Last month, UNICEF Regional Goodwill Ambassador Mahmoud Kabil visited Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq, home to some 50,000 refugees from war-torn Syria. This is his account:
It’s always a bit heart-breaking meeting people who’ve been displaced by war. Looking back on my time as UNICEF’s Regional Goodwill Ambassador, I have vivid memories of missions to Yemen and Darfur that showed me graphically the price ordinary people – and children in particular – pay when conflict forces them to flee their homes.
It was thoughts like these in mind that I arrived at the Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq. A heat haze rose above a sprawl of white tents that stretched into the far distance. The camp opened in April last year and you can tell that many of the inhabitants are starting to settle in, with little breezeblock homes starting to spring up among the tents.
The camp was originally planned for a population of 15,000, but more than triple that number now live there. This puts pressure on space and on essential resources like water and sanitation – both key areas of UNICEF’s responsibility. In order to make sure there’s enough water to go round, a piped network distributes 2,000 cubic metres a day. Even so, a lot of people rely on water tankers that lumber through the camp and quickly attract a crowd of men, women and children with buckets and other containers which they fill and carry back to their tents. It all looked quite orderly but I heard complaints too: one woman told me that more often than not, she had to walk to the nearby village to get water– an obvious inconvenience for her, but also an example of how local people have rallied around the refugees in their midst.
Sanitation is another matter: all over the camp, you see a network of open drains carrying “grey” wastewater from homes. UNICEF is leading work to install a grey water drainage system that will cover the whole camp – no small task but a vital one.
Children are everywhere in Domiz – there are about 17,000 of them in all according to the data. We visited one of the three schools that UNICEF supports. In spite of the intense heat (and this was during Ramadan, so many of the kids were fasting) there was an incredible energy about the place. Games of basketball, football and table tennis were all underway in a single shaded area, with boys and girls equally involved. Looking at all these enthusiastic faces, it was hard to imagine the sort of experiences which had brought them to Iraq. It reminded me of the crucial role school plays in helping children come to terms with losing their homes, friends and everything else they are familiar with.
People in Domiz were unfailingly welcome – and determinedly making the best of an incredibly difficult situation. One woman, Zarefa, invited us into the tent which is now home to her and 10 children. She showed me the tiny kitchen where she prepares the family’s meals. Despite the dust that swirls throughout the camp, everything was spotlessly clean. I asked her whether she would consider returning home. Not while the violence continues, she said, making her point by drawing a finger across her throat.
During a packed visit over two days, I met some of the volunteers going tent-to-tent explaining the vital importance of good hygiene – a vital, lifesaving message in a setting like this. I spoke with officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government, which – with precious little support from the outside world – has so generously taken in the tidal wave of refugees flooding across the border. And I was impressed once again by the dedication and skills of the UNICEF team who are doing so much to make the camp function.
Domiz is one part of the Syrian crisis that has had relatively little media attention. The flood of refugees into Jordan and Lebanon has inevitably captured the world’s attention. Fewer people realise that Iraq, a country still coming to terms with its own tragic past, is also caught up in the turmoil sweeping the region. We need to raise more awareness, in the Arab world and beyond, about the plight of the children of Domiz, so that UNICEF and its partners can continue to provide them with schooling, clean water, health services and all the other things that make up a decent life.