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World Refugee Day: Thousands of displaced Syrians live on a knife edge

Antoinette Powell

Syria 300x164 World Refugee Day: Thousands of displaced Syrians live on a knife edge

Rafat Habib Ali, father of four, a refugee from Homs, Syria, has joined the 145,000 other refugees fleeing Syria to Iraq, in a makeshift refugee camp in Arbat, outside Sulaimaniya, northern Iraq. (Christian Aid/ Sarah Malian)

To mark World Refugee Day, Antoinette Powell, Communications officer for Christian Aid, reports back from her recent trip visiting Syrian refugees in Iraq

Standing by her makeshift tent in the unofficial camp of Baynjan , northern Iraq, Nasrin showed me treasured photos of her life in Syria; her family immaculately dressed in beautiful clothes relaxing inside their home. They never expected to be refugees, until their house in Aleppo was bombed. When I met them they had barely eaten in days. She told me, ‘I would rather go back and die there. If they bombed me, I would die immediately. Here it is a slow death.’

Baynjan, an unofficial camp in northern Iraq, is home to more than 700 Syrian refugees. There are more than 158,000 Syrian refugees scattered across Iraq but as the spotlight remains on those in Jordan and Lebanon, their fate is often overlooked. Areas such as Baynjan in Sulaimaniya province, once inhabited by Kurds escaping Saddam’s chemical attacks, are now crammed full of makeshift tents and houses hastily constructed from breeze blocks.

Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees has said that the conflict in Syria is “more brutal and destructive than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has turned into the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Cold War”.

The UN state the number of refugees pouring across the Iraq border has doubled since the start of the year. More than 800 Syrian refugees arrive in northern Iraq every day with fresh tales of destruction. The UN provides shelter, water, education and medical services in the only official camp of Domiz, but now that is so overcrowded new refugees have to make do with anywhere they can find.

Christian Aid is one of the few international aid organisations working in Iraq through local organisation REACH to support these forgotten refugees, who cannot find space in the official UN camp. REACH is providing support to 1,500 refugee families around Sulaimaniya and the nearby city of Erbil in the form of food, jerry cans so that the refugees can collect water and hygiene kits containing first aid equipment, water purifiers, sanitary products and other essential items.

Nasrin arrived in Baynjan with her husband, 12-year-old triplets and younger son just three days before I met them, having spent days sheltering in the hallway of their home from falling bombs. Nasrin and her family will receive help from UNHCR, but the large numbers of refugees’ means registration for this support can be very slow. Some families have waited more than a week for this vital process – too long when they have arrived with little or nothing.

In Baynjan there are no toilet or water facilities for the newly arrived refugees. The situation is so dire that men, who are registered with the UN and can legally seek day work, knock on people’s doors on their way home to beg for water. Nasrin and her family sometimes have to resort to asking to use the toilet facilities of an army post nearby.

The lack of water is particularly worrying as temperatures and cases of dehydration rise and risk of disease could add to the hardships these refugees already face. With temperatures set to rise to more than 40 degrees in the next few months, people in winterised tents will have to endure horrendous temperatures.

However, local communities have been a life line to the new arrivals, despite having not much themselves. When I was there, bundles of used clothes collected locally had just been delivered to the refugees, people eagerly took anything that might supplement the few clothes they have brought from Syria.

Refugees who have been there for some time help the new arrivals. Farhad was able to find work as a tiler when he arrived from Syria 14 months ago. His employer kindly lent him money for bricks so he was able to build a small home of breeze blocks. Farhad works hard to make a home that his four children can feel safe in, even if it is only temporary.

Farhad now helps new arrivals to find shelter and supplies to see them through until they can access official help. His wife, Khadija, gave birth to tiny Medyar just 10 days before we visited. It was a difficult and exhausting birth but she quickly resumed her role providing food and a place to wash for the new arrivals swelling the camp’s numbers.

But for all their hard work and the support they give to each other, Farhad and Khadija and many other refugees like them continue to live on a knife edge. Desperate to return to Syria, they do not know when or if it will be safe to do so. Nor do they have a guarantee of how long international support for refugees will last. ‘The problem is we have no guarantees,’ says Farhad. ‘We have no money for immediate problems. Everything we do is based on debts. But you have to carry on with life. I think about the kids and how to make a better life for them. Until I draw my last breath, everything I do will be for them.’

Christian Aid’s Syria and Middle East crisis appeal will help those most in need, working through partners such as REACH to provide food, medical assistance and other essential services.

For more information visit www.christian-aid.org or click here

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