This Is What It’s Like to Be a Refugee in Northern Iraq
Not enough food, too little shelter, but an abundance of cautious goodwill
The Kurds know what it’s like to be displaced. Thirty million strong, they’re the largest ethnic group in the world without a country of their own.
So it’s not without irony that the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq—the safest zone in the country owing to the Kurds’ fearsome peshmerga militia—is now taking in tens of thousands of refugees.
Our photographer Matt Cetti-Roberts is in Kurdistan to document the crisis.
The three-year-old Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. Many Syrian Kurds have sought safety in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In April 2012, the Kurdish Regional Government established the Domiz refugee camp to house the Syrians. The camp is pictured above. It is now home to no fewer than 45,000 people—and that’s not counting the many refugees congregating outside the camp.
Many of the camp residents are children. Educating these kids has been a challenge. By April 2013, the camp had three schools, all at full capacity.
Refugees with education backgrounds teach the classes. But there are too few teachers for far too many students. At the Jiyan school, 24 teachers struggle to accommodate 1,440 students. Some teachers have to do double shifts.
The Mines Advisory Group teaches special classes to warn children about the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordnance.
The camp is situated on the site of a former Iraqi army camp. Mines and other unexploded ordnance litter the area. Many refugees crossed mined areas of the border to get to Domiz—and some periodically cross back into Syria to relay messages to family and friends, or to bring them over the border.
Ahmed Muhammed Ali fled Damascus with his family after a bomb destroyed their house. He struggles to feed his family, pictured above. In particular, he worries about his youngest daughter Noorhan. She has two holes in her heart, and Ahmed is looking for work to pay for treatment.
Although the U.N. provides some basic food and supplies, many of the camp residents venture outside of Domiz to neighboring towns and cities looking for work. In their desperation, some have taken to working longer hours for less pay than local Kurds. This could lead to the refugees becoming a permanent underclass.
In early June the militant ISIS group captured Mosul in northwestern Iraq. Historically one of Iraq’s most metropolitan cities, Mosul is home to Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen practicing Shia and Sunni Islam and Christianity. Mosul has many ancient Christian churches—and some of the city’s Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
But the hardline Sunni ISIS threatens Mosul’s relative tolerance and diversity. Thousands of Mosul residents have fled north into Kurdistan.
The Kurdish Regional Government reports that more than 300,000 people have taken shelter in and around Kurdistan. The U.N. and Kurdish authorities are scrambling to accommodate the influx. Engineers are drilling wells for water. The U.N. is diverting tents and other supplies originally meant for Syria into northern Iraq.
A refugee camp in the village of Bahary Taza houses some 400 families. They’ve taken shelter where they can, many squatting in unfinished construction sites. Others live in the cars they arrived in, as seen above, or in a storage facility, depicted below.
The lucky ones were able to get their hands on some lightweight tents. U.N. food aid has not yet arrived. The Bahary Taza village head, Mukthar Adnan Mohammad Ali provides much of the food, with other villagers contributing what they can.
The refugees keep coming. Bottlenecks are forming at checkpoints manned by Kurdish security forces. The Kurds thoroughly screen everyone, trying to make sure no terrorists slip past.
Around some checkpoints, small refugee encampments are forming as the refugees wait to be admitted into the north.
Not everyone is here because they fear ISIS. Fariq Tatar and his wife Ikbhan Achmed, both Sunnis, fled with their six children after Iraqi air strikes pounded their Mosul neighborhood. They don’t want to be caught in the crossfire if and when Baghdad counter-attacks.
Tatar says he has no grievance with ISIS and would even be tempted to join them if he were a younger, healthier man without the responsibilities of a family. Pictured below, they are now living in a camp near the city of Shekhan.
This wide mix of people reflects northern Iraq’s diversity and its volatility.
Refugees are coming faster than authorities can build camps to accommodate them. Mosques and schools are doubling as shelter for the displaced.
In the village of Khatar, the Yezidi community has taken in many Mosul refugees, as seen below. The Yezidi are an ancient religious sect predating the Abrahamic religions. Some Muslims consider them devil-worshippers, but old prejudices haven’t stopped the Yezidi from helping displaced Muslims.
Last week, the U.N. designated Iraq’s refugee crisis as a level-three humanitarian disaster—the most severe designation. U.N. officials estimate 1.5 million people are displaced.
Meanwhile in Shekhan, one Kurdish family has taken in five refugee families, shown below. The house patriarch used to work with one of the Iraqis in Mosul, and invited him and his family to come stay in his home when the troubles in Mosul began.
It’s a full house, but the head of the household insists that his displaced friends are welcome to stay as long as they need to. From the look of things, none of them will be going home any time soon.