the entrance to Hashem Camp, and opposite a playground funded by Emirates Red Crescent, Abdul Razzak Saad Alghanim sits on a chair at the front of a basic shop housed under a tent held up by wooden planks. The 60-year-old, whose right leg has been amputated, fled from Sinjar, via Duhok, two years ago. He is making a small living to help support his family of 12, including eight children.
“We got out before [ISIL] came,” he says. “We didn’t get anything.”
Everything Alghanim owned was destroyed, he says, but when asked what he needs most, he is pragmatic. “Look, we’ve gotten used to this now, we’ve been here two years. Everything is missing.
"The best thing you can give me is my return home; I don’t need anything else, I just need to return home.”