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Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan dream of home – and Europe

As footage from the world’s television stations plays in a loop, showing images of inflatable boats overloaded with refugees washing up daily on Greek beaches, hundreds of thousands of people are watching from Iraq, thinking about following them.

Our Action Against Hunger minibus moves through the hills. On both sides of the road, a thin layer of yellow grass covers the ochre earth and big grey clouds hang in the sky. Summer is ending in Iraqi Kurdistan. After a last checkpoint, the colourful houses of Dohuk finally unravel. A big wheel covered with neon lights shines in the dusk and grabs our attention. At the back of the vehicle, a discussion can be heard over the sound of a song about the glory of the Peshmergas (the Kurdistan resistance). Another day is ending for the Action Against Hunger team in Iraq.

Decreasing aid, growing despair

An hour earlier, in the camp for the displaced at Essian, the sole concerns were about food distribution, health and hygiene challenges, and psychosocial problems: harsh realities in a sometimes-strained context. The camps have sprung up like mushrooms in the Kurdish countryside, heaps of misery and dashed hopes. Since summer of 2014, millions of people have been living in crowded conditions – and the “temporary” solutions of the first weeks have become a distant memory. Aid is decreasing, the conditions of living are worsening and the displaced are becoming desperate.

In the Essian camp, which has welcomed about 15,000 people in 10 months, serious conversations take place daily. Many talk about departing for Europe, about their accumulated debts, about the loved ones who have died or fallen into the hands of the Islamic State.

Nazem Qasem Ali and his family live in one of the 3,000 tents in the camp. It has been many weeks now since they left home. The footage of the inflatable boats drifting towards the Greek island of Lesbos regularly appear on their small television: one of the few possessions of this family. The stories of wrecks and the mishaps of their compatriots give them mixed feelings: fear and envy. Sitting at the tent’s entrance, Nazem’s wife, whose eyes focus on the clothes drying outside, tells one story.

“They went by road up to Izmir and then the boatmen put them on board a small boat. After some time, the engine broke down and they found themselves in the middle of the sea without any help. They phoned their cousins in Germany asking for help and posted distress messages on Facebook. They shouted until the coastguards heard them and came to their rescue.”

The two men were shaken, but they were also safe, and that is all that mattered.

$15,000 to confront the unknown

Departure seems inaccessible for Nazem and his family. The crossing alone will cost about $9000 ($1000 for an adult and $500 to $600 for a child). Nazem explains that he is trying to sell the family’s assets; but in three days, he only managed to sell a few pieces of clothing for a few dollars. His family has no passports, and no identity cards, just an unwavering desire to get away from their current chaos. Nazem calculates the cost of new identity cards, around $50 per card, plus $200 for a passport. In addition, he estimates it would cost $300 per person to get illegally to Turkey, plus the cost of the travel to Izmir that he has not taken into account. This makes a total of at least $15,000, just so his family can confront the unknown.

Why take so many risks?

“We are not leaving this country because we do not like it. We love it more than anything else. But we are thinking about our children’s future. Here we cannot find work. Our children cannot grow up as they should and study. We have no other choice.”

“$2000 of debts while I am unemployed”

A few kilometres from Essian is Sheikhan, another camp. Life is no better for people here. No more money or work, just a more anchored feeling to be living in a state of humanitarian passive dependence. Sitting on a concrete block, gazing at the endless arteries in the camp compound, some look with envy at the men and women who have managed to find a job in the NGOs operating in Sheikhan. From time to time, curriculum vitae, printed one after the other by the local printer, are handed out – but it is like throwing a bottle into the sea. And everywhere, the same words heard spoken, the same grim personal experiences, the same will to get out of this situation at whatever cost.

In Sheikhan as in Essian, the vast majority of displaced benefit from the aid of Action Against Hunger. But, like most aid organizations, Action Against Hunger needs financial help from international donors to continue this work. The aid received so far has not come close to meeting the needs of the displaced.

Yousef Ismael greets us under his tent. He cannot use his left hand, which was wounded during the war against Iran in 1990. He currently has no income and must borrow money: $1000 from a moneylender to pay for his wife’s surgical operation, another $1000 from a friend’s shop to be able to continue to provide his family’s basic needs. In less than six months since his arrival in the camp, he owes $2000. He will not be able to pay back this debt unless he or his son finds a job. “And it is not in Sheikhan that we can do so,” he says sighing. It’s useless to talk about Europe with Yousef who, with a sad smile, explains that the only solution for his family is to go back to where they came from, to rebuild their house and have a fresh start.

Please donate today and help us continue to save lives and restore futures.

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) support our work in Iraq.

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