Beyond the statistics: Inside Kurdistan's Syrian refugee camps
Syrian refugees look out over the expanse of white UNHCR tents at their refugee camp in Kurdistan. (AFP/File)
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In the Kurdish region of Iraq, I sit atop a hill green with grass. It is late in the day and the sun nudges low against the horizon. Arabic and Kurdish pop songs, rich with danceable grooves, blare all around me, layer on jovial layer.
Three days ago I had a list of statistics in my head. Now, as I look out over a sea of white tents, the numbers take on new meaning. They breathe. They become fully realised souls.
Two and a half million Syrian refugees: a woman, cradling her prematurely born baby, sips black coffee and looks down at her daughter's crayon drawings.
Five and a half million children inside Syria and in neighbouring countries affected by the war: my own private cliché, the shadow of a young boy running and flying his kite passes over me.
Seven refugee camps in Iraq: two boys, one broken-toothed, both sheathed in dust, sit on a rock and lick yellow popsicles.
Seventy-eight per cent of the projected budget for the multi-agency response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis still needed: a young couple walk hand in hand in the fading light, down a rutted lane littered with plastic water-bottles and balled-up cigarette packs.
I look down on the tent city, on the mass of people below me, and the numbers evaporate. All I see is the human need for peace, for companionship, for happiness, beauty, and grace.
I am here in this faraway place, in this camp, with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Nearly eight years ago, UNHCR asked me to work with them, and I said yes, largely because I am Afghan.
For years, I had watched the Afghan refugee crisis from a distance. My family was in Europe when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and after it became clear that we could not return home, we moved to the United States. Adjustment to our new lives was not easy, but to complain would be grotesquely tone deaf. In the final tally, we were extraordinarily fortunate, being granted asylum in the US. So many fellow Afghans had witnessed atrocities. Millions had had to pack in the dark of night and take flight. They had walked through mountains, around minefields, dodged gunfire, paid people-traffickers, and settled in crowded refugees camps in Pakistan or Iran, where many stayed for two decades or more.
Still, despite my admittedly radically different circumstances, I have always understood something of the sense of loss that is so central to the refugee experience, the loss of identity, community, dignity. I think I understand something about lives disrupted, turned upside down. I have come to know, through my parents' experience, a refugee's humiliation, the feeling that you are a burden. And so, all these years later, whenever I go to refugee camps, whether it is here in Kurdistan or Eastern Chad, I feel a sense of kinship. In every refugee I meet, I see something of my own people's struggle, of my own family's story.
Ronida, for instance. Ronida is a teacher now in the city of Erbil in Kurdistan region. Back home in Syria, she was a poet. Short and blond-haired, Ronida is spirited, quirky, and passionate. She has an endearing way of recounting even the most harrowing details of her escape from Syria – replete with daily bombings and blood running in the streets – with a shade of humour and twinkle-eyed levity. She laments the fact that 15 of her books of poetry and writing were burnt when her house was destroyed in Syria. Not that it has stopped her from writing. Before we sat down for lunch, she read me these lines:
Our pain and yours are the same
Our country like your country became a country of bloodshed.
And the wounds of my heart are open
And the pain in my heart is growing
And the tears from my eyes are blood.
Our pains are too many
Our wounds are too deep.
You did not need to be a refugee to understand her. In these simple but passionately delivered verses, I had a glimpse of the horror that Ronida and so many of her fellow Syrians have experienced. I heard lament, longing, and an indictment of this terrible war in which no one is winning and everyone is losing –especially women and children who make up three-quarters of the refugee population.
Though she longs for her homeland, Ronida has found safety and comfort here in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I find myself struck by the enormous generosity of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. A shining example of that is the Mayor of Khabat, the district where Kawergosk and Darashakran refugee camps are located. In August 2013 there was a sudden influx of 60,000 refugees in a matter of weeks. Syrians flooded across the re-opened border crossing at Peshkabour. The region was nearly overwhelmed. UNHCR and other aid group partners swung into action and built Kawergosk camp, quite literally, overnight – water points, latrines, distribution warehouses for tents and core relief items like hygiene kits, cooking kits, blankets, mattresses. No one slept, no one stopped working. The Mayor of Khabat, a stocky, gentle-mannered man, saw the convoys of buses filled with thousands of new refugees, and galvanised every friend, family, and staff member, every political colleague and every government body to gather donations of food, clothes, fuel, and much besides.
He told me the story of one Syrian man who came to him with his wife and asked for yoghurt for their small baby – the baby had allergies and could only eat yoghurt. The couple had nothing left –like many refugees, they had arrived with little more than the clothes they wore. Utterly exhausted and desperate, the father wept as he made his plea. The mayor told me Kurdish men don't shed public tears. He felt deep in himself this young father's pain. In the chaos, however, he somehow lost sight of the family. He was overcome with guilt. He thought he had failed that desperate father. So the mayor sent someone to go and buy enough yoghurt to feed every single family in the camp for several days, in the hope that he would reach the baby whose father had come to him.
I felt such gratitude toward this man I had known for less than half an hour, gratitude for his kindness, his compassion, for reminding me of how decently people can behave toward one another. The Kurdistan region, after all, has its own socio-economic problems, but no one there shied away from the task at hand, and the generous spirit with which the locals had gone about welcoming the refugees truly touched me.
Of course, it ought not to be their problem alone. Or just the problem of UNHCR and its partner agencies and NGOs who are working so hard, despite being drastically underfunded, to meet the vast needs of this humanitarian crisis. As an international community we have a lot to be grateful for to these host countries. Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt. These countries have enormous struggles of their own, and keeping their borders open and hosting mass refugee populations – allowing free access to schools, healthcare, services – is placing huge pressure on their infrastructure, and potentially the security, of these countries and the region. Syrian refugees in Lebanon, for instance, will soon constitute a quarter of that small nation's entire population. The international community – particularly countries in the West where we are blessed with riches and resources – needs to do more to help share the burden.
As for the refugees themselves, the last thing they want is to be refugees. Every Syrian I spoke to, whether in a camp or in the city of Erbil, wanted to return home. They were deeply grateful for the hospitality of the local people in the Kurdish region of Iraq, but Syria is home and Syria is where they longed to be.
And no one I met wanted to be a burden. Every refugee family I spoke to wanted to contribute, to stand on their own feet, to provide for themselves and not be dependent. Walking through the camps, I saw a busy, active people, resourceful and enterprising, people who had started grocery stores, barber shops, salons, bakeries. Like my fellow Afghans, these were proud people. They did not wish to be seen as a monolithic community of dependent victims.
Nalene, 21, is mother of three small girls, including 18-month-old twins. She is a fierce creature, her smiling, direct gaze hinting at tremendous reserves of confidence and self-awareness. Her husband, who is 20 years older, was injured in a mortar attack on their home and is unable to work. In Syria she ran a successful beauty salon. Here at Kawergosk, Nalene has picked up where she left off and has set up a salon, a small tent along the muddy, trash-strewn main drag of the camp. It's a challenging environment, to say the least, but she has steadfastly refused to let standards slip. She takes pride in the quality of her work and her professionalism. It gives her purpose, direction, and a sense of dignity. "I put plastic on the floor when I do a hair dye in case drops stain the carpet," she says, smiling. "People might say why bother, we're in a refugee camp. But it matters. I work hard to support my family but it's good for my mental well-being too."
But my over-riding concern is for the 5.5 million children who are becoming Syria's lost generation. Millions of children whose lives are being shaped by turmoil, atrocities, and displacement.
I think of Payman, a remarkably mature 16-year-old girl and aspiring writer, who broke down into tears when I said the word "education", because she has not been to school in nearly a year. I think of nine-year-old Marwar, who when asked to draw me a picture, had drawn dozens of stick people with tiny bags in their hands crossing a bridge along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
But the one who haunts me the most is a six-year-old boy I met in the UNHCR registration centre in Erbil. He was there with his brother, sister, mother, and father, whom I will call Yasser (he asked that I change his name). Yasser worked in a shoe shop in Aleppo before the conflict started. His children were in school. Life was simple, modest, but happy.
Then war broke out. Soon, the bombing became constant. The children's school was destroyed. Yasser lost his job, and soon there was no water, no power, very little food. The family tried to stay as long as they could. They sold every bit of furniture in the house, lived on bread and water, Yasser and his wife often skipping meals so the children could eat. But eventually a bomb landed on their building and killed many of their neighbours, including children. When I heard this, I was sure to tread carefully. Yasser's children were only 14, 12 and six and I did not want to upset them with my questions. But Yasser told me that there was nothing his children hadn't seen. "Hands chopped, people killed in front of us as a result of the bombings. People torn into one hundred pieces. The meat of humans torn apart in front of us – flesh and blood."
Yasser's youngest boy, the six-year-old, was sitting on his mother's lap as she wiped the deep, dark circles under her eyes and wept soundlessly. I watched the little boy as he giggled and playfully lined up water bottles on the table. At six years of age, he had already spent half of his life in wartime. He had witnessed things I have not, ghastly things I never wish to see. Violence will underline his living memories for years to come. What will become of him, I wondered? What will become of the millions of innocent Syrian children like him, the depths of whose psychological wounds I can barely guess at?
The conflict in Syria is not a news story to me any more. Facts and figures have morphed into human beings. Two and a half million refugees, six and a half million internally displaced, three years, seven camps, on and on and on and on. But I see a headline about Syria now and all I picture are the faces of Nalene, Payman, and Yasser. The drawings of Marwar. And all I can hear now is the poetry of Ronida, who wrote:
My people there will be a day when white doves fly over Syria....
Insh'Allah, Ronida. God willing.
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- Syrian girls write in a classroom at a primary school in the northern city of Aleppo as the new school year starts. (AFP/Baraa Al-Halabi)