Ahmed remembers the day he grabbed his kalashnikov and took up a defensive position as ISIS combatants approached his village. As a former soldier, it was instinctual. Ahmed, along with a few of his neighbors, sent the women and children to safety and then turned to make one final stand to save his home and his life.
ISIS attackers were armed with heavy military machinery while Ahmed and the village defenders had hunting rifles and a few machine guns. Despite this, they managed to hold off the militants for three hours, but eventually began to lose ground.
Decision time came quickly. The men weighed whether they would stay, fight and (most likely) be massacred, or retreat and lead the women and children to safety. The men chose the second option and they hastily escaped with their families. ISIS gained more territory and Ahmed and the rest of his village became refugees.
In the beginning, Ahmed thought he would be away from home for just a few months. He was certain that the Islamists would not be able to hold on to their newly-acquired territory. Because Ahmed was a man of means, his family’s first few months as refugees were spent in a hotel. As ISIS held their position longer, however, Ahmed’s funds ran out and the family was forced onto the street. At first, they camped and hid out in the forests of northern Iraq.
Then winter came.
Ahmed and his family decided they must move to a refugee camp. They found their way to Dawdia refugee camp in Iraq’s semi-autonomous region, known as Kurdistan. He and his family continue to live there to this day and Ahmed works repairing oil stoves, which are indispensable for surviving winter in Iraq.
On the Edge
In recent months, there has been a rise of nativist rhetoric around the globe, with individuals and governments voicing strong opposition to immigration. Some have claimed that people in the Middle East do not want to fight ISIS, that people fleeing are only doing so for economic gain, or even that they shouldn’t be granted asylum because they are likely terrorists. These statements are not true.
Ahmed, like the other 5,000 refugees living in the Dawdia refugee camp, does not want to go to Europe. He wants the senseless violence to end so that he can return back to his home as soon as possible.
However, for those in bleak refugee camps, living indefinitely in a temporary shelter takes its toll and makes it difficult to remain optimistic. The longer the conflict drags on, the more their collective future looks uncertain. The dangerous, expensive, and illegal trip to Europe only becomes a serious consideration once a refugee’s situation becomes truly desperate. The decision to wait out the conflict at a camp or flee to Europe is heavily influenced by the living conditions of the camp itself.
A visit to the Dawdia refugee camp makes clear that the people who live there are strong and resilient. Conditions are hard. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire and the muddy ground is littered with white canvas tents–the predominate form of housing. Clothes lines hang between tents, draped with linens, clothes, and undergarments—privacy is a luxury not afforded to those living in the camp. Small, improvised concrete bread-baking stoves are scattered along the narrow pathways and makeshift thoroughfares of Dawdia—a sign that life, although difficult beyond comprehension, carries on.
At the entrance of the camp is a small market which should provide economic opportunity and access to more nutritious food for refugees. Unfortunately, the market is not much of a resource as little trading is done there. Dawdia is located in the mountains, isolated from larger communities. The only settlements near the camp are small villages where there are few opportunities to trade.
Many people living at the camp lack the most basic necessities, those which are often taken for granted in our country. During winter, the conditions at the camp become more brutal, as snow falls regularly and the temperature, at times, drops into the single digits. Many families do not have the means to heat their tents. Schools lack basic teaching materials, and students are forced to sit on the ground due to a lack of desks. This year, food packages failed to arrive and so people had to go without flour, the basic ingredient for their life-sustaining bread. Families had to survive on scant rations of rice, beans, and oil.
Together and Free
We at Diaconia ECCB—CRD have decided to focus our efforts on serving those in need at the Dawdia refugee camp. We firmly believe that all people should be cared for and served and are inspired by the fact that all people fleeing ISIS, regardless of their race, nationality, or religion are welcome at the camp. Unfortunately, the open nature of Dawdia refugee camp is rare. Typically, camps are divided by race and religion: Christian monasteries open their doors to Christians, while other refugee camps accept only other Arabs. The multi-cultural atmosphere of Dawdia, however, harkens back to Iraqi and Syrian societies of more peaceful times: Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims living together as neighbors and friends.
More information on this project will be forthcoming throughout the year. If you would like to learn more or help us provide for the families residing in the Dawdia camp, please visit our website at www.diaconiacrd.org, or write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Field story and pictures from Elias Molnar.