The boy standing in the cement block doorway called to us to take his picture. We couldn’t resist his bright smile in the bleak and dust of the refugee camp. We went over and snapped a few shots and he looked at them proudly on our cell phones. His uncle, who was hovering close by, came to talk with us and soon we were sitting in their one-room cinderblock home, sipping warm Coca-Cola in tiny glasses. Nawzad’s father, uncle and mother told us how the two families had ended up here in Domiz, a refugee camp near the border with Syria. They picked up and left when there was no longer a village, no house and no jobs to keep them there – no home to stay for.
The war inside Syria grinds on and its citizens continue to flee the country – to Turkey, to Lebanon, to Egypt and Jordan – and to this hot, dusty strip of land in the northwest corner of Iraq where my colleagues and I spent Memorial Day weekend. There are more than 1.5 million Syrians who have now left, the vast majority of whom have arrived in huge waves over the last 5 months as the fighting intensified and destruction overwhelmed families. More than 50 percent of the refugees across the region are children like Nawzad and his young sister Chiman.
Here in Domiz camp, the population is mostly Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Syria at about 10 percent of its one-time population of 22 million people. The Kurds have long been oppressed by the Assad regime, though recently many who were stripped of their citizenship long ago were given it back by the government in an effort to buy some peace. It worked, at least partially, as the Kurds have not taken sides in the conflict and the northeastern part of Syria – where most Kurds live – has remained relatively calm.
Lately the flow of people into Domiz has spiked, with as many as 1,000 coming through the single checkpoint in a day. On the days we were there, the border was actually closed to additional refugees. The camp, designed for 10,000, expanded to 20,000 and now housing more than 40,000, is struggling with flows of raw sewage next to houses, garbage piled in the dirt streets, overcrowded classrooms, and thousands of children without access to school, a place to play or cool shelter to escape from the brutal heat.
There were children everywhere as we made our way up the muddy road towards the school, led by another boy who had befriended us. Many kids were on their way to the school, run by UNICEF and supported by international donors, but many were waiting for a spot to open up. There were plans to build another school in the camp but also many concerns that the lack of proper sewage and hygiene in the camp could lead to disease – specifically cholera – and that it would be better to move new refugees to another camp four hours away and put funds into the new location instead.
Save the Children will be working in Domiz, in addition to the camp further down the border of Iraq where we are already working with youth on building vocational skills, over the coming weeks. We’ll be a partner with UNICEF, a local NGO, and the government of the Kurdish region to provide safe places for kids when they are not in school – a least some respite from the heat, dirt, and excruciating boredom, with trained members of the local community to help kids cope and activities to keep them engaged and let them play.
For children like Nawzad, who is 9, and Chiman, who is only 3, the days are filled with small chores, sitting inside their one-room house—an accommodation they’re lucky to have, since many families are living in tattered tents. They play outside with their many neighbors on the dirt track in front of their shelter on days when the sun is not so brutal and desert winds calm. They have been there for 9 months, and no one is sure when they might be able to go back to Syria.
As we said goodbye to Nawzad and his little sister, we asked him if he wanted to go back to his village. He looked down shyly and said of course, it was home. His father said the same, that as soon as Assad fell and things were safe, he would go back and find work as a house painter again.
But Nawzad and Chiman’s mother’s eyes were fearful, and she looked away when the question was asked. This family had been through so much already, and I’m sure the thought of reliving the fear and destruction she had seen was too much to think about as we sat chatting on the floor of a place that feels nothing like home.