April 24, 2017 | Kurdistan, Iraq
Last week, I relished the robust ninety-second percentile that my then six-month-old daughter scored on her height chart at Houston’s Texas Children’s Pediatrics. Because my wife and I are of modest height, we can only assume it is a random combination of unexpressed genes that resulted in our certified bundle of joy. My mom would remind me that many of her brothers and sisters are tall, but I am pretty sure it comes from my wife’s side of the family which has some substantial height, though not uniformly. Line up her seven siblings and you have a mirror image of a cityscape; some are tall and others...not as tall. That was last week.
This week, I visited the tent of a displaced family at Chamakor Camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Only a day before, I was extended the invitation by the camp’s organizers who encouraged me to help dispel some of the misconceptions of the region. I approached the iconic white tent. Haphazardly spray painted on the outside was the tent number and the letters “UNHCR” stamped in blue letters.
At the entrance therein, a baby lay on the thin rugged floor completely still, mouth open. For a moment, I did not know if the baby was alive. He had a blank and still stare. Only when he made the slightest movement did I catch my breath. With new-dad experience, I initially identified the baby as a premature, perhaps only days old. I was horrified to learn that before me was a nine-month old, malnourished baby boy. Chart percentiles and familial genetic queries had different meanings there.
Chamakor Camp was barely two months old when I set out on the drive west from the City of Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital of 1.7 million people. My escort protocol came with a driver, a translator named Mahro, and a black-tinted SUV. Despite the abundant sun in parts of this region, tinted windows are unique because they are highly regulated to allow officers at checkpoints to easily scrutinize passengers and cargo.
Mahro carried a Belgian-made FN FAL (Fusil Automatique Léger) automatic rifle, about which he proudly said was a more powerful weapon than the standard issue AK-47s carried by most security and police officers throughout the region. Despite the extra munitions and the region’s surroundings, Kurdistan feels safe, and it has benefited from long-term peace and security even through the 2003 Iraq invasion by the United States.
Daesh in Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan makes up most of northern Iraq and is governed autonomously by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The Kurds have continued to play a pivotal role against Daesh (a term for ISIS/ISIL used by many as a way of challenging the legitimacy because the word “Daesh” is a nonsensical neologism that has been made to carry a negative connotation). When Daesh made its push into Iraq through Mosul in 2014, it was the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military force, with allied support that held Daesh to only thirty kilometers south of the city of Erbil.
The Peshmerga, whose name is translated as “those who face death,” has become well known for its women’s brigades fighting on the front lines against Daesh. It is the resolve of the Peshmerga and the Kurds’ rich culture that make Robert Brenneman’s description of the largest ethnic group in the world without their own homeland “as strong as the mountains” all the more fitting.
When I asked Mahro about the time when Daesh was at least symbolically knocking on the heart of Kurdistan’s door, he was indifferent as if there had never been a chance that Daesh could have taken a Kurdish city. Perhaps it was easy for him and others to feel that way now, but I remember there was considerable worry at the time. My wife is from Kurdistan of Iraq, and her family and others who resided there were at least concerned enough to take temporary, albeit precautionary, refuge in Turkey.
Though thirty kilometers seems close to me and almost close enough to be vulnerable to artillery, Mahro explained that it was Prime Minister Necherivan Barzani of the KRG who gave resolve to the people of Erbil, i.e. to hold strong and trust in the Peshmerga to hold Daesh back. Keep in mind that this was a time when the fall of Mosul was a shock to the region and the world. Daesh forces of only fifteen hundred soldiers were able to take a city of almost two million people. Some say that it was because the Iraqi army personnel stationed in Mosul were already depleted in order to provide support in the fight against Daesh in the Anbar province of central Iraq. The remaining Iraqi army in Mosul retreated from the city after only five days of fighting. No such abandonment or retreat by those who would face death would occur in Kurdistan.
On our way out of Erbil, we passed makeshift monuments in tribute to the Peshmerga put up after the defensive hold of the region and the more recent offensive. They included portraits of soldiers and military leaders, alive and fallen. Outside the city, we drove through additional check points, not manned by the Peshmerga but the “Asayish,” the Kurdish intelligence security force. This gave me some comfort that we were still well within stable Kurdish control as we drove directly towards the ongoing battle of Mosul. Check points to eye up the driver and passenger are common within Erbil and certain residential neighborhoods, so these check points felt like normal security precautions. Sometimes the sense of security is more important than actual security.
Heading close to the midpoint between Erbil and Mosul, we passed the Great Zab River. The permanent bridge was being rebuilt after it was destroyed by Daesh during their short occupation of the area a couple of years ago. Some type of bailey bridge was set across the river to allow vehicles to cross. It was here where I saw the first of a few refugee camps in the area. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is currently hosting more than 1.8 million displaced persons. That's nearly the size of Kurdistan's largest city of Erbil. To put it in another perspective, it is almost the size of the city of San Diego. Only a portion of these people are actually living in the 55 camps throughout the region. There are quite a few that have been absorbed into abandoned construction sites and other residences. The camp we were headed to was a little further.
Just twenty kilometers east of Mosul, we turned south on a dirt road. The signs of Daesh’s short control of this area were eerily present as we passed groups of collapsed and derelict structures that were once small villages. Even though the area had been clear of combatants for some time, there was no short-term hope for the villagers’ return. The road was lined with spray-painted red wooden stakes marking the area which had yet to be cleared of mines left behind by Daesh in retreat. After a few more turns around some hills, we passed some supply trucks kicking up dust clouds and pulled towards the front guarded gate of Chamakor Camp.
Barzani Charity Foundation
The day before, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Musa Ahmad Agha, the President of the Barzani Charity Foundation (BCF) that manages Chamakor Camp. BCF is a non-profit organization that manages fourteen camps in the Kurdistan Region with the help of various organizations such as the United Nations and the Iraqi Government. Like every meeting in Kurdistan, we began by sipping tea in the traditional tulip-shaped glasses. Mind you, tea glasses are without handles here, possibly to test the resolve of the fingers of foreign visitors.
With humble pride, Mr. Agha explained how the Kurdish people and BCF have wholeheartedly accepted its role in hosting these guests of multiple faiths and ethnicities. Considering himself a faithful Muslim, he felt a sense of duty within the religion of Islam and a cultural pride to aid the large populations of Yazidis, Christians, Jews, and Muslims that have been displaced by Daesh from both Syria and Iraq; however, he reiterated an unexpected point about the importance of also accepting the “conservative Muslims.”
When Mosul was taken by Daesh in 2014, most of the fleeing half million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the area were either Christians, Yazidis, or Shia Muslims. The city was left with mostly Sunni Arab Muslims who were accused by some to be complicit in Daesh’s more than two-year long rule. So, when the Iraqi coalition offensive in Mosul began in 2016, politicians, citizens, and organizations alike were concerned about the safety of Daesh members, or certainly, Daesh-friendly individuals would be among the anticipated displaced. Naturally, this has translated to concern of the local population. I would hear some claim uniformly that they are Daesh. It was a grave and consequential charge.
Regional Challenges of the Displaced
BCF and other organizations push through to the realities on the ground. Since Mosul’s liberation has progressed, tens of thousands of people who lived under Daesh for two years fled into Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr. Agha explained that even if some of these people are sympathetic to Daesh’s cause, Daesh’s warped ideology existed before Daesh and would exist after Daesh, and that the solution is to embrace them rather than push them further into despair. Otherwise, they would only come back in revenge under some other four-letter acronym.
Mr. Agha further laid out the challenges of both his organization and the Kurdistan Region itself. Through my translator he said, “No country would be able to cope nor would be willing to accept the nearly 1.8 million displaced people now living in the Kurdistan Region.” Truly, the 55 camps spread throughout Kurdistan is no small deed. The distressed central government of Iraq and the fall of Mosul plus the sudden dramatic increase of population has put Kurdistan into a financial crisis. Though most agree, including the President of the Dohuk Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Ayad H. Abdulhalim, that Kurdistan has reached a bottom, Daesh is within its last breaths in Iraq, and the liberation of Mosul and the resumption of its utility services is expected to eventually lead to the return of valued commerce between the city and the rest of Kurdistan.
Dr. Ali Sindi, Minister of Planning and Minister of Trade of the KRG echoed the concern of Mr. Agha that the opportunities of Kurdistan are largely unknown by the West. Prior to the region’s struggles with the Central Government of Iraq and the country’s invasion by Daesh, Kurdistan enjoyed an economic boom which is expected to return once those problems subside. Combine the breathtaking views of fertile land with the rich culture of the Kurds and the area is ripe for development in industrial agriculture and tourism. Indeed, the region is inhabited by a sophisticated consumer class welcoming to modern products and services.
The large displaced population now within the Kurdish Region of Iraq is not expected to go away any time soon. The region is still in need of outside help. Non-governmental organizations like the United Nations, Red Crescent, Islamic Relief and others clearly contribute. The common criticism of the U.N. and other bloated NGOs is the significant amount of red tape and administrative costs that go into implementation of the program. As news fades to coverage about the Trump White House and away from the humanitarian plight of refugees and IDPs, so does funding and effort from the U.N. and other NGOs. When funding is curtailed, local organizations must fill the gaps. This is a heavy strain on an already depressed region, despite the safety and political stability.
Arriving to Chamakor Camp
As we drove into the camp, we stopped in front of another fenced gate around the administration sector. Crowded along the fence were residents holding the rails of the fence waiting for relief and aid from the camp’s administrators. A quick, friendly honk disbursed them quickly allowing our vehicle to enter. We were greeted by the manager of Chamakor Camp, Mr. Dedawan Idrees Othman, who brought us inside one of the six office trailers to learn some background on the camp.
Chamakor Camp received its first residents on March 6, 2017. Not even two months old, the camp was nearing capacity due to limited resources. The residents were mostly from Western Mosul—the same people who were accused of being cooperative, at least in the beginning, with Daesh. It is hard for me to comprehend that after two years of Daesh occupation they have even an ounce of support for their former occupiers. It is clear that the residents would rather live in Chamakor Camp, an underfunded and undersupplied IDP camp than in the authoritarian and brutal conditions of Daesh occupied Mosul. Despite its location and physical appearance, the camp is a place of hope for these people who came from a land of despair.
Dedawan explained that the camp is divided into six sectors. Each sector had approximately twenty to thirty communities, and each community has sixteen tents, four bathrooms, four showers, and one kitchen area (which had yet to arrive from the U.N.). Tents are fitted for sixteen individuals. At the time of my visit, despite being two months old, the camp officials did not yet have a complete census, but they estimated about 2,200 families making up approximately 11,500 individuals and growing with new arrivals by birth or by war. In comparison, it is a relatively small camp compared to some of the neighboring camps that are already two years old. Outside the living areas, the camp has designated areas for a school, a clinic, and other NGO areas, including one dedicated just for legal logistics such as death and birth certificates; however, no telling when those will be setup, if ever.
The level of organization and logistics that went into making the camp seemingly turn-key came from decades of UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) experience and guidelines. Though NGO aid is essential in the construction and administration of these camps, the BCF manager of Chamakor Camp was conflicted in explaining that the NGO’s themselves come with some substantial shortcomings. For example, if a truckload of IDPs were to arrive at their camp after dark, there is little camp administrators can do to process them. He explained that even in fully-funded camps, NGO workers do not work after dark due to safety concerns, leaving many camps without some essential personnel and services such as emergency healthcare, reception of new families, and other basic needs. NGO budgets are routinely cut leaving shipments of supplies enough for only a portion of the camp. Imagine the logistical and social challenges of having to distribute blankets to only half of the residents.
We were led into a BCF vehicle (despite the suggestion otherwise for me to use the protocol car) to drive into the camp. Though the camp was surrounded by green rolling hills, within the camp the ground is spread with white gravel. The grounds were crowded with people that would look like they were in a stroll in the park in another circumstance. Most of them were children. They seemed bored, yet apparently, healthy. Health and safety have a different meaning here as the mother of the malnourished infant would soon make clear.
The mother’s tent was our first stop. We took off our shoes and sat down in what I would consider a pretty sizable tent for a family of five, though it is set up for sixteen. A thin rug was laid across the floor, and on the side, were foam mattresses stacked to the ceiling of the tent. A young teenage boy joined us with the mother. He was a neighbor to the family when they lived in Mosul. The camp manager encouraged me to ask questions. I had many, but I only asked a few. Even now, it is difficult to share her answers, and we really did not need to know the details of her story to understand that she has struggled. The mother and her family lived for two years under the fist of Daesh. Her youngest child was evidence enough to understand. She had lived in Western Mosul and had only been able to flee the area two months prior. Yet, when I asked what her needs and wants are from the camp, her response required no translation. “Alhamdulillah,” she said. “Praise to God,” a phrase, a Muslim says when he or she wants to show gratitude and praise to God. It was a word of contentment and tranquility that was humbling under those circumstances. Just moments before, I lamented the discomfort of having to sit on the hard floor—that feeling was quickly made insignificant.
Each moment after that was just as remarkable. In one tent, we found a boy suffering from what I believe was a thyroid disorder. His skin was dry and scaled, and his face was swollen. Oddly, he had that same blank stare as the infant. The boy had been without his regular medicine and treatment for the last two years, and his family was still seeking it. The mobile medical clinic that I later found parked at the entrance of the camp did not carry the unique medication. After a few minutes, the tent became packed with aunts, uncles, and children all of whom had crumb-laced mouths and half eaten bags of chips. The boy’s uncle explained that without treatment, the boy’s condition had become very poor. He spends most of his time within the tent because he becomes very irritable and unpredictable outside. Even simple actions like walking along with others was more than he could tolerate. When asked how old he is, he responded that he was ten, not knowing he was actually fifteen years old.
Yet, the camp was not without joy. Mahro’s finger was accidentally bitten while he gave out candy to an overexcited group of children. Some other children were playing soccer, and an old man was selling familiar bagged chips on a towel he had laid out on the gravel ground. I tried not to show it, but I seemed to be the saddest one there; I felt overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, but it is selfish to make this about what I feel. For the refugees, IDPs, workers, and volunteers, this is life for them. Alhamdulillah.
Displaced Welcoming the Displaced
It is not surprising to me that the Kurds have been so welcoming, despite the economic, cultural, and security risk it poses. After all, most of them were refugees at one time. My own daughter is the result of a successful refugee placement. As a child, my wife left Kurdistan, Iraq, and travelled to El Cajon, California, where we would meet years later. Many Kurdish refugees have returned home, even after more than twenty years since they left. Like the former Kurdish refugees, the children I saw, the mothers, fathers, uncles, and neighbors all have dreams and aspirations to better their conditions. For most, the refugee camps are merely a checkpoint to something better, God-willing. As we reflect on the blessings of our own conditions and the struggled conditions of others, we have tangible opportunities to help others and better ourselves by supporting the organizations that provide aid and hope to these people in need.
How You Can Help
There are plenty of organizations that help. In fact, there are great organizations that do what most of us are not able to do. BCF is one of those great organizations. For those who have worked with NGOs worldwide know very well the challenges of collecting donations from the U.S. and getting it to those in need. BCF has yet to develop the infrastructure to navigate the administrative tape to seamlessly help the camps' residents. There is still a way to contribute to them and if you are interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is still a way to help the displaced. Amaanah Refugee Services is a local organization that provides support for resettled refugees that typically lose any kind of federal support six months after their arrival. Refugees who often do not speak the language or are not familiar with the culture are not left to fend for themselves and their families at the hand of Amannah.
Amaanah's focus is children and women within the displaced community. Their tenants are transparency and tenancy while establishing long-term support programs that assist in areas including housing, employment, transportation, language development, and social wellbeing.
It is private non-profits and NGOs like Amaanah that support the political will of nations to protect, aid, and provide asylum for the displaced across the world. Amaanah is one of those cogs in the machine. When I went to Kurdistan, the land of people who have been displaced and now are hosting them, that I had to see first hand the camp.
The humbling experience would compel anyone to have fleeting thoughts of devoting your entire life to those in need. In an attempt to touch that fantasy even for a moment, I would kindly request a small donation to an efficient, transparent, and effective tax-exempt charity. Make your donation here.