Newarrivals are a constant occurrence at the Domiz Refugee Camp. Tired, frightened and totally unsure what to expect when they arrive at the camp, they straggle in with their meager possessions and tired children. The dirt from her travels still caked on her face, this mother, along with her three children and husband, braved the dangers of the trip not for freedom, but for safety. Her husband lost his father, a brother and an uncle in the fighting, and he decided his family’s safety was more important than protecting their home.
(As always, please click on each photo to see it full size.)
Within sight of the border, a small Syrian village is the focal point of the exodus. Evacuees stay there one night while they find a guide to assist them. The guides are smugglers – Syrians who bring cigarettes into Syria, then extort payment from the evacuees to guide them through mountain paths as a way of avoiding marauding bands of Syrian militia. The going rate is 25,000 Syrian pounds (about $355).
For some, the crossing was harder than for others. Though the back of the wheelchair is broken, his children and grandchildren willingly carried and dragged him across the border. His left arm totally immobile and his legs useless, he is still the patriarch of the family and gets his due respect.
Once residents of comfortable apartments or houses, most of the refugees are city dwellers used to running water, flush toilets, televisions and kitchens. Their new home is a tent of dubious size. Now they lay their head down to sleep while listening to the squalling of a neighbor’s child, smelling the odor of the community toilet only meters away and trying to figure out how to cook something tasty from the rations of rice, beans and other simple commodities.
And some of them have been doing this for six months – half a year of ducking their head to get into their home, of leaving their mud-caked shoes outside and trying to cope with constant bouts of diarrhea caused by the unsanitary conditions. This is home now, not the comfortable place back in Syria.
Yet, for all the hardship, the Kurdish people smile. The women struggle to make the tent a home. The men try to protect their families by working in the community. There is no shortage of volunteers to help distribute the new water filters and train the people in using them. These are a hardy people.
Hardy though they may be, the fact of living in a tent city takes a lot of adjustment. Most Kurds are Muslim, with widely varying ways of practicing their faith. Some are very traditional and others very modern. This woman needed to see how to operate and clean her new water filter, but she was not used to being seen by males other than her husband, father or her own children. With great unease, she peered out of the tent flap to see, yet nervous about the strange men teaching her.
Nearby is a pregnant woman who is not quite as traditional in her dress, but insists on her face being covered as she does her chores. After washing dishes, she scoops the remaining grey water out of the drainage trench at the front flap of her tent, and then empties it into an area between the tents. Though not a sanitation problem, it does keep the area muddy.
Home is where children play. With an average family of seven, there are lots of kids in the camp. Their imaginations find ways to play, even if it is nothing more than tying a string to an old plastic bag and running up and down the street making it “fly.” They laugh, scream, cry and run to mother just like kids anywhere.
In all cultures, it is women who do the food shopping. But there is no “shopping” in the camp. You go to the headquarters building to find your name on the lists. That’s where you’ll find out when and where to go to get sugar or cooking oil or rice or other basic commodity. This isn’t done daily, but rather according to the schedule of the camp authorities. You go get your rice when you are told to get your rice. You don’t examine the bag of beans – you take the bag given you. There is no shopping in this home.
Laundry too is women’s work. You find or buy a plastic tub, get some water and soap and scrub, then go find a handy place to hang your clothes to dry. If a fence topped with barbed wire is nearby, that makes a handy place. No dryers in your home now.
The new home has no flush toilets. The portable toilets are community “squatty potties”, one per four families, and they require you to bring your own water to flush. The diarrhea that ravages many areas of the camp is evident in this photo. It is hard to keep your home sanitary under these conditions.
There are about 30,000 people in the camp at this writing, but rumor has it Turkey has just closed its border to all new refugees and they will therefore come to Iraq. The United Nations forecasts this camp will grow to 42,000 within another month or so.
Both the United Nations and the Kurdistan Regional Government expect those numbers to stay high. In the newer parts of the camp, more permanent structures are going up. Though hardly luxurious and only slightly larger than the tents, the cinder block structures have indoor plumbing with septic tanks, a shower in each home and lockable storage space. As time goes on, the Domiz camp will change from a refugee camp into a settlement camp – a place where home really is the camp.
Like people anywhere, the Kurds of the Domiz Camp want to make their home a better place, but it’s going to be hard.