Forced to flee, Syrian refugees rehabilitate Iraq's vacant camp

A view of the Bardarash camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

BARDARASH, Iraq — Ali Hussain used to work with a humanitarian NGO in towns surrounding the city of Raqqa, Syria, the epicenter of the Islamic State group’s brutal regime. Now he is once again working for the same humanitarian organization, inside the Bardarash refugee camp in northern Iraq.

The difference is that this time Hussain — who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym because of legal and security concerns — lives inside the camp as a refugee. He fled Syria, along with thousands of others, after Turkish forces began a military offensive along the country’s northern border.

Hussain is still an aid worker, but now he has been hired to join a repair crew in a refugee camp that sat unoccupied for years, until it was forced to spring back into service when the Syrian crisis entered its latest phase.

In early October, Hussain and his team were working to rehabilitate schools near Raqqa when they heard that the security situation in the region was deteriorating. U.S. military troops had pulled out of northeastern Syria, and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan was said to be preparing a military campaign against Kurdish forces that controlled the area. Hussain received a phone call from his father, who told him there had been an explosion in the city of Ras al-Ayn, near the Turkish border. It turned out to be an airstrike — and the start of Erdoğan’s offensive.

After arriving back at his home city of Hasakah, Hussain received an email saying that his organization — which requested anonymity for security reasons — was suspending its operations and closing its office.

While the Turkish incursion had not reached Hasakah, the city’s water supply, which flowed from Ras al-Ayn, had been cut off. Watching the news, he saw that the situation was only likely to get worse, so he decided to leave.

Hussain traveled by car to Qamishli, then to Derik, where family friends helped him contact a smuggler in a town near the border with Iraq. He negotiated a price — $300 — and then hid in a room with several people until dark. When they came out, they found many others preparing to make the same trip across the border. They left at 6 p.m. Because of the hilly terrain, Hussain and the smuggler both rode on horseback.

Small children were given sleeping pills to avoid attracting the attention of guards on the Syrian side of the border, who were attempting to prevent people from leaving the country, Hussain said.

An education center preparing to open for classes in Bardarash refugee camp in Iraq. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

Restoring services

The Norwegian Refugee Council surveyed people who fled Syria after the Turkish incursion and found that an overwhelming majority of them did so through informal channels, as they couldn’t access regular border crossings, did not meet the administrative requirements to cross legally, or might simply be turned away. NRC found that refugees paid between $200 and $800 to cross the border — Hussain’s payment to the smuggler fell at the lower end of the spectrum.

Those findings raised “critical questions” about the Kurdish autonomous region’s border policies and their “effect on Syrians’ ability to access safety amidst ongoing violence,” according to NRC’s report.

When Hussain and his party made it to the Iraqi checkpoints, the Kurdish guards posted there welcomed them into the country. They even drove a car out to pick up an elderly person crossing with one of the groups, he said.

Now, Hussain is one of more than 9,000 Syrian refugees living in the Bardarash camp, located within the Kurdistan region of Iraq, northwest of Erbil.

The Bardarash camp was originally built for internally displaced Iraqis and was closed more than two years ago during the Iraqi government’s controversial effort to consolidate camps and push people back to their homes. But currently, about 18,000 Syrians have fled their country — and Turkey’s military offensive — leading Iraq to reopen the Bardarash camp, this time for refugees from across the border.

More than half of the Syrians who have arrived in Iraq’s Kurdistan region are under 18 years old, and aid organizations are scrambling to get educational programs up and running with short notice and insufficient funding. Globally, about 2% of humanitarian aid is spent on education, which tends to reside in a gap between emergency relief and early recovery.

On the day Devex visited the Bardarash camp, NRC was in the midst of enrolling students for a new education center that was preparing to open. NRC had already garnered between 250 and 300 registrations, which came from only one of the camp’s five sectors.

The education center had been built by residents hired within the camp, and the NGO was planning to enlist additional camp residents as teachers. At the time of the visit, NRC was still waiting on a letter from the camp management organization, which would allow for the formalization of teacher employment.

With more funding, NRC would hire more teachers to try to meet the huge demand, members of the education team said.

Syrian refugees purchase goods through a perimeter fence at the Bardarash refugee camp in Iraq. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

Freedom of movement

Hussain has been reemployed by the same humanitarian organization he worked for in Syria to rehabilitate the kitchen and washroom units that accompany each tent inside the camp — many of which had fallen into disrepair during the camp’s vacancy.

He is sending the money he earns back to his family, who remained in Syria, but also plans to save money to fund a journey to Germany at some point in the future. His brother lives there, and Hussain said he plans to learn German in preparation of joining him.

According to NRC’s research, the vast majority of refugees at Bardarash have no plans to return to Syria, and 95% of those interviewed said they planned to settle in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Even though it is still coming back into operation, Hussain said the services in Bardarash are much better than those he saw at the Syrian camps, which he said lacked electricity and where residents would have their documents collected and held by camp managers. At Bardarash, residents are allowed to keep their documents, which is much better, Hussain said.

That doesn’t mean they can come and go as they please. Refugees at Bardarash require a sponsor — a first-degree relative living in the region — or a medical authorization to leave the camp. Based on its research findings, NRC has recommended that the government work to expedite the sponsorship process and to establish a residency office inside the camp that could allow people to leave in search of work and education or to recover lost documents.

People from the surrounding area have set up shops along the perimeter of the Bardarash camp. They sell goods to the refugees, who push their money through the chain-link fence and reach over the top to collect their purchase. The prices are reasonable, one aid worker said, because the Kurds of Iraq feel solidarity with those who have fled Syria.

Despite the relatively good conditions, everyone living at the camp — most of whom had a comparatively high standard of living before they were forced to flee — would rather be at home, Hussain said. Now that he has experienced both sides of refugee situations — as an aid worker and as a refugee employed inside the camp — he said he appreciates home more than ever.

“Home is sweet,” he said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.