Karen Dabrowska

Middle East Eye Article

Originally published: 28th May 2015

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Abandoned chicken farm in Kurdistan is home to Iraq’s newest refugees

Some 850,000 war-displaced Iraqis have fled to the three provinces of Erbil, Dohuk and Suleimaniyah since January 2014

A child sleeps

A child sleeps in an industrial building outside of Erbil where refugees fleeing militants have taken shelter (MEE/Sara Elizabeth Williams)

DEGABA, Iraq - Amina once lived in a villa and surveyed her farm with pride. But for the past three months her home has been a shed on an abandoned chicken farm near Debaga, 30 km southwest of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. At night she spreads her mattress on the concrete floor. Light comes from a torch. The mattress is the only space she can call her own. There is no privacy, not even a blanket to separate her living area from the other families.

The chicken farm is surrounded by lush green fields accessible by a rough road. Forty-seven families live in the middle of nowhere about five miles from the town of Debaga. There is only one toilet but nowhere to wash. A single water tank provides water that soon runs out, causing hygiene problems. The hellishly hot Kurdish summer, when temperatures can reach 50 degrees, is fast approaching and a water crisis seems inevitable. There are no medical facilities.

Amina, a proud, well-built, eloquent woman, has not lost hope. She was able to bring some money with her when she escaped from her village near the frontline. She buys vegetables that are brought to the farm daily by local merchants. When asked about the future she raises her hands and says: “Allahu alam, Allah karim” (God knows, God is kind).

The residents of the chicken farm sometimes sell aid items to buy flour and women’s sanitary items. Bread is baked in the tandoor oven near where they sleep in the dark shed.

1.5m flee violence to Kurdistan

As violence continues to plague Iraq and Syria, the autonomous Kurdish region is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis from the intractable conflict. A haven of peace in a country torn apart by bloodshed, Iraqi Kurdistan is now home to nearly two million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who have no idea when they will be able to return to their homes.

In Dohuk governorate there are nearly as many refugees and IDPs as locals. According to the UN and the Kurdistan Regional Government some 850,000 war-displaced Iraqis have fled to the three provinces of Erbil, Dohuk and Suleimaniyah since January 2014.

The latest waves of IDPs plus some 216,000 Syrian refugees registered by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have been added to the 335,000 people already in Kurdistan prior to 2014 as a result of large population movements.

Mosul is just 88 km away from Erbil and Kurdish peshmerga forces are keeping the Islamic State (IS) group at bay following recent clashes near Gwer, a town 40 km south west of Erbil. Hundreds of residents, like Amina, fled from villages near the frontline.

The chicken farm is one of 11 sites near Debaga where the inhabitants, mostly Sunni Arabs from villages including Makhmur, have taken refuge. The Pir Hedr Mosque in Dabaga is another refugee site housing 250 families (approximately 1,000 people) who fled in January from six villages near the frontline. Fifty Kurdish IDPs from Karach village, some of whom have relatives in the small town, are staying with families and are eager to receive aid when it arrives at the mosque site.

The IDPs have to make do with five showers in the mosque’s bathroom. The intermittent electricity supply makes it difficult to use the water pump to access the water from the tank on the roof of the mosque.

‘God knows about our future’

The Dabaga area has turned into an informal refugee camp. The International Organisation for Migration has provided tents and the IDPs are assisted by the Barzani Foundation and the Emirates Red Crescent.

Major UN charities like UNICEF and UNHCR do not have a budget to assist all of Iraqi Kurdistan’s 1.5 million IDPs and Syrian refugees. This has prompted smaller NGOs, including the Rise Foundation, a charity registered in Kurdistan, to help fill the gap.

Elders from the six villages from which most refugees fled have become leaders and are helping in the organisation of assistance. The Rise Foundation has taken a census of IDPs to identify the most pressing needs. Flour and hygiene packs have been supplied to the 11 sites.

It’s a harsh existence. Employment is not an option as there are few jobs in Degaba and the local residents are afraid that some of the site’s inhabitants could be IS supporters. The Arabic-speaking children are not able to go to local schools, where Kurdish is the medium of instruction, and sorrow is etched on their brave faces. Some manage a smile. Others, curious and forlorn, just gaze at the relief workers.

Aghal Mohammed, one of the village leaders from Makhmur, escaped with seven members of his family. “God knows about our future - we were helped by the peshmerga; they are our leaders and our brothers. We are in a very difficult situation but we help each other.”

Tensions and misunderstandings are inevitable. Six families from different villages share a single tent where people of all ages are thrown together. They have no idea when they will be able to return home or what tomorrow will bring. More IDPs are expected when the much-anticipated battle to oust IS from Mosul begins.

‘We need everything’

Kak Abd al-Qalak, the manager of the Makhoor Medical Centre in Dabaga, is dismayed almost all the medicine has run out. He raises his hands and says in an emphatic tone: “We need everything.” Most of his patients are woman. Skin allergies caused by overcrowding and lack of washing facilities are a growing problem.

The governor of Debaga, Kak Tola, a friendly engaging man with a radiant smile, welcomes aid workers from the Rise Foundation, hopeful that the UAE will provide funds for an IDP camp.

Debaga, like the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been affected by budget cut payments from Baghdad. After months of a dispute over the semi-autonomous region’s plans to export oil through Turkey, Baghdad resumed payments. The enclave’s revenues have been badly strained by the cost of fighting IS as the sheer number of displaced people and the speed at which they arrived in 2014 put an unbearable strain on public services.

But even when aid arrives, the region’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy sometimes stops it from reaching those most in need.

At the end of March, the Kurdish Aid Foundation brought six doctors’ medical packs, each containing 70 basic medicines, to Erbil, and arranged with the Rise Foundation to deliver them to the Makhoor Medical Centre. The medicines never left the airport as the Ministry of Health demanded a certificate of origin and a certificate of analysis for each drug and refused to accept documentation from the donor, International Health Partners, saying that the packs conformed to EU standards.