I had the pleasure of joining the members of Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation, an NGO on their field trip to two refugee camps outside Erbil Governorate in Kurdistan Province in Iraq last week. The Bahrka Camp was for Iraqi Kurds who were not able to go home to their town of Mosul next door despite the ISIS terrorists being defeated two years ago. The older Kawergosk Refugee Camp is for Syrian Kurds still waiting for the war there to end.
There is nothing outwardly tragic about refugee camps in Kurdistan. The two we visited were relatively clean, well ordered, with basic amenities and children playing about safely. Although I am told that the camps for the Yazidi people, a much more persecuted minority, are in poorer state. The camp commandants in the ones we visited even pointed out how the Kurds and Yazidis of different tribes and religions lived peacefully in them, with very little crime. The idea in fact was to make sure that they did not become too comfortable.
The cities in Kurdistan are also relatively prosperous, with many new cars in the street and many unfinished buildings from the collapse of the recent oil boom years, and shopping malls, all expressions of a functioning economy. So there is a disconnect about the economics of the place for any newcomer – prosperity and consumption on the one hand, and helplessness on the other.
The real tragedy is carried in the lives of the refugees. A mother who lost seven of her eight sons. Another who has sons in jails. Another who can’t go back to Mosul to claim the bodies of her children still trapped in the rubble wired up by the terrorists. Stories after stories of the burdens many have to carry for the rest of their lives, but pretending that they can all just carry on.
The real torture is one of waiting. Either to go home or to be resettled. But life must go on. Hence the focus on hope, a stall selling wedding dresses or a house with the phrase “Ambition” painted boldly across its front walls to show the human spirit insists on getting on, on rising above itself.
The BHHF was founded by a Kurdish refugee himself @Marwan Baker, who crossed into Russia by foot after Sadam Hussein’s 1988 gas attacks in Halabja, and then found asylum in Sweden, completed a PhD in radiology and started a used clothes business selling back into Kurdistan and eventually started this supplies NGO with his own money. Last year alone, BHHF transported 150 containers worth of clothes, and perhaps more importantly, medicines procured from the major pharmaceuticals. Anything they can obtain from corporate and personal donations. When Marwan saw me playing with the kids, he told me that every encounter with an outsider was an encounter with hope that the children will always remember, that he also remembered his own encounters with outsiders well into adulthood.
Kurdistan is stunningly beautiful. In our drive from Erbil ( Hawler) Governoratel to Sulaymaniyah Governorate and then to @Halabja, I reminded myself that I was in Mesopotamia, the birthplace of human civilisation itself, when man first settled into tending pasture after hunting and gathering, and then built cities. This was the @Fertile Crescent, the most fertile of the nine places or so around the world that was suitable for human settlement 5000 years ago.
The beauty of the undulating landscape carried in it the tales, of the gods of Niniveh not far away, to the time when the sound of the hoofs of Alexander the Great’s warriors’ horses strode across as they destroyed the Assyrian empire. These were the plains on which the Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim religions coagulated, so that you cannot really classify the Kurds as being one or the other. They stealthily evade the labels westerners insist on looking for.
Dr Marwan’s prognosis that the real hope for peace in the region will come with agriculture is very attractive to me. It will be like going back to the days of the land between the two great rivers that still defines this region. The finding of oil has been the root of all the evil we see today.
The British “forgot” to give the Kurds a country, so that they are spread across several of the other countries created in the early 20th century, while Ataturk’s Turkey was not going to let go of the oil rich region. Now, greed and tribalism combine to create new forces of power and corruption between the Kurds themselves, which the superpowers paw around with shamelessly. The religion is not Sunni or Suufi, it’s money and power.
In the meantime, the most important hope that NGOs keep alive is that of an ordinary life. So, in the team I was with, Paula Horsfall runs a successful @Sewing Programme in three camps. Thomas Campbell from Manchester runs the soccer programme. Helmar Heyken, @Max Veenstra @Wilhelm Bos, Leif Pramhäll, Manu Sz, John Peacocke, Paul Post, and of course my friend Nicholas Paillart who introduced me to this community, work on the logistics of sending aid from different parts of Europe and the Middle East.
Also memorable were Metuge Julius Kogge from Cameroon and his lovely wife, Alejandra from Chile, who work tirelessly for Neighbors to Nations Ministries running community centers that provide all kinds of training from basic social skills to karate to technical skills in medicine and building maintenance. Any form of training is welcome, so please do write to me if you have any skills and the time to make a difference to this society, even for a few weeks. I will make the connections.
Marwan’s whole family helps out in one way or other. His brother Peshraw Haji Baker runs the warehouses and the distribution business. We spent one morning helping him packing 900 boxes of sanitary pads.
We were rewarded with a lovely dinner in the family’s home in the hills outside As Sulaymaniyah, Iraq from where we could see the whole city retiring inside the surrounding hills.
It is from these bewildering and eclectic sensations of plenty and nothing, secure and insecurity, what is and what isn’t, that the Kurdish people have to create dignity and hope, for a future they can believe in themselves.