Twenty to a tent

By Chris Niles

DOHUK, Iraq, 10 December 2013 — Hadiakheli and Shwarfakheli, two women living in Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, don’t know how old they are. When asked, they discuss it briefly. Finally Shwarfakhel says “34?”, making a stab at her older sister’s age.

Sisters Shwarfakheli and Hadiakheli

Shwarfakheli and Hadiakheli at home in Domiz refugee camp.
© UNICEF Iraq/2013/Niles

It’s just a guess, because as Kurds living in Syria, they were denied their right to birth certificates.

The two women each have eight children and they live in the same makeshift structure, who along with their husbands live in the same small home they have made in the camp.

They are a close family, but still conditions are far from ideal.

“I love her, and she’s my sister,” Shwarfakheli says, “But I don’t have a choice. There are 20 of us living in this place. There’s no space.”

At night the men sleep in the living room and the women sleep in the kitchen. They don’t have a private toilet or shower. The public toilet is down the street, about 20 metres away.

“My girls are shy to use the public bathrooms,” Shwarfakheli says. “And I worry about the health risks for my children.”

The family home is a cobbled-together collection of walls and canvas, twice built because once it blew away in a storm. The tiny yard is criss-crossed with clotheslines and features a large metal water tank. Water is delivered every three to four days but it’s not enough to meet the needs of such a large family, so they are forced to bring water from another part of the camp, which is even more difficult when winter rains come and they have to carry heavy water buckets on slippery clay paths.

The family lives in the transit section of Domiz. The camp is home to between 45-50,000 Syrian refugees. UNICEF is working with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) constructing water and sanitation facilities that will meet the anticipated long term demands.

“We know that our situation is temporary, but we are sad. We know we should try to adapt,” Shwarfakheli says. “All I want for now is a separate tent for my sister, and her family, enough water, and a kerosene heater.”