Domiz Refugee Camp, Iraqi Kurdistan, Asharq Al-Awsat—A four-hour journey from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, lie the houses, tents and satellite dishes of the Domiz refugee camp. First appearing over the horizon as tiny, toy-like structures in the distance, as you move closer the true scale of the camp becomes clear. Named after the nearby Kurdish city of Domiz, the camp is the largest of its kind in all of Iraq. The camp has made this peaceful, little-known town the center of attention for journalists and news agencies from around the world seeking to cover the ever-worsening Syrian refugee crisis.
The civil war that has engulfed Syria for more than two and a half years has had a number of devastating consequences on the Arab world, including a massive regional refugee crisis, with Syrian refugees fleeing the war-torn country for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, among other countries. According to the latest UN projections, almost a quarter of all Syrians will be forced to flee the country by 2014, with 3.2 million Syrians expected to be registered as refugees by the end of the year.
When it comes to Iraq, the Kurdistan region has so far accepted the largest number of Syrian refugees, with the vast majority of them being cared for at the Domiz camp. Located in the Duhok governorate near the Turkish and Syrian borders, this camp could more appropriately be called Domiz city, housing approximately 60,000 Syrian refugees. The local administrative capital of Duhok, for example, has a population of just 200,000.
Behzad Ali Adam, the deputy governor of Duhok governorate and head of Syrian refugee operations in the region, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Kurdistan Region Government is covering 80 percent of expenses for the Syrian refugees so they can live in dignity. Meanwhile, international organizations are not as interested in them as they are of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.”
“However, these refugees have the attention of President Massoud Barzani and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. So far, USD 50 million has been spent in addition to the land, housing, provisions, schools, teachers, doctors, security personnel, water and electricity,” he added.
Regarding the issues that stem from the presence of thousands of Syrian refugees in the region, Adam says, “Of course there are social issues, crowding of the job market, and cases of theft or robbery. These are normal in any place, especially those with such a large number of Syrian refugees travelling freely.”
He clarified that “the Kurds of Iraq witnessed a similar situation, perhaps even more difficult. The Kurds have been refugees many times in Iran or Turkey. They know the harsh life of the refugee. Our government wanted to ease their suffering and give them the freedom to travel and work.”
Asharq Al-Awsat spent a day touring the grounds of the Domiz camp. Outside its doors there are stores, cafes, restaurants and a large parking lot for taxis to take refugees to the center of the city of Duhok and other settlements in the region.
Access is strictly controlled. At the gate, journalists have to show their permission from the Duhok governor to visit the Asayish (the Kurdistan Directorate of Security) forces who have been assigned to protect the people of the camp. According to the media relations director at the camp, “No one from outside the camp or non-residents may enter without permission, especially members of the media.”
He noted that “the media used to enter the camp without permission and interact with the refugees, spreading unfounded and unrealistic stories.”
“Many of the refugees do not want their pictures, names, or statements published, so we’re afraid of problems arising between the refugees and the journalists. Therefore, the governor’s office and the camp administration now require journalists and observers to get permission before entering the camp,” he added.
Much of the previous coverage of the Domiz camp has focused on the issue of overcrowding, the attempts of its inhabitants to cope with Iraq’s searing 45-degree summer heat, and reports of poor drainage and sanitation at the camp, which was originally constructed to house only 20,000 refugees, but is now about three times as large.
Today, the local authorities are eager to show off their efforts to shelter and care for the refugees housed there, granting Asharq Al-Awsat an expansive tour of the sprawling camp.
Nabi Saleh, the director of the camp and supervisor of all Syrian refugee camps in the Duhok governorate, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Domiz camp is the main center for accepting Syrian refugees and we are currently working to build another camp near the Syrian border. There is a camp near the border that welcomes and transports refugees and there is also another large camp which we hope will hold 50,000 refugees. There are also camps in the Erbil and Suleimaniyah governorates.”
“This camp, Domiz, can hold 50,000 people as well, but due to massive emigration and the pressures we’ve faced the camp now houses 60,000 out of the total 130,000 refugees. All refugees in the Duhok governorate are recorded at this camp, some of whom live in the camp, while others live in or around the city where they work and rent homes. Other governmental agencies are responsible for keeping track of those refugees,” he added.
Saleh also described the procedure for receiving and processing those fleeing from Syria: “These refugees have left due to violence, security concerns and economic reasons. When they cross Iraqi borders, we and the United Nations officially record their refugee status. They are given a form from the camp and residency. The Kurdistan Regional Government is perhaps the only government granting freedom of movement to the Syrian refugees. After a refugee has been recorded, he has the right to move freely between cities looking for work and housing outside of the camp.”
The director of the camp stated that “under the direction of President Massoud Barzani, we are granting the right to leave the camp. They have the right to work and live outside of the camp.”
Unlike areas outside of the Kurdistan region in Iraq that may not have electricity, the population of the Domiz camp enjoy electricity 24 hours a day. According to Saleh, “Basic services, such as water, power, healthcare, education and food, are being taken on by the regional government. We are covering more than 80 percent of the costs for the refugees. Their status is like that of any Iraqi citizen. The UN’s World Food Program has granted a monthly voucher worth USD 31 for every person to be spent exclusively on food, in addition to the provisions we supply. There are also considerable donations from citizens, including furniture and other goods that are given directly to the refugees or dispensed through the UN. Everything is provided for them.”
However, the director of the camp says that support from the UN has not been as forthcoming as he would like.
“In Iraqi Kurdistan there are more than a quarter of a million Syrian refugees. Unfortunately, there is no international interest from the UN and other nations for the refugees here. Their interest is focused solely on the refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey,” he says.
Saleh also spoke of the efforts that have been made to organize camp life, and to create a structure to resolve the problems and complaints of the camp’s inhabitants.
“The camp is made up of sectors and each sector (100 families) has someone responsible for it, whom we call the mayor,” he says.
“We have 40 mayors who cooperate with each other and officials and we have a venue for complaints and concerns.” He also noted that “there is a center to address violence against women and a security station.”
Outside the camp administration building, which is buzzing with activity, bulldozers and excavators are working long hours to smooth and pave roads before the rains fall. The director of media relations, Salem Saeed Tahir, said: “The camp welcomes Arabs and Christians, not just Syrian Kurds, as some may have thought.”
Life goes on
Asharq Al-Awsat begins its tour at the refugee admissions center. There are tents for families and others for single men, though there is no separation within the camp between tents designated for families and those for bachelors.
Despite having reached a place of comparative safety, most are wary of press attention, declining to give their full names. Some give fake names, while many refuse to have their picture taken.
Many of the Syrian refugees at the camp informed Asharq Al-Awsat that they continue to fear for their safety and that of their relatives at the hands of the Syrian government. Muhammad, an Arab from Homs who arrived days before with his wife and two daughters, said: “We’re afraid of our pictures or names being made public. We don’t want Bashar’s security forces to find and kill our relatives there.”
Sitting on a mat on the ground, Muhammad says that he fled persecution from the security forces and the attacks that struck their neighborhood. “We couldn’t feed our daughters,” his wife said. “When we got here, we felt safe and welcomed. Here we don’t need anything. The most important thing is security, food, respect, and that my daughters are happy.”
Outside a tent for singles, young men aged 18–26 gather around chain-smoking cheap cigarettes and playing cards to pass the time. Time passes slowly according to Rami, 19, from Damascus.
“I left my family’s home, fleeing the killing and desperation. I’m here with my brother, who is two years older than me. We came to the camp looking for stability and work. Now we’re looking for jobs,” he says.
Asharq Al-Awsat asked the group of young men about their opinions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and why they did not volunteer to fight the regime instead of fleeing.
Salim, a 23-year-old from Qamshili, said: “No one asked us to volunteer with the FSA. Also, we didn’t know who was against whom. Things were complicated. I cut short my studies, lost my job, and I had no hope but to work here to help my family in Syria.”
He expressed a common complaint of the Syrian refugees in Domiz: “They still haven’t given us the residency that lets us move freely within the Kurdistan region to look for work. I’m ready to do anything to earn some money.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also encountered a group of children at the camp, most of whom wore clean, nice clothes, although some were barefoot and tattered.
The media director said: “We hand out all the clothes that come as donations, especially to the children. However, most of the camp’s population are from the countryside and their children are used to this and don’t mind, though there are families that focus on the cleanliness and appearance of their children.”
Tahir is equally eager to highlight the camp authorities’ efforts to provide education to the camp’s children. “There are three schools, and we will add four more, making seven schools from Kindergarten to high school,” he boasts.
“We also provide a soccer field, and there are recreational areas for children. For the women, there are workshops teaching in a number of fields,” he added.
In addition, he is eager to show off the provisions made to meet the refugees’ healthcare needs, saying: “All of the refugees are provided healthcare by the health center in the camp which is run by the health administration of Duhok and Doctors Without Borders, and employs Syrian doctors and nurses.”
The main road in the camp has been transformed into a market, in addition to the official market the camp administration plans to open. There are barbers and hair stylists, tailors, and shops for clothing, make-up, perfume and candy.
Restaurants and cafes are spread everywhere. There are even stores for renting wedding dresses. The camp’s media director tells Asharq Al-Awsat: “Weddings are welcomed here. Yesterday, I attended a wedding held in a nearby events hall. There have been a number of instances of marriage between Iraqis and Syrians, and perhaps that number will increase in the future.”
On the way to visit one of these bridal shops, Asharq Al-Awsat encountered a white car decorated with flowers, ready for a wedding scheduled to take place later that evening. White, red and blue dresses decorated the front of the small store run by Rawaa, who was married five months before. “I knew my husband when we were in Syria. When we came here, we decided to get married anyhow. Life must go on,” she said.
“My husband and his brothers work in Duhok. We’ve been here for over a year. My husband works as a laborer, either in construction, cleaning or at a cafe,” she added.
She mentioned that she first thought to open the bridal shop once she noticed that the young men and women at the refugee camp wanted to get married, so she bought a number of wedding dresses and evening gowns. Near Rawaa’s shop there is a dressmakers’ shop full of women sewing clothes.
Sanaa, how works in the dressmakers’, says: “I was a seamstress in Damascus, but I was sewing for the women of our neighborhood in my house. Once our neighborhood was attacked, we made our way to Deir Ezzor. From there I came to Iraq with my sister, mother and father. I decided to open this humble shop to earn some money and spend my time. It has been well received, especially since there are so many brides.”
Not far from Sanaa’s shop, there is a men’s tailor. The owner, Abdullah, tells Asharq Al-Awsat: “In Idlib, I made the finest suits in all fashions, but Idlib was one of the first cities that was attacked and besieged, so I moved with my family to Qamshili. Because of the economic problems, I decided to move my family here.”
Regarding his work, Abdullah said: “I sew everything here. Pants, shirts, dishdashas [robes]. I also repair damaged clothes for my customers.”
Building the camp
In the Domiz camp, some people live in rooms of brick and mortar with wooden roofs, while others live in the tents provided by the United Nations. The camp’s media director explains that “the first of the refugees to arrive more than a year ago were allowed to build rooms on areas determined by the International Organization for Migration. A set area was established for each individual; of course, that area was increased according to the size of the family. There was a condition that the roofs be constructed out of wood or an alternative material. Many people build rooms or houses; however, there are those who prefer to stay in the tents.”
He added that “drinking water and electricity are available to everyone.”
Asharq Al-Awsat was surprised to find that there are refugees living in Syria that come to visit their relatives in the Domiz camp. Saad, who is visiting his sister, Samira, who had recently opened a shop selling perfume and beauty products at the camp, said: “I missed my sister and her kids, so I came to visit them.”
When asked what he thought of their situation in the camp, Saad said: “Their situation is much better than it was in Syria, with the threats, waiting for death, and the terrible economic situation. I’m even thinking of coming with my family to the camp.”
As night fell over the sprawling camp, young women and men took to the main street wearing their nicest clothes to visit the market and shops, taking advantage of the electricity.
Asharq Al-Awsat asked one of the young men passing by what the name of the street was. Smiling and gesturing to the electric lights, he replied: “Paris Street.”
On the way out of the camp, Asharq Al-Awsat met with some people returning to Duhok and their families after a hard day’s work. Syrian refugees based out of the camp make a living in a variety of different fields, while the only work available in Duhok is in construction or the service industry. Despite the limitations, the Syrian refugees in Duhok appeared satisfied. They have it hard—but perhaps not as hard as other Syrian nationals who have fled the terrible violence that has engulfed their country.