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“Nobody knows when they will be able to return home. Or what will be left when they do”

I’ve been based in Iraq for a month. I’m here as part of our emergency response team, working to help Syrian refugees who are living in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

Syrian refugee children living in a fort that was previously a military  base in  northern Iraq
Syrian refugee children living in a fort that was previously a military base in northern Iraq

Iraq is a country I never thought I’d visit for any amount of time. I’m pretty sure most of the Syrians I’ve met here felt the same. My family and friends had their own concerns about me travelling to Iraq – my father’s response on hearing the news was a straight-to-the-point text message: ‘Have you got a will? Dad x’.

Life in the north

You don’t hear many positive stories from Iraq but the northern area where I am based is relatively safe and secure. It is also now home to over 200,000 Syrians who have fled violence, brutality and devastation in their home country and the resilience, kindness and generosity of all of the Syrians I meet never cease to amaze me.

I cannot speak highly enough of my team mates. We are a fairly mixed group here – colleagues from Italy, France, Indonesia, Pakistan and the USA and an ever-growing majority of Iraqi and Syrian staff, which is as it should be. These colleagues are refugees themselves; they live in the camps and informal settlements where we are working to support families and children.

So many stories…

And every one has a story to tell. They have all been through the ordeal of making the decision to leave their homes, heritage, belongings, jobs, studies, and loved ones and move to Iraq. Nobody knows when they will be able to return home. Or what will be left when they do.

One of the first team members I met was Marwa*, who works for our local partner organisation and is the supervisor for one of the child friendly spaces that we have set up. She tells me she was studying civil engineering at university in Syria before the war broke out. She doesn’t know when or how she’ll be able to complete her studies.

On my third day here, I visited five different camps and settlements. The number of refugees in Iraq increased dramatically from mid-August this year when border crossings re-opened. Authorities and organisations were overwhelmed as more than 60,000 refugees crossed in a matter of days. Temporary, informal camps sprang up to tide people over while longer-term camps were built.

Courage in the toughest conditions

Families have been living in disused warehouses, a sports stadium and an abandoned military fort. Now, many are moving again as the permanent camps are completed. One couple who have three young children, including a six-month-old baby, tell me they have moved four times to get to the tent where they are now living. But they say it with a shrug and a smile – again, the resilient spirit shines through.

It’s a critical time here. Winter is coming and everyone is concerned, as temperatures start to drop and the rains begin. It seems the next stage of the ordeal is just around the corner. I wonder how much further resilience can be pushed.

*name changed to protect identity



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