Displaced by Conflict in Iraq: "How Can You Live in Such a Place?"

Gabrielle Klein/MSF

Back home in the small town of Khanasur, in norther Iraq, Suleiman taught English and Arabic. Thanks to his efforts, all his children can proudly rattle off the different parts of the body in English. However, since he and his family fled conflict in Sinjar in August, he’s had no choice but to suspend the lessons.

Suleiman and his family found shelter in an unfinished mosque on the outskirts of Zakho, a town hosting one of the highest concentrations of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Northern Dohuk governorate. Every day the owner of the mosque comes by to ask the 70-odd people squatting in the building to leave. “It is his mosque, he says,” explains Suleiman. “He paid a lot of money for it and wants to see it finished, but so far we have had nowhere else to go.”

From One Crisis to Another

In his flight, Suleiman lost more than his belongings—he lost his identity. “I cannot teach in this environment. Look at this,” he says, gesturing to the wide space partitioned with sheets of cardboard to allow for some privacy. “There is too much noise here . . . How can you learn in such a place? How can you live in such a place?”

The fact that it is now winter makes it even harder. “We have been promised heaters soon by an NGO [non-governmental organization], but we might be moved into a camp before they materialize,” he says. He has been told that they will be moving to Berseve, one of 10 tented facilities that were set up in the area.

People in Northern Dohuk have mixed feelings about the camps, and some have been protesting that the conditions in some structures are very poor. The main complaints include tents flooding when it rains, cramped living spaces, and a lack of services. “There is no happiness here, but maybe, when we have a tent, I will be able to start teaching again,” says Suleiman.

Nowhere Left to Go

The camps have filled up quickly in Dohuk governorate, with priority being given to the relocation of those people currently living in school buildings, so that classes can finally resume. By the end of December, all 160,000 spaces in camps had been assigned. However, many of the hundreds of thousands people who have sought refuge in Dohuk still face winter living in unfinished buildings in remote outskirts of urban areas.

“There has been pressure for us to run health clinics in the camps,” says Sita Cacioppe, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical team leader in Dohuk. “But as long as a large number of IDPs are still living in precarious conditions in makeshift accommodations, we will be running mobile clinics to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable.”

MSF recently finished carrying out an epidemiological study in Dohuk to assess the needs of IDPs and the humanitarian response so far. “Respiratory infections are on the rise on account of the cold winter and poor living conditions,” Cacioppe adds. “Many people are still scattered across a wide area; they will be receiving increasingly less support particularly now that most of the NGOs are busy running activities inside the camps.”

Working Together

Khadr, a 54-year-old nurse who works as a health promoter with MSF, lives with 6,000 other displaced people in Dabin city, a government-owned property near Zakho. Here, just past the city’s last checkpoint, a dozen buildings, nothing more than multi-story cement skeletons, stand in the middle of green fields. Unlike privately owned properties like the mosque where Suleiman and his family live, here there is no pressure from owners to move the squatters out, so residents are resigned to living through a very cold winter.

Khadr, who is originally from Sinjar, fled through the mountains when the Islamic State forces took over the city. “My colleague and I managed to carry with us a cool box with medications up the mountains, so we were able to treat some of the emergencies that occurred during that traumatic time,” he remembers.

The dreadful journey that took them across Syria and into the relative safety of Kurdistan lasted over a week. “When we finally settled in these unfinished buildings, people were exhausted and in need of everything,” Khadr says. “My friend and I set out to find work in the health service, and we volunteered in a local health care center 30 minutes away from where we live.” For months, Khadr and his friend worked for free, treating up to 400 fellow IDPs a day and occasionally bringing medicines to those in need who could not reach the clinic.

“One day MSF came round, and I learned they would open a primary health center in our area,” says Khadr. “I had worked for many years as a health promoter in schools, so I had a clear idea of what the job involved. I was also very impressed by their charter. Now I have a job and I feel I am doing something useful for my community.”

Khadr recently distributed MSF hygiene kits to the other residents in his building. He describes the uncertain life they face: “The stairways have no railings and you live in fear that at night your child will fall off anytime. There is no electricity, no windows, no running water, and some people have to walk up and down several flights of stairs to get to their quarters. People have nothing, but they told me that just knowing that someone in this world was willing to take care of them was a great source of comfort.”

Thousands of IDPs seeking refuge in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq have now settled in Dohuk governorate, where four MSF teams are providing care for the most vulnerable people. Mobile clinics in Dohuk and Zakho respond to the needs of an estimated 20,000 people still living outside the camps in unfinished buildings and informal settlements. Each team is composed of doctors, nurses, and mental health specialists who provide general medical consultations, reproductive health care, and chronic disease and mental health services.

MSF was among the first international organizations to provide emergency support to people fleeing violence in Sinjar in June 2014. Since then, 24,189 consultations have been carried out in response to the crisis.

Suleiman fled Sinjar with his family in August, leaving behind his belongings and part of his identity. "I am living in this mosque which is under construction with 70 other people. It is freezing cold and extremely humid."
Gabrielle Klein/MSF