Domiz refugee camp, Iraq – While the United Nations is warning that Lebanon could buckle under the pressure of hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, the situation in northern Iraq is a different story. Here, refugees forced from their homes by the war in Syria are slowly rebuilding their lives.
Of the 250,000 Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, nearly 120,000 live in cities like Dohuk and Erbil, while the remainder live in 10 camps spread throughout the region.
More than 45,000 Syrian refugees live in Domiz camp, close to the city of Dohuk on the Syrian-Iraqi border. It is one of the first camps built after the initial influx of Syrians into Iraq in 2012. Hundreds of tents line the streets, some of which were converted into more permanent housing structures as prospects for a political resolution in Syria grew bleak.
“It is an organised and normal life here,” Amina Darwish, a mother of four who has lived in Domiz for the past year and a half, told Al Jazeera. “When I came and saw the stability and the life here, I told my parents and sisters to come with their families.”
Unlike camps set up in Turkey and Lebanon, where many refugees struggle to eat, stay warm during the harsh winter months and educate their children, Syrians in Iraqi Kurdistan say they have found relative stability. “We have not seen a reception before like we have witnessed here [from the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG],” said Umm Mohammad, who lives in the Kawergosk camp.
We are helping my neighbour build his house for free. We help each other because we know how difficult our situation is.
Like Domiz, Kawergosk is another city of tents. A year and a half newer, the camp, situated near the Kurdish capital of Erbil, was set up in August 2013. Cobblestone streets within the camp line a path to outhouses, drinking fountains and small schools set up by UN agencies, as well as stations where various NGOs dispense supplies such as blankets and food.
The KRG has given many of the refugees living in the camps permits that allow them to travel and work within the northern province. “We asked the government to work and they allowed us,” said Sharif Hasan, who lives in Domiz camp but works in a ceramics shop in Dohuk during the day.
Many refugees have also started their own businesses within the camps, from barber shops to shoe stores and restaurants. This creates a circular economy, UNHCR spokesperson Liene Veide told Al Jazeera: Those who work outside the camp spend their cash on the local businesses inside. “This allows the refugees possible ways to regain self-reliance and sustainability, to earn money and bring it back to their families,” Veide said.
At night, many refugees work to build homes or shops, Hasan told Al Jazeera, as he shovelled cement in what little daylight remained. He and his friends were helping a neighbour build a home where a tent once stood. “We are helping my neighbour build his house for free,” he said. “We help each other because we know how difficult our situation is.”
The vast majority of the Syrian refugees living in Iraq are Kurds, and many of them are from the northeastern Syrian province of Qamishli.
“Every short while, you would see explosions, bombs striking nearby areas and hear gunfire, rockets shooting and planes flying overhead,” said Darwish, explaining what prompted her to leave the war-torn country. “We could not sleep or rest; our emotional state suffered and it was especially difficult for the children.”
Darwish’s fears crystallised when, after she and many of her relatives had arrived in Iraq, her brother was killed in a market by a car bomb, allegedly detonated by fighters from al-Nusra Front. Due to weak phone connections in Qamishli, Darwish only found out a day later, while watching the news.
Umm Mohammad, meanwhile, told Al Jazeera that she finally made the decision to leave Syria after reports spread in her town that rebel fighters were kidnapping and raping young women, and holding young men hostage for ransom. “Many young women were taken from our town and surrounding towns, and I could not risk it with my three daughters,” she said.
Darwish and others recalled the trauma of witnessing explosions within a kilometre of their homes, but said their greatest challenge was obtaining sufficient food, water, electricity and gas to keep them warm.
I would call my brother and wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with him, but we could at least hear each other’s voices so that we know we’re all alive.
“Some people stayed in Syria, like my sister, but there are no phones to talk to them,” Umm Mohammad told Al Jazeera. Her husband said it was sometimes possible to reach relatives through the Turkish networks, since Qamishli is close to Turkey.
“But the connections are very weak,” he added. “I would call my brother and wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with him, but we could at least hear each other’s voices so that we know we’re all alive.”
Many refugees said they faced a gruelling journey to Kurdistan, and they understood why others chose to remain in Syria.
“It was very difficult to come here,” Darwish explained. “We all walked for hours and hours, over 200 of us together, walked with our children across the border. We did not eat during the journey.”
For many Kurdish refugees, living under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the war was the last straw of a life rife with discrimination and hardship due to their ethnicity. Umm Mohammad and her husband recounted how they and others in their community were not allowed to speak the Kurdish language in public or in schools, noting many in the community were not granted Syrian citizenship and were considered to be “foreigners” by the government.
“It was not until after the war started that Bashar [al-Assad] began granting many of those in my community citizenship,” she said. “It was to draft them into the army,” her husband added.
Ahmad Hussein, 30, a mosque leader in Domiz refugee camp and a graduate of Damascus University, fled after being called upon to serve in the army. “The situation before the war was difficult for Kurds. Land was seized from us by the government and jobs were difficult to secure,” he said. “We were not even allowed to give our children Kurdish names or we would be interrogated by the government.”
Given the relatively stable situation Syrians have found in Iraqi Kurdistan, it comes as little surprise that many of the refugees do not wish to return to their homes “so long as the Syrian regime’s army and groups like al-Nusra remain,” Umm Mohammad explained.
“No one knows right now who causes the explosions when you see them from a distance, if they belong to the Free Syrian Army or the regime,” said Aywar Khalil, 30, a refugee from Damascus currently residing in Domiz camp. “Everyone [living in these camps] is a martyr in addition to those who have already died.
“Those who died were laid to rest, but we do not rest – even here away from the war,” Khalil explained. “You live with fear for yourself, your children, your country; thinking about the future and if you will go back home or not. If you do go back, will things return to the way it was or not?”
Video directed by Nick Armero and produced by Ali Al-Arian and Ahmad Hussam.