Dr Nemam of the Joint Help for Kurdistan with Yezidi children at camp Bajed Kandal camp near Duhok. Photo by author
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Not far from the city of Duhok sits two refugee camps: Bajed Kandal Camp No. 1 and No. 2. Originally built to temporarily host Kurdish refugees from Syria the camps have since become home to many Yezidis who fled onslaughts by the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Shingal region.
Dr. Nemam Ghafouri works for a coalition of charity organizations named Joint Help for Kurdistan linked to the Swedish Specialist Hospital in Erbil and she has been helping these people since the ISIS invasion of their homes last year. Doctors from her agency have volunteered their professional services and their own finances to make life better for the people of Camp No. 2 until they can one day return to Shingal and rebuild their lives there.
Entering the camp you see a small cluster of portacabins. These are where her team operates from. Nemam told me they can only count on two doctors at any given time. And the doctors who were working there had not received a salary in over two months and were simply sustaining themselves on their own savings. The pharmacy portacabin has basic medicines but doubtfully enough to cope long-term without regular replenishment. Aside from that and two makeshift clinics to give regular check-ups to the camp’s community there is little else.
Camp Bajed Kandal No. 2 has been hosting approximately 6,500 displaced Yezidis since the summer of 2014 and has been doing so on shoestring resources. The UNHCR agency had initially provided basic tents for the camp which proved, in the long-term, to be wholly inadequate. Nemam showed me photos from last year of the camp and its UNHCR tents flooded. The lives of children and the elderly would have been at risk had it not been for the presence of her team. As if that wasn’t bad enough the same agency made no preparations for the following year and the camps residents had to go through the very same trauma the following winter. “It’s like they were surprised that winter had come!” Nemam, aghast, remarked.
As I arrived they were working on alleviating the impact of a third flood. The camp is on uneven ground and the water floods even the clinic and pharmacy cabins. With heavy rains the water runs like a giant stream right through the camp. Bulldozers are now digging a large drain to hopefully lessen the effects of any future floods.
There are a lot of children there. They are very friendly and enthusiastically welcome visitors and members of Dr. Nemam’s team alike. Shilan Atroshi, who works for the organization as a nurse is a local celebrity here.
A small school has been built on the edge of the camp to give the younger children some basic semblance of an elementary education. Dr. Nemam and her crew buy enough bananas to hand out to the pupils whenever they can. “It’s not much,” she admits, “but it is something they have to, and do, look forward to.”
The school works on a rotary basis. Some children come in the morning and others in the afternoon since the school does not have the resources to host everyone for a full school day. However, seeing it firsthand one cannot but salute it as a highly commendable effort.
Dr. Nemam’s team also organized the construction of a bakery last year given how unreliable, and often dangerous, trucking such food into the camp had been. It was an ambitious project which cost approximately $80,000 half of which went to the machinery needed to produce the nourishment and the rest to the actual building, materials and the bakers.
“But it hasn’t produced any bread since last August 1,” Nemam said as she showed me the dormant building. “This bakery can provide bread to both camps, that’s about 15,000 people, daily for just $25,000. But we haven’t had the sufficient funds to make this possible ever since.”
It’s depressing to see such a project, which could guarantee the residents of both camps a daily supply of fresh bread, come to a halt. “You should have seen in the window the excited look on the children’s faces when we got started,” she nostalgically recalled to me the opening of the bakery.
There is some bread still being made in the camp. But it is made by the refugees themselves and is quite a slow and labour intensive process. Certainly nothing compared to having an efficient and productive bakery.
A number of the friendly children who greeted us with smiles and handshakes in Bajed are orphans thanks to ISIS. One nine-year-old is a girl named Gole. Her story is heartbreaking. Gole’s mother passed away a few years earlier and her father—the sole breadwinner of the family—decided to stay in Shingal and fight ISIS. He fought them for well over a year, sure that the terrorist group would be defeated. But sadly, he was killed by ISIS shortly before the November liberation of Shingal by the Peshmerga.
Another one is the Khodeda family. These three children too lost their parents to ISIS and have since been cared for by their grandparents and uncle (who is 14) and the generous support of Shilan the nurse. Their grandmother couldn’t help bursting into tears when recalling the extended family she lost to ISIS’s genocidal campaign against her people.
The elderly are coping with the pain and sorrow every day, but as Shilan said, the children are still waiting to reunite with their parents. “I don’t think it has occurred to them yet that their parents are actually gone for good, it’s like they think they are simply sitting put and waiting for the day when they will come back.”