Kurdish Refugee & IDP Camps

I set out this summer to look at refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. What I found were Kurdish refugees and asylum seekers from Turkey, Syria and Iran, and internally displaced Kurds from Mosul. I saw everything from a youth group practicing traditional dance to a six-year-old boy that has been addicted to smoking for two years. But most of all, I experienced a wide range of people, living in hard situations, but with attitudes towards life that have left me deeply invested in the future of the people in these camps.

Makhmoor Refugee Camp

Makhmoor, home to around 11,000 Turkish refugees, was actually nicer than most villages that I have visited in the region. After a short drive through the dust-filled town of Makhmoor, about 45 minutes from Erbil, my translator, Leo, and I came upon the large security barriers that formed a maze before coming to the first guard. I promptly got yelled at for taking a photo of the UNHCR flag at the gate, which led to a traditional Kurdish yelling match in which I can never quite tell who is winning. Until, invariably, someone will turn to me and say "OK. Everything is OK."

After talking with the director, I met a camp representative in a large, mostly empty room -- a few couches, a hole in the wall for the air conditioner, and only two things on lined the wall: a UNHCR flag and a picture of the former PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. It is clear where the inhabitants’ allegiances lie.

The representative took us to visit the home of Siso Saleem, a 55-year-old father of eight. Sensing my surprise about the number of kids, he responded with, "We must have many children. Some to end up in Turkish prisons, some to join the PKK, some to be educated, and some to take care of the home."

His wife and two daughters proceeded to lay out a large feast of rice and vegetables. The portions surprised me -- not the stereotypical image of a refugee camp.

When Mr. Saleem first came to Makhmoor in 1998, he worked as a laborer for $0.20 a day. Since then, through saving and with the help of the UNHCR and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), he was able to build his family a home.

The majority of the camp’s development has happened within the last several years through the help of the UNHCR and the KRG. The camp is still growing at a rate of 100-200 people a year, plus around 300 new births. Each new family is required to build their own home, but the community now supplies the tools and supports the construction. The camp has five schools and its own hospital.

When I asked if they want to go back to Turkey, they say that they of course do, however they have a list of demands. These include full amnesty for past activity, the release of their POWs in Turkey, former villages reconstructed, and the rights to teach their schools in Kurdish. In other words, it looks like Makhmoor is not going away anytime soon.

Grdachal Refugee Camp

The Grdachal camp was the polar opposite of Makhmoor. Twenty-two families consisting of more than 120 people live in an old converted schoolhouse. Grdachal is a stark alternative to their former lives in Iran, which they fled around 1980.

Unlike the people at Makhmoor, the refugees at Grdachal have lost hope. When asked what they wanted, there wasn’t even a trace of ambition. They responded only with, "We don't know anymore. All we know is that we want a better life than here." They complained about the facilities (in one case, four families are forced to share the old schoolyard bathroom – a room that smelled so bad I almost had to immediately walk out) and they talked about how they do not even have the opportunity to work because they are located too far from any city.

Tara Saifulla, 17, sat quietly in the corner next to her mother as my translator interpreted what the men of the camp were saying. Finally, a soft "Please, may I speak?" came from Tara. She had learned English by reading a dictionary and watching TV. She proceeded to tell me of their plight in no uncertain terms and then told me of her mother and her need for a heart surgery that is not possible in Iraq. They openly asked for my help. I have since spoken to several people about her mother's case. However, the humanitarian organizations which provide heart surgeries do not even want to look at her case because she is 33 years old – after 18 the success rate is too slim.

Moqoble Refugee Camp

After these two camps, I decided that it was time to return to Dohuk and to the camp that I initially visited during my trip last summer. Moqoble Refugee camp was established for Syrian Kurds, who face the worst situation of all in the Kurdish region. Currently, there are over 200,000 stateless Kurds living in Syria without citizenship or any rights.

The Moqoble Camp consists of more than 40 families that arrived after July 2004. They live in winterized tents, or tents with cinderblock walls, to make it livable during the winter season.

Azadi IDP / Refugee Camp

The Azadi camp is composed of many different peoples. Originally a training area for Saddam's army, the houses have since been converted to homes for internally displaced people (IDPs) from cities such as Mosul and Baghdad, as well as many outlying towns and villages. Toward the back of the Azadi Camp are 88 houses that were built for the original arrivals at the Moqoble Camp.

While not quite to the level of development of Makhmoor, this camp still was much closer to the feeling of a small village.

Grdasin IDP Camp

Grdasin was established in April 2006 for Kurdish people forced to leave their homes in Mosul due to increased threats and violence. At its height, the camp was home to over 200 families. Now hovering around 100 families consisting of over 800 people, the camp is little more than a temporary solution at best. It is comprised of a mashup of tents and simple cinderblock construction. Small gardens for fresh vegetables line the sides of these homes. Conditions within the camp lead to frequent illnesses, especially among the children and elderly. Employment is again hard to come by as the camp is located far outside any major city.

Jonathan's Travels
Jon Vidar Photography

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    great information. I am planing on travelling to Iraq myself around May time and would like to conduct a project on health of chldren in these refugee camps but i'm having trouble gettin in touch with any authorities who can act as a host for me in order for my University to allow me to go.

    I was wondering if you have any contact details of anyone in the UNHCR or other departments that may be able to lead me in the right direction.
    Would be grately appreciated.