I have been visiting the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq for 7 years now. Married to a Kurd, it’s a necessary, albeit rather dangerous and adventurous part of our family life. We take an annual trip there, which usually involves months of preparations, consular advice, vaccines, and a suitcase full of meds “just in case”.
In April 2014, on the drive up to the family village, we noticed a huge refugee camp had sprung up in Arbat, known locally as Scorpion Town due to the hundreds of thousands of deadly scorpions that live there. We’ve never stopped there before for that very reason!
We asked our driver to pull over, so we could have a better look at the camp, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. Row upon row of white UNHCR tents, as far as you could see, a tall barbed wire fence keeping the refugees in, armed guards every few meters, and grubby, tiny, children playing in the dust.. I’ve lived a very comfortable life here in the UK, and even though visiting family in Iraq is a bit of a culture shock, it was nothing like seeing this huge camp.
We were very fortunate that the guard in charge of the camp was a relative and was delighted that “The Westerners” were wanting to visit and have a look around.
The camp was hot, dusty and smelly, as you would expect. The sanitation was horrendous, we had to step over rivers of sewage flowing between tents. This was the best they could do, the overly stretched camp director told us sadly. “They don’t mind really, they never complain, they know they are safe, they are just waiting to go back home”.
We were followed around by groups of kids, some of whom were too young to remember a life outside the camp, they had no television or internet and so the sight of strange, white people was quite a talking point.
On our first visit , there were around 3,500 refugees, Syrian Kurds, who make up around 15% of Syria’s population, who had fled the fighting. There was one part time Doctor’s clinic (tent). There was a school, which consisted of a few big tents under a makeshift barn-type structure. The tents had no heating or cooling (bear in mind in the winter the temperatures gets as low as -15, and in summer can reach 50 degrees). These people had the clothes they stood up in, a few blankets to sleep on, and some pots and pans. None of them wanted to be there, and none of them wanted anything else but to go home. No-one wanted to come to Europe, no one even knew what a benefit system was, never mind planning to milk it. They were trapped inside the camp, no one was allowed in or out, except for emergency medical care. Despite having had houses, job, cars, normal lives back home, they were now treated a prisoners.
We came back determined to help out in whatever way we could and started to fundraise, via family, friends and our business. The issue of refugees was by now being highlighted all over western media and thankfully, lots of people wanted to help out. We collected clothes, toiletries and medicines and managed a huge truckload of items which we arranged to be driven to the camp. We then did further fundraising and managed to buy every child a winter coat. My brother in law who helped distribute them said he had never felt so humbled. The children patiently waiting in line for their coats, the mothers weeping with gratitude, the fathers weeping with shame at not being able to provide basic warmth for their children.
In April this year, we again set off to visit the camp. My whole outlook had changed since my last visit. I had become, sadly, acutely aware of the racism and hatred that was emerging towards refugees. The constant media coverage of hordes of rampaging, raping, refugees, the hidden Isis members, the benefit seekers and the job stealers, none of it remotely accurate, I knew. I was on a personal mission, supported by, thankfully, a lot of like-minded folk, to educate people and set the record straight. Refugees were people, humans, just like me. They’d just ended up in a crappy situation.
There are 5million registered Syrian refugees, of which 2.5 million are children. That’s more than the populations of Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Cardiff put together, just kids. Those figures are astounding, and should make every stop and think. They are most certainly not “all young males” as mass media would have you believe. They are also the kindest, most gentle people. Never once, on wither visit, did I feel uncomfortable or threatened, I had my young children with me who were free to wander round the camp, who joined in an impromptu game of football, regardless of the language barrier.
In 2014, the Arbat camp housed. It was meant to be a temporary camp, set up in 2013, but sadly, on our last visit this month, 3 years on, the camp has now grown and extended to three separate camps.
The camp we visited this year at least had people housed in shelters, not tents, which could be heated in winter and were waterproof and windproof. However, sadly, the population had now doubled to almost 7,500. The realisation that these camps weren’t temporary had clearly sunk in.
The conditions have improved slightly, with the accommodation and sanitation, however, the food shortages were a real problem. We arrived when the food rations were being handed out. There wasn’t enough to go round. I asked the lovely camp director, a tiny slip of a woman, who was clearly utterly respected and revered by the refugees in the camp, what about those families who didn’t get anything? “They queue until tomorrow”. Simple, yet heart breaking.
We visited the school and were so warmly welcomed by all the children and the teachers (all volunteers, refugees in the camp themselves), they were fascinated to know where we had come from, why we there. We met with the director of the school, a Kurd who was employed by UNCHR to lead the school. Still turning up for work everyday from 6am until 6pm, despite all government employee wages in Kurdistan having been stopped for 5 months due to the funding being reallocated to the fight against Isis.
“The children come, every day. Except for washday. They have one set of clothes, for sleeping, for daytime, for winter and summer. They wash them once a week, They can’t come to school that day. They cry, because they love the school. They can forget about where they are, they learn about other lands, about other cultures, they want to travel, they dream about what job they will do. Some of them have been born in the camp, they don’t know anything about the world. Some of them have never been to a shop, never been to a park, never been in a car. They are hungry, and we cannot keep them from falling asleep. They come all day and we only have water to give them for lunch. Some of the children don’t speak. They have seen too much. Children shouldn’t see those things. We try out best, but we aren’t professionals, they need real help some of them. Every night I go home and I cry for them.”
There is so much these people need, as the school director said, of course, they need the war to stop, and they need to go back home, but what they also don’t need is to be vilified, to be labelled, to be feared.
They are people, they hurt, they get sick, they get traumatised, they need our help and understanding. These words are the real refugee crisis, the hatred spread by Britain First, EDL, The Daily Mail and of course my personal favourites Refugees Not Welcome In Devon, are not.