SPECIAL REPORT: Out in the Cold

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 By Cathy Otten, photography Jacob Russell

Syrian Refugees Face Harsh Winter in Iraq

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.
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ARBAT, IRAQ: Arbat refugee camp near the city of Sulaimaniyah in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Jacob Russel

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.

Humanitarian crisis

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

Refugees prepare for winter.
KOWERGOSK, IRAQ: Refugees line up to receive winterisation supplies from UNHCR in Kowergosk refugee camp near the city of Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Photograph by Jacob Russel

“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

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ERBIL, IRAQ: A half finished building in a suburb of the city of Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to a number of Syrian families.

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.
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About the authors:

Cathy OttenCathy 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.

For more of Cathy’s work visit: www.cathyotten.co.uk

Jacob Russell

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
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“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.