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She looked exhausted with the dirt on her face from when she slipped in the mud while crossing the border—her baby asleep in her arms. Her two older boys stood quietly beside her as her husband, carrying their fourth child, spoke with officials. After losing his father, a brother and an uncle in the fighting in Syria, he made the decision to escape. His family’s safety was more important than protecting their house in Dargecit, Syria. And so they walked into the Domiz Refugee Camp only an hour before.
Editor’s Note: Progress Times photographer Doug Young writes this story from Kurdistan, Iraq, where refugees are fleeing war-torn Syria, fearing for their lives and their children’s safety. Young is accompanying the Blackstar Group, a Mission, Texas-based company that is currently deployed in Iraq on a humanitarian mission to aid Syrian refugees. This first installment of a two-part series tells the story of the refugees – their condition and where they come from. The next installment will explore the mission of the Blackstar group.
The refugee camp is just outside the city of Dohuk, Kurdistan, which is home to 300,000 Kurdish people, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. Technically part of Iraq, the region is autonomous and known as Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurds are on poor terms with many of the countries where they live today. Turkey is especially hostile to the Kurds, so when the fighting forced the Kurds out of Syria, most opted to flee to the Domiz camp.
Shorash is a mother whose youngest is still in diapers. Allocated two diapers per day by the camp administration, the child often suffers from diarrhea, and he needs upwards of 10 diapers a day, something Shorash cannot always get. The boy is sick because the narrow areas between the rows of tents are cut with rivulets of filthy water; much of it comes from overflowing toilets.
Playing in the dirt is dangerous, and so is the drinking water. The camp provides large water tanks for each family tent and fills them by truck with treated water. Much of it becomes contaminated by poor handling and a lack of sanitation.
The camp struggles to cope with the rapid influx of new arrivals. Operated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Domiz camp sprang out of the dusty desert last March when the government of Iraqi Kurdistan asked for help.
With only 2,000 residents for the first few months, the population exploded since August to its present 30,000 residents. With the recent fighting in towns along the border and the Turkish government’s reticence to accept more refugees, the Domiz camp is forecasted to increase to 42,000 people.
New areas of the camp are being laid out and more aid comes in from the Kurdistan government, the United Nations, other countries and many non-government charitable groups. But the aid provides for mere survival, not for quality of living.
The majority of the Syrian Kurds were city dwellers, living in comfortable apartments or houses with running water, many rooms, televisions, functioning toilets and carpeted floors. Now there is no carpet, only a cloth covering the dirt. There are no rooms within the small tent. The toilet is a community portable “squatty potty,” and each user must bring a bucket of water to flush.
In Syria they did not have to listen to their neighbor’s crying child during the night, nor suffer the smell of the toilet just the other side of the tent flap.
Shopping for groceries is drastically different from the days in the market. Lists of names posted on a wall dictate when and where to pick up the next sack of rice, beans or sugar.
Likewise, laundry is no longer done with a washer and dryer. The women find or buy a tub – if they are not issued one – and then scrub their family’s dirty clothes the old fashioned way. If there is a chain link fence nearby, it becomes the clothes rack for drying, but care must be taken to not tear the cloth on the barbed wire.
Single men are housed in one area of the camp. There is no corresponding section for single women because they remain with their families until married. The young men are housed four to a tent and most came to Kurdistan to escape the Syrian army. Some are deserters who would be shot if discovered. Restless and bored, their cooped-up energy is a brewing problem for the camp administration.
Though a Japanese group recently opened a school, it cannot handle even a fraction of the children in the camp.
But, if “home” is described by the signs of where children play, then they have found home in the camp. Laughing, screaming and running to their mothers as all children do, they invent games and create their own toys. On a recent afternoon, a young girl used an old plastic bag tied to a string and tugged it into the air to fly her “kite.”
A Swiss psychologist working with one of the many charitable groups in the camp believes that most of these children will cope. Problems sometimes arise after children or adults have witnessed gruesome sights during the fighting in Syria. While the doctor indicated most people would be fine, he noted there is a higher risk of those witnesses to incur mental or emotional problems.
Most Kurds are Muslim. Some practice their faith in traditional ways, while others are modern. Many women adhere to the older value, wearing a black chador that covers everything but their face. Others merely wear a headscarf in more modern fashion. Many young women dress as western women do, but however they dress, they usually do so within their own groups and communities.
A woman who is used to only being seen by her husband, father and her children now must peek outside her tent to see how to use and clean a water filter that will keep her children from getting diarrhea. More than just shy, she is mortified to look outside the tent. This would never have happened in Syria.
As the camp expands, more semi-permanent structures are going up in addition to tents. The United Nations predicts refugees will continue to throng there for years to come. If internal strife continues in Syria after the downfall of the current Assad regime, the displaced Kurdish Syrians will remain in the camp even longer.
The Domiz camp is planned to morph into a settlement camp with better housing, better sanitation, better education and better health care. The new cinder block houses are only slightly larger than tents, but they have indoor plumbing that feeds into a septic tank system, and indoor showers and lockable storage rooms.
No one knows for sure when the refugees could be repatriated. In its eight months of existence, there have only been four deaths and no epidemic in the camp. In close quarters, those things can change in a heartbeat.
In the meantime, the tragedy that is Syria today continues, and the border camps of western Kurdistan mirror the human misery the refugees fled. But, there’s safety in numbers for the time being. With outside help turning their direction, the burden can be lightened.
An estimated 120,000 Syrians had registered as refugees as of August 2012, according to Refugees International. And those numbers are swelling each week. Refugee camps have been established in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees website, often these refugees enter the camps with only the clothes on their backs, and are entirely dependent on assistance provided through relief organizations, such as the UN Relief Agency.
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.