On September 30, right before the US government shutdown took place, the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set to expire. EPIC has been working closely with the SIV program since it was instated in 2008. This program granted special immigration status to Iraqis who worked with the United States during the war. This life saving legislation had the potential to be lost among all of the other issues that Congress was tackling prior to the US government shutdown. However, on the night of September 30, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to extend the bill for another three months.
Congress should vote to extend the SIV program again at the end of December. However, the US government needs to take more proactive steps beyond extending the SIV program. At the time of the program’s creation, 25,000 visas were allotted to Iraqi interpreters, contractors, and others who worked with American soldiers. Nevertheless, in the past five years, only 8,000 visas have been approved with approximately 2,000 more awaiting approval, as applicants face a waiting period of several years.
Due to their previous affiliation with the US these Iraqis face increased danger towards their lives and their families. Moreover, they face decreased job opportunities as resentment towards their former affiliation with the US grows. It is the responsibility of the United States government to honor our obligation to these individuals who aided us. The United States government should work with a renewed fervor and commitment to helping these Iraqis obtain their visas to the United States. Rhetoric will never be enough to assist the Iraqis who helped us during the war; the government needs to work more efficiently to approve visas for those eligible for the SIV program, rather than leaving their applications pending for months or years on end.
EPIC recently spoke with Kirk Johnson, the founder of the List Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for Iraqis whose lives are in danger because of their work with the United States and are seeking refuge in our country. Look for the next episode of our podcast, Iraq Matters, to listen to our conversation and learn more about the dangers Iraqis face in their country and the obstacles to the SIV program.
While extending the SIV program for three months was a positive step, the U.S. needs to be encouraged to continue this program until we fulfill our promise of 25,000 visas, and to put forth more effort to approve visas more quickly for Iraqis seeking refuge in the United States. President Obama must put more pressure on the agencies which hand out visas. At the current rate, it would take 17 more years to hand out the allotted 25,000 visas. If you have not yet done so, please take the time to sign EPIC’s petition urging the Obama administration to put Iraq back on the agenda.
A recent UN report released on November 29, 2013, revealed that over half of the 2.2 million Syrian refugees are under the age of eighteen. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warns of the risk of a lost generation of Syrian children, as they face the harrowing effects of the Syrian conflict. These children are suffering psychological traumas and are often living in fractured families or with no families at all. On top of that, many children and youth must work in order to support their families, and countless of them do not have access to education. The largest populations of child refugees are in Jordan and Lebanon, with staggering numbers of 291,238 and 385,007 Syrian children respectively. In Iraq, which has a Syrian refugee population of over 200,000, there are 77,125 child refugees.
One of the biggest problems that they face is a lack of educational opportunities. International aid agencies, in collaboration with the Kurdistan Regional Government, are currently doing everything they can to enroll as many Syrian children in school as possible. In September, UNICEF worked with Iraqi children from the Classical School of the Medes in Sulaymaniyah to raise money through community events to buy school supplies, such as uniforms, books, and backpacks for school children in the Arbat refugee camp. In mid-November, UNICEF, UNESCO, and UNHCR came together to launch the “Back to School” campaign, seeking to create awareness surrounding the importance of a safe and protective learning environment for Syrian refugees in camps.
However, despite efforts such as these, there is still a huge gap in access to education for Syrian children. According to UN estimates, as much as 77% of Syrian school-aged children in Iraq are not enrolled in school. One obstacle that Syrian children face is that they come into Iraq while the school year is already underway, making it difficult for them to enroll. While the Kurdistan Regional Government has asked that all schools in the region allow school-aged refugees to register at any time throughout the year, this does not necessarily mean that these children and youth will enroll. Another challenge that prevents Syrian children from attending school in the Kurdistan Region is the lack of classes instructed in Arabic, leaving few spots compared to the large number of Syrian children. Organizations such as Mercy Corps and Peace Winds Japan have been working to build schools within the camps themselves. However, these schools typically fail to accommodate all of the children living within the camps. Moreover, these schools which have been built are usually primary schools, meaning that youths have little to no opportunities to continue their education.
Despite the efforts of various organizations to provide educational opportunities to Syrian children in youth in Iraq, access to education is still extremely limited. This is a major problem that, when compounded with the psychological trauma and familial losses these children and youth have suffered, has the potential to produce a lost generations of Syrians. While Iraq as a whole has high rates of education and literacy, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the refugee camps in the region simply do not have the resources to cover the large population of Syrian children and youth. To prevent the risk of a lost generation, education for refugees in northern Iraq needs to become a higher priority in the international community.
For this week’s episode, Iraq Matters sits down with the groundbreaking Iraqi-American journalist and longtime White House correspondent Yasmeen Alamiri. Yasmeen currently works both as a reporter and producer with Al-Arabiya. For her interview we discuss her experience as a young Iraqi-American woman covering the White House, and what she hopes to see develop between the US and Iraq moving forward.
Heavy rainfall and dropping temperatures in November has made winter’s approach tangible, as dirt roads have become caked with mud, and the once dry tents that offered shelter are now a battle ground against disease and rain water. Aid agencies are under considerable amounts of pressure to provide the winter essentials for over 200,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq. Camps like Kawargosk are turning into sprawling-cramped cities where once there was just open desert. Distribution of winter essentials is in full swing, but in camps like Domiz with over 45,000 residents distribution will take longer.
To look into the humanitarian challenges of assisting Syrian refugees, EPIC commissioned two talented free-lance journalists currently based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, journalist Cathy Otten and photographer Jacob Russell. Cathy and Jacob report on the conditions at two Syrian refugee camps, and they delve into the challenges of urban-based refugees in Erbil and Sulaimani.
On November 1st, President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki had their first meeting in nearly two years. Since then, we have begun to see signs of Iraq making its way back onto the agenda here in Washington, DC. In addition to the November 1st meeting, the House subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing on November 14th to discuss US foreign policy and Iraq. We will continue to look for progress in steps to address the ongoing violence and evidence of a long-term commitment towards supporting Iraq’s peace and development. However, we still need your help! Our petition on Change.org is nearing its goal of 10,000 supporters with over 7,700 people who believe Iraq Matters! If you have not signed or shared the petition please take a moment and head on over to iraqmatters.org and let’s reach the goal of 10,000 together! If you like our podcast, please subscribe to our iTunes or Stitcher. Knowledge is only useful when shared, ours is free and we encourage our listeners to help spread our podcast! We also love to hear from our listeners, your feedback is incredibly valuable to our program. Please email your feedback and suggestions to email@example.com.
Humanitarian Update: 1:00 Iraq Update: 5:10 Interview with Yasmeen: 8:15
Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan face an uncertain situation as winter draws closer. Whilst government and humanitarian agencies work to winterise camps and hand out non-food aid such as blankets and kerosene heaters, many camps are not sufficiently prepared. Winters in northern Iraq see temperatures fall to freezing point and heavy rains.
ERBIL, SULAYMANIYAH, December 3, 2013: When the rains started at the beginning of November, creating streams of mud, Amoud Mohamed found herself fighting to keep her tent dry. “During the rain the tent was moving, at night we couldn’t sleep because of the rain and the wind,” she said, pointing to a pile of rugs at the entrance of the tent she shares with her family, adding “The water came in here under the floor.”
A few weeks later we stood with Amoud’s family in the mud where tire tracks had created sunken puddles, surrounding the tents in Arbat, Sulaymaniyah governorate, where just under 3,000 refugees live.“We must manage for the whole winter – we can’t go back to Syria.” Amoud and her family of 8 are originally from Qamishli in northern Syria. The matriarch of the family, she is a thin woman with strong features.
Arbat is one of Iraq’s transitional camps – thrown together quickly as Syrian refugees fled fighting and food shortages across the border. Lying near the base of the mountain range that separates Iraq from Iran to the north-east, the Syrian families living here will endure freezing temperatures this winter.
Since the conflict in Syria began, more than 2.2 million refugees have fled to countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and over half of these refugees are aged under 18 years. This has created what UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres described as “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
There are an additional 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced by war, and 9.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to figures from USAID.
With the conflict now in its 3rd year, recent fighting between Al Qaeda linked groups and Kurdish militias in the north of Syria, alongside a lack of food and electricity, has only made the displacement crisis for refugees worse. Most of those fleeing Syria into Iraq are staying in the Kurdish north of the country, in the Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah governorates, with smaller numbers in Anbar and Mosul.
Aid agencies in Iraq are working hard to provide winter essentials for the new arrivals, in a co-ordinated effort with other aid organisations involving over 208,000 refugees. The numbers of refugees rocketed in the last two weeks of August when 60,000 Syrians crossed the Tigris Rivers into Iraqi Kurdistan, in search of shelter, food and medical care (42,000 of these registered with UNHCR). Aid agencies were overwhelmed. But now, three months later organisations like UNHCR are doing what they can to try to protect the refugees from the worst elements of winter.
Iraq has received just 45% of the funds it needs so far for 2013, according to UN figures.
Amoud is now waiting to move into a new camp currently under construction not far from Arbat. As well as separate cooking and washing areas, the tents will also have concrete bases. The move, which was planned for the beginning of winter, is now expected to happen in the next two months.
“We’re trying to see if we can speed up the process [of completing the new camp] so the relocation takes place before the winter ends,” said UNHCR senior field coordinator Kahin Ismael. The new camp will have around 2,050 tents.
Winter Preparations in Kawargosk
“Where we are right now on 14th August was not a camp.” Peta Barns, Logistics Officer for UNHCR tells me, surveying the sprawling Kawergosk camp, home to more than 13,000 refugees in the Erbil governorate. “It’s hard to imagine now when you look at all the infrastructure but it wasn’t there.”
During our visit to Kawergosk in mid-November distribution was in full swing: families lined up and aid workers with clip boards distributed their allocations from vast piles of jerry cans, thermal blankets and rugs. Families waited in line, squinting in the strong sun. Blue skies meant a cold night ahead.
Partner agencies WHO and the Ministry of Health are also looking out for early signs illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia and influenza among the refugee population, which are more likely to occur during winter.
Mohamed Masour is worried about keeping warm. He lives in Kawergosk with his wife Fadia and their three children, one of whom is just 2 months old and was born here in Iraq. Mohamed has a soft, friendly face and Fadia wears a jumper and green patterned dress, untying a scarf from her hair as we enter the small tent.
They are like any young couple, except now they must make do in their temporary home, not knowing when they can return home.
“We have a heater for winter but the problem is the oil, they gave us some oil but it will soon be finished. If they don’t give us more oil on time then we will be very cold.”
The distribution of the winter kit such as blankets, plastic sheets to cover the roofs of the tents and jerry cans is complete for most of the smaller camps. However, in the Domiz camp in Dohuk, the massive scale – 45,000 refugees live there – means that full distribution will take longer.
“What will be ongoing over winter is [delivery of] kerosene for heating and cooking, but the primary distribution of blankets will be considered complete. Then we will target additional distribution so that if we have a flood or example, we can react quite quickly,” said Barns.
The new Darashakran camp, about twenty minutes drive from Kawergosk, opened this September and has a capacity of 10,000. The construction for the camp started in April, meaning that the camp is better prepared for winter – each tent has a concrete base, separate shower and kitchen area. At the moment, around 6,000 refugees are living there. Even though it has better facilities, some families don’t want to move because they have grown used to living in Kawergosk.
Mohamed and his neighbor in the camp, Mustafa Yousif, want to find jobs but they have not yet been given their residency and work permits, promised by the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] to Syrian refugees.
“The winter is very difficult here but what can we do.” Said Mustafa who arrived three months ago.
“Where we lived [in Syria] we were just 2km from the front line fighting between YPG [Kurdish People’s Protection Unit] and Jabhat Al Nusra [Al Qaeda linked militant group]. They didn’t attack us or shoot at us but it is a dangerous place to live. We can’t live in such a dangerous place so we decided to come here.”
Urban refugee problem
In Iraq there are around 126,000 non-camp refugees, often renting and staying with friends and family, as well as living in make-shift shelters and abandoned buildings. Across the region 80% of Syrian refugees are classed as non camp refugees, living in urban settings with local communities.
“The conditions vary for the refugees not living in camp,” said Ismael of refugees in Sulaymaniyah, “We give our attention to the most vulnerable so that they receive the same level of assistance for those in the camp in terms of heating stoves, kerosene, winter blankets, and other items.”
“We also have some cash assistance for some of the most vulnerable cases”
In Erbil, helping the non-camp refugees is more of a challenge, as according to UNHCR who were told by the local governorate, support given to them must also be given to local communities.
Not wanting to rely on outside support, those establishing lives here face everyday difficulties like finding homes, making a living and fitting in.
Fareed Tariq is from Aleppo and now lives on the outskirts of Erbil inside a half-finished building. Blue tarp and coloured sheets separate his home from other make-shift shelters. Cold evening air enters through gaps in the fabric walls and children play at jumping across a nearby ditch.
“We have some blankets but it is not enough for us you know, we are 8 people. All of these things the neighbours brought for us.”
Natural light shining through the tarpaulin gives his home a bluish tinge. Fareed sells cigarettes and tissues to drivers at traffic lights in the Kurdish capital, making just enough to feed his family of eight but not enough for a heater or warm clothes.
Fareed and his family don’t want to go to one of the nearby camps; they are worried about violence and disruption there.
“We need oil, heaters, blankets and money for living,” he said, sighing.
About the authors:
Cathy Otten (@cathyotten) is a British freelance journalist based in the UK and Iraq. She writes for USA Today, Globe & Mail and IRIN news, among others. A former BBC trainee, she has reported from the United States, Central America, and the Middle East.
Jacob Russell (@jmrp09) is a freelance photographer living and working in northern Iraq. Previously, he worked as a press photographer in the north of England. His work has appeared in all the English national newspapers and several international publications. He is also picture editor at Metrography, Iraq’s first independent photo agency. For more of Jacob’s work visit: www.jacobrussell.virb.com
“Out in the Cold” is an initiative by EPIC to support better coverage and in-depth reporting on displaced and vulnerable populations in Iraq and the region. Our work is supported by the Edna Wardlaw Charitable Trust, the Lynn Handleman Charitable Foundation, and by donors like you.
Nearly two years after the US withdrawal, Iraq is still struggling to recover from the decade long occupation. This is illustrated through many facets of Iraqi society, such as 1,131,810 internally displaced persons (IDPs) still reside in Iraq, with over 200,000 living in Baghdad. Rather than the number of IDPs declining, the violence and unrest in 2013 has produced a surge in new IDPs.
As one of othe most vulnerable of Iraq’s populations, IDP’s live in makeshift or temporary shelters, and face the constant risk of violence and alienation. An enormous number of Iraqi IDPs are unemployed, and when they do find work the income is meager. Many IDPs rely on food assistance from the government via the Public Distribution System (PDS), which is oftentimes inconsistent or incomplete. IDPs also lack proper access to education, which led to higher drop-out rates and an illiteracy rate of approximately 30%. These problems are further compounded by the fact that many IDPs are undocumented, which prevents them from receiving government assistance [link]. Additionally, Iraqi IDPs who live in makeshift or temporary homes face the imminent problem of winter weather, as they do not have protection from the harsh temperatures or the seasonal flooding.
In particular, women and girls are the most vulnerable. They make up over 80% of the Iraqi IDP population, and are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence, as well as domestic violence. Many of these women are single, meaning that they are the primary provider for their children. On the other hand, there are many women who are unaccompanied altogether, leaving them with little protection from violence.
International organizations such as the UNHCR, WHO, and UNESCO are doing what they can to provide Iraqi IDPs with legal assistance, as well as access to food, shelter, health care, protection from violence, and education. However, with the huge influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, this is becoming increasingly difficult as their resources are stretched thin. Iraqi IDPs are the victims are years of violence and oftentimes multiple displacements, and thus do not have many resources to help themselves. With the continued increasing violence that is spreading across the country, their situations are unlikely to change in the near future. If you have not yet done so, please sign our petition urging President Obama to keep Iraq and all of its most pressing matters on his administration’s agenda.