The refugees in Erbil are suspended between the yearning to return home and the fear to do so; between the fatigue of rebuilding their future and looking ahead, and the idea of having to repack their few possessions and go back. Terry Dutto, Focsiv emergency project manager, has been coordinating assistance projects and relief initiatives for the local population in Erbil since 2014. He described the situation of families living in the city’s refugee camps. “From there we operate in the neighbouring areas of Qaraqosh, Mosul, and Kirkuk, where an ISIS stronghold has not yet been dismantled.”
The presence of Focsiv in Kurdistan is now supported also with the 8×1000 tax devolution funds. In the latest meeting of the Committee for Charity interventions in favour of Third World countries, it was decided to devolve part of the sum (totalling 18 million euro for 119 projects worldwide), to a set of initiatives for the most vulnerable displaced population bracket that includes children, old people, women, the disabled, and the chronically ill. The funds will be managed by Focsiv that has been actively engaged in an articulated relief project carried out in various areas of Kurdistan: in the refugee camps of Ainkawa 2 and Ashti 1; in the district of Kirkuk, with the distribution of a monthly food package and powdered milk for the newborn, and finally in Al Kosh, an isolated city going through severe difficulties.
Over 40 thousand displaced persons are living in the Ainkawa District (in the area of Erbil), most of whom are Chaldean Christians from the Nineveh Plains, in addition to over 10 thousand Yazidis from the mountains in the area of Sinjar. In the refugee camp, known as Ainkawa 2, over 1.000 containers provide drinking water and sewage systems. The camp hosts approximately 1.200 families, amounting to some 6000 people, 50% of whom are youths. “The containers –Terry said – have been transformed into lodgings. Those living there try take root, but it’s a living condition that can only be temporary. However, the fact of settling down makes them feel at home.” Most of them come from Qaraqosh, the most important Christian city in Iraq that once had over 60 thousand inhabitants. Today it’s a ghost town. For two years it was occupied by the black banners of ISIS that renamed it the capital of the Islamic State in the Nineveh Plains. It was liberated at the end of October.
“We visited Qaraqosh – Terry said – but there’s not much to see anymore.”
Houses have been ransacked, burned, bombed. Each non-transportable item has been destroyed. Gas cylinders were detonated in stores. The bombardments have left a heap of rubble. There is no electricity or water. It is impossible to live there.”
Some attempt to return. Not everyone has the possibility of migrating abroad, hosted by relatives. The only option is to return home. But going back is not easy. In fact, at present it’s practically impossible. “People don’t feel safe. They are hopeful, but until safety conditions are lacking people remain where they are. Some youths arrived here when they were 7-8 years old, they say they want to remain in Erbil because by now they feel part of this city.”
Men have been most affected by the hard blow of the tragedy: they are left without a job, without money and without a home; they were stripped of their role as heads of the household. Women have become the points of reference in the family. “When we want to organize something in the camp we turn to them”, Terry said.
Focsiv has set up a “Hope Center” inside the camp. It’s a dedicated area where volunteers offer a set of activities such as kindergartens, martial arts, along with a large hall fully equipped for various kinds of educational initiatives; a football field and a volley ball court that involve 250 youths.
The stories heard inside the camps “send chills up my spine”, Terry said. They aren’t easy to assist. “I recall a group of young girls, aged 8-10, who started talking with one of our workers. They told her how vicious the ISIS militiamen had been. They had seen a person being beheaded only because he had been smoking. Another was beat so hard that they broke his legs, simply for having defended a woman. These children are traumatized. You can see it and you can hear it. They experienced brutal situations, and we don’t know to what degree they will be affected. All we know is that when we play with them, when we encourage them to draw, to converse, to watch a movie, we are offering them moments of serenity that are changing their life at least for that instant. They return to be children for that small amount of time, they return to smile and discover friendship.” It’s a drop in an ocean of pain. “Indeed, it’s just a drop. But we can never know how much darker their world would be without that drop – a world where children are left alone to learn how to be violent and aggressive.”