HELPING THE REFUGEES WHO HAVE ESCAPED FROM ISIS
30th November 2016
I have just returned from ten days visiting the camps outside Erbil, fifty miles from Mosul, in Kurdistan. I left high school in London this summer, and wanted to do something to help. It’s difficult to express the emotions I felt as I went into the camps; I knew that the conditions in the camps were bad, but what I saw was unimaginable and inhumane. Kids walking around with no shoes on with dirty plasters on their feet from injuries caused by running in the burning dirt all day. Adults wearing clothing with rips in them from having to do heavy manual labour in order to get some form of money. It’s incredible that many of them have been able to survive in such conditions for three years or more.
Kurdistan is a small country, with a population of about 8.5m people, and is about half the size of Scotland. It is already hosting 1.5m refugees, approximately one eighth of the population of London. That’s hundreds of thousands of children, parents, sisters or brothers, uncles and aunts, grandparents. To understand the full scale of the crisis one must think about them as individuals, not just as numbers. If the UK were to take in the same proportion of refugees, we would be receiving 13m people. So far we have taken 1,300 Syrian refugees.
There are over 50 camps in Kurdistan, with refugees from both Iraq and Syria. Each camp is self-administering, but with aid mostly channeled through UNICEF. Some that I saw are very basic, isolated and strung out on the plains, and probably very bleak in winter. In the desert it drops to below freezing in the evenings, as a result many of the camp dwellers get hypothermia and frostbite. The most recently established camps have concrete bases upon which tents are pitched, with shared toilets and cooking huts, however this requires a lot of funding from both charities and the refugees themselves. The camps that were set up two or more years ago have very small breezeblock houses, and a few shops. Everything, everything, is in short supply. Many of the adults cannot get jobs, as it is both difficult and expensive to get into the city; many of the camps more than an hour car ride from the outskirts of Erbil.
What is amazing is the hope that the refugees have, and how quickly they start to rebuild their lives. They do not know if they will ever return to their homes, most of which have been destroyed by ISIS: having suffered under ISIS, they do know they never want to see that force of evil again. I could see how as soon as they have enough food, and the most basic clothing, every effort goes to getting the children educated. I was amazed to see so many children running around barefoot, but also not in school. Most of the schools in the camps can only have the capacity to teach half of the children, meaning many lack any form of education. However, despite all of these hardships, the children contain a spark within them. They don’t seem hurt or depressed by the cruel living standards in the camps; instead they miraculously try to make the best of a dire situation.
I learned three things are important: first is getting the right things for the refugees so they can gain a sense of self respect, have medical treatment, and look after their children. Second is getting both donations and material aid at the lowest cost, not using money for expensive administration. Third is getting the right things to the right people.
Through Goods for (Good Global), I met Bring Hope, a partner charity set up by Mariwan Baker, a Swede brought up in Iraq and who began his life as a refugee with the Iraq/Iran war. Mariwan knows the heads of the camps, and knows what is needed where and when. He informs Goods for Good (Global) what is needed, then together they truck containers that have an approximate transport cost of £6,500 per container through Europe and Turkey, which take about nine days to get to Erbil. In Erbil there are two warehouses, one for refrigerated medicine and the other for the rest. It is not just clothing that is needed, but simple toys, shoes, walking sticks, spectacles, backpacks, bedding, and even recycled insulation material (concrete gets cold in winter).
Mariwan realized that football is something that every kid loves, and it brings together communities, as the tensest camps are those with people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. A large UK sports company has been a big donor, and I saw two footballs teams of young players so happy to receive new boots, that were sent to Iraq by Goods for Good.
My time in Erbil has changed me, and everything Goods for Good can ship out to Erbil just transforms the lives of people who have suffered so much. And this is before the anticipated humanitarian crisis in Mosul begins. The maximum occupancy of the refugee camps built around Mosul is 250,000. However, UNICEF expects around 1 to 1.5 million refugees from Mosul, which is way over capacity. Most of them will be running from ISIS with only the clothes on their backs, which will most likely be filthy, ragged and ruined by the harsh desert conditions that they would’ve had to walk through to get to safety. Even one jacket, one fleece top, one, one blanket, one tracksuit can make the difference between life and death in such harsh and depressing conditions. With your help and donations, these poor families can get back some of their dignity and have a better chance of surviving the winter.
Gap Year Intern at Goods for Good