Home is behind them and they have no way of knowing when they will return. War continues in Syria – to go back is to put oneself in danger again. Life may be hard in the Domiz Camp, but at least the refugees feel safe.
Ramadhan, my young guide and translator, is just one of the many people who belong to sundered families. While he and two sisters are in Kurdistan, his mother and father, along with a younger sister and brother, remain in Syria where the parents are professionals working for the government. Whether they support the Assad regime or are just afraid to leave, I don’t know. Ramadhan the teenage boy must learn the new normal – a world without parents in a camp radically different from the middle class home he grew up in.
Though the camp is officially a refugee camp, the United Nations has seen situations like this before. They know that the longer people live in the camp, the more they will want to make it home-like. To keep living in small tents with poor sanitation, muddy streets and no jobs, refugees can become restive. People need a sense of permanence and security. They want to be surrounded by familiar things. As I watched new arrivals walk through the gate, I also saw veteran refugees adapting to a new world. One family planted something green in front of their shelter trying to make things more normal.
The German hospital does a great job caring for new arrivals, but they will be packing up to go home in December. Doctors Without Borders will be here a lot longer, but sooner or later, there will have to be local medical facilities with local practitioners. Health care must be a part of the new normal – a normal where common childhood runny noses are treated before they develop into worse diseases.
The only dental care in the camp is provided by a rolling clinic donated by the Korean government, funded by the United Nations and staffed by volunteer dentists from Germany, supported by local Kurdish technicians and translators. As expected, the dentists do extractions, but they will do fillings and other necessary care on a case-by-case basis.
All cultures have a spiritual component to their view of normal. For most Kurds, that means practicing their Muslim faith. (There are some Christian Kurds. There is a large church in Dohuk.) An imam – himself a refugee – set up a temporary mosque in a tent. Friday is the Muslim day of prayer and I was very welcome and I could take all the photos I desired. The men gathered to say their prayers (women have a separate time) as per the norm back home. The new normal may dictate a tent, but at least it is a form of normal. The crowd overflowed the improvised mosque, but another prayer rug was laid outside and the late comers could add their devotions.
The new normal also means passing on beloved Islamic rituals to sons, just as they would have done back in Syria. The few boys in the mosque seemed a bit confused, but they will be the first to get accustomed to the new normal.
What is more normal than kids going to school? Harikar, a Japanese non-government organization, donated the funds to have UNICEF erect modular buildings. The refugees themselves provided the teachers and the Kurdistan government provided some funds for books, pencils and other study material. Only in operation for three weeks, the place is still chaotic. One teacher explained that not a few kids were having mental problems adjusting to their new surroundings and feeling insecure. For now, only the first eight grades are in session. A high school is planned for some time in the future. In the meantime, teenage boys wander the camp, bored, restless and a potential problem. The girls stay home, closely watched by their families.
In an earlier post, I mentioned that “shopping” in the usual sense of picking over the food you buy and comparing one product against another is not something done in the camp – you take the bag of rice or flour given you, and carry it back to your tent. But the new normal can mean shopping the old way as entrepreneurs open little stores in their tents and shacks. Fresh fruit and vegetables can now be a part of the family diet – provided you have the dinar (Iraqi currency) to buy them.
Normal means kids playing together and parents playing with their children. Family love trumps hardship. All the hatred of the civil war cannot destroy the love parents have for their children. If this post had audio, you would hear the child squeal with delight as Dad tossed her in the air.
A kid flying a kite as he runs down the street is normal, even if the street is a dirt track between refugee tents. Normal is kids laughing. Normal is dad peeking over my shoulder to see a picture of his son. Normal is a kid showing off as he repeats his run over and over until he is panting.
Day ends in the Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Sunset is the normal thing to happen at the end of the day, even if it sets on uprooted people trying to figure out how to reshape their lives.