Displaced by violent conflict, Iraqis await return to homes

Displaced by violent conflict, Iraqis await return to homes

Publication info

Mary Kate MacIsaac

CARE is supporting families in the Dohuk area of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), where over 900,000 Iraqis have sought refuge since conflict spread across the north last summer.

In August 2014, Zahara*, 30, her husband, Samer*, and their five children were living in their partially-finished home in a village near Sinjar, in the northern Ninewa governorate of Iraq.  Zahara and Samer had spent the last ten years working on their house.

“I won’t lie,” Zahara says, smiling.  “Before this our life wasn’t perfect.  We were in the middle of building our house.  We were making it slowly, slowly – piece by piece.  There was no electricity and not a lot of water where we lived.  But it was better than this.” Her eyes scan the small tent where she is seated with only a thin mattress and plastic sheeting between her and the gravel underneath.  “Then the conflict forced us to flee. We had to leave everything behind.” She sighs, shooing away a fly.

Today Zahara lives with her family in a small tent, three by four metres, in a camp for displaced persons in the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI).  There are almost 15,000 people living here.  The UN says that at least 900,000 Iraqis have sought refuge in KRI.

It was eight o’clock in the morning, the day the family realized they must flee.  They heard the militants coming. “We feared what would happen if we stayed.  We left our home so quickly. We were walking and walking. With the children, all of us, we climbed Mount Sinjar.  We walked for ten days.  It was so hard….,” she pauses.  “I can’t even believe it actually happened.” 

Some days we were so afraid – just praying that we’d find people to give us water or food. We were hungry and so thirsty.  At night, we slept on the rocks, just clinging to each other out of fear.  I don’t sleep at night even now.  Whenever I close my eyes, I still see them – those who attacked us.

From outside the tent, the voices of giggling children drift into the tent.  The oldest son, Sader, 9, and sister, Diana, 5, are pushing their siblings on a handcart.   Zahara, a watchful mother, peers outside, checking on them.  This camp lane is their playground. 

Adjusting to camp life has been difficult for the family.  “Our life is like a prison here,” says Zahara.  “There’s no cure here - only returning to our home.  I just want to see Sinjar, again.  This camp, it isn’t a life – especially for the children.”

“When we first arrived, the children were afraid all of the time. Even with the smallest sound at night, they would cry out, ‘Oh no! They’re coming.’  My husband and I spent a lot of time assuring them they were safe.  So many families were separated, though – parents from their children, brothers and sisters.  Our children were so afraid this would happen to them.” 

Zahara worries for her children’s wellbeing.  She says she will make sure they attend school, especially the girls, who are not yet old enough to start classes. 

“I was never allowed to study,” she says. “But now I send the older ones. Life is better when you’re educated.  Girls, especially, need to learn. They must be able to think.  We need to be able to talk to doctors.  We need to understand Arabic.  I wish I knew more so when I take my children to the doctor, I can understand their problems and what the doctor advises.

To improve living conditions in the camp, CARE is working through a local partner, Harikar, running camp cleaning crews.  Twenty residents are hired for one month employment in collecting trash and clearing drainage ditches.  Another team is responsible for cleaning the showers and latrines.  

A worker dressed in bright yellow jumpsuit walks by Zahara’s tent, picking up trash in the lane outside – whether gum wrappers and cigarette butts or the ubiquitous plastic bag.

“We are grateful for the workers,” Zahara says.  “It’s good to have a cleaner camp.  We see them every day.  They’re doing a very good job.”   A cleaner camp is a more livable camp, residents acknowledge.   

Sader, 9, enters the tent and sits next to his mother. He has not attended school as his hands are crippled and holding a pen is difficult.  He has his own dream, though.  “I want to be a driver,” he says.  He has already planned his first trip.  “I want to take my family home,” he reveals.  “I want us to have our lives back.” 

CARE's Role

CARE plays a central role in the camp’s waste management, covering waste removal, the desludging of latrines, and cash-for-work programming for both waste collection and latrine cleaning.  In addition to supplying kerosene heaters, fuel barrels, blankets, and carpets during the cold winter, CARE has also supported the camp with the distribution of fire extinguishers and training. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals. 

Zahara*, 30, with her youngest, Dahlia, 2. Berseve 1 is one of the largest camps for displaced persons in northern Iraq, with almost 15,000 people living there.