Standing in the muddy street in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ ramshackle Domiz Camp, we were visitors to another world.
A young man who works for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) accompanied my colleague and me. He had driven us from Erbil to the camp, and was now assisting us as a translator.
“Could we offer you some tea?” My heart sank as we entered the sparse living quarters of a Syrian family. We folded ourselves onto cushions, close to the ground. The threadbare seating was the only furnishing in sight.
Still, their hospitality was touching. How could we refuse tea? Two pretty young women appeared. They smiled warmly and gracefully poured steaming tea into small, matching glasses.
Then we met two babies – both born as refugees – along with their proud parents and an assortment of aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Family members came and went, everyone wanting a look at the unexpected visitors.
Two contrasting subjects comprised most of the conversation. Various family members, sometimes all speaking at once, repeated their gratitude to the KRG for giving them shelter and safety.
But they also made sure we understood they had lost everything – their homes, ID cards and passports, jobs, shops, cars and cash. All they’d ever owned was gone.
We also discovered that they hadn’t fled from Islamic State, as we’d first assumed. They had run for their lives from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ruthless army – the men avoiding forced conscription and the women escaping bombs, mortar fire and other notorious cruelties that inevitably follow in the Syrian soldiers’ wake.
After a while, we said our goodbyes and entered another home across the way. There, we met a frail man in his early 40s who explained that he hadn’t been able to “stop shaking” since the day he and his family ran for their lives. He couldn’t understand what had happened to his trembling hands.
His worried wife explained that she works part-time for the UN at the refugee camp, and is trying to arrange to move the family some - where – anywhere – to find medical help. She showed us their family’s UNHCR refugee document – their only ID.
“But without passports we can’t travel,” she sighed. “We can’t cross borders, board airplanes or check into hotels... ” Her pretty face was lined with dread. She knows very well that her husband needs help – possibly for Parkinson’s disease – and fears for her children if they lose him.
She is doing everything she can. And somehow, it isn’t enough.
ASSAD’S VICIOUS assaults against his own people, including torture, rape, chemical attacks, barrel bombs and indiscriminate murders of every imaginable kind, have stunned the world.
The death toll of Syria’s seemingly endless civil war has reached more than 200,000.
During the onslaught, several al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist groups were spawned among the Sunni fighters seeking to overthrow Assad. They are bloodthirsty enough.
But by now, we’re well aware of another destructive force sweeping across the Middle East: Islamic State marauders, who have slashed, raped, torched and murdered their way through large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Other Sunni rebels are certainly merciless.
But Islamic State is bigger, wealthier, better organized and more ruthless than all the rest.
In one assault after another, Islamic State ferociously battered Iraq’s Yazidi and Shi’ite villages, subjecting innocents to unimaginable abuses.
Then, starting in June 2014, motivated by Islamist piety, Islamic State religiously cleansed the heartland of Christianity in Iraq – Mosul and the Nineveh plain – of its indigenous Christians. In August, the town of Qaraqosh was finally emptied of its believers.
Young Christian men who resisted Islamic State’s edict of “convert, pay jizya tax or leave” were shot. The elderly and newborns did not fare well on the long, hot trek, since most of those who fled weren’t even allowed to carry food or water with them. The survivors eventually limped into Erbil, the Kurdistan region’s capital city.
It’s true, thanks to being People of the Book, that the Christians didn’t face the same terrible fate as the Yazidis and non-radicalized Muslims.
Yet even without the beheadings, crucifixions, kidnappings and sex slavery that the others endured (in a few cases, Christians too) they, like the Syrians in Domiz, have lost everything.
Even today, they have little more than the clothes in which they fled, with nothing remaining of a lifetime’s toil.
And not only have they lost many loved ones, but in a sense, they’ve lost some part of themselves. They are no longer teachers, shop own ers, farmers, bankers or businessmen. They’ve forfeited all control over their lives, and have to rely on strangers whom they barely trust.
The elderly seem especially adrift, heartsick and despairing.
KURDISTAN WAS already hosting thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees when the Christians found themselves in Ankawa, Erbil’s Christian district. Exhausted, hungry and dehydrated, they collapsed on sidewalks, inside abandoned buildings, on strangers’ couches and in churches and schools.
Reports on the fate of the Christians soon trickled out. Some of us wrote about their struggles, using whatever information we could gather. But it was difficult to grasp the situation’s complexities by just reading the news and emailing people who had visited.
Thanks to the Hudson Institute, where I’m a fellow, I was able to travel to Erbil from October 28 until November 4. A colleague and I visited not only refugees in the Domiz Refugee Camp near Dohuk, but also the Christians in Ankawa. Afterwards, I wrote an account, some of which follows: We were visiting the Mar Yousef church compound in the Ankawa district, a Christian enclave in a mostly Muslim city, packed to the rafters with refugees and their meager possessions.
In an odd way, it is rather colorful.
The church’s roofs and ramparts are strung with random laundry items. Several classrooms have become sleeping quarters for 10 families each – 40-50 women and children per room. During the day, the rooms are piled to the ceiling with brightly printed mats that serve as mattresses by night. A huge pot of rice simmers just inside each door.
Male refugees, even fathers and husbands, sleep in a different section of the compound. They mingle with their families during the day.
It was raining, and the air was damp and heavy with human smells – food, sweat and latrines. Bathing takes place in a cubicle with peeling paint, a rickety door and a cold water tap about three feet from the ground.
Two other cold taps on the grounds provide water for drinking, laundry and dishwashing. Beyond that, there is no running or hot water, no heat and the barest food essentials.
“We have no money to buy food,” Faten, who was once a schoolteacher, told me. “[Islamic State] took everything. Everything...”
SEEING AND hearing of so much loss and grief was distressing. And not surprisingly, one particular question arose more than once: “Why isn’t the UN taking care of this?” Unfortunately the answers – gleaned from well-informed aid workers, NGOs, security personnel and professionals working among the refugees – were disturbing.
We learned that the UN camps are rife with violence, drugs, sexual abuse and theft. Christian newcomers have avoided them. But other dangers, looming in the near future, are even more deadly.
Not only has the UN done a poor job of planning, supervising and equipping the existing refugee camps in Kurdistan, it has not prepared them for the winter.
“It’s a disaster in the making,” a security expert told us. “Winterization of the tent cities is the most essential and urgent issue for them. Somebody needs to replace the tents with caravans [prefabricated dwellings with foundations] before the rain and snow hit, and the mud starts flowing. But how’s that going to happen in a month’s time?” The KRG is stretched to its limits financially – it hasn’t received funds legally due to it from the Baghdad government since January. It is offering what help it can, while its Peshmerga militia remains on high alert, responsible for Kurdistan’s safety as Islamic State continues to encroach around it.
In fact, when my colleague and I traveled to the Domiz Camp, our driver explained that we would need to take an indirect route; Islamic State was dangerously close to the main highway between Erbil and Dohuk. We had to skirt around them.
Considering the state of the camps, not to mention the refugees who are still sleeping in abandoned buildings and tents along the highways, one wonders whether the UN is really putting its existing funding to good use.
The day after I left, Kurdistan’s Rudaw media reported, “The UN is looking for private Kurdish donors for its program to prepare 1.26 million Iraqis for winter, as it is still $173 million short of what it needs for shelter and basic items like blankets and fuel for cooking and heating.”
Instead of fund-raising, perhaps the UN should consider putting its own house in order.
Within the UN, there are two very different refugee organizations. The UNHCR works in Kurdistan and other global trouble spots.
UNHCR defines a refugee as someone who has fled his country “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” These people face loss of their home, livelihood and community and are entitled to remain refugees for one generation only.
UNHCR has a staff of 7,739. They assisted 45.2 million refugees in 2012, and their budget reached a record $4.3 billion.
And then there’s the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. As those of us who live in Israel know all too well, UNRWA serves only Palestinian “refugees” – millions of them.
UNRWA’s website explains that in the beginning, the agency was in responsible for “850,000 persons, based on painstaking census efforts and identifica - tion of fraudulent claims. The 1948 registered refugees and their descendants now number 5 million...”
Timon Dias wrote for Gatestone Institute, “UNRWA is the only UN refugee agency... that designates the descendants of the original refugees as refugees as well – even though 90 percent of UNRWA-designated refugees have never actually been displaced.”
To serve those five million Palestinians, UNRWA’s staff numbered an astonishing 31,000 in 2012. Their budget was $907,907,371.
If the surviving refugees from 1948 and their first-generation offspring were the only ones designated to receive assistance from UNRWA today, and the staff was pared down appropriately, the surplus funds could be redirected to UNHCR.
And that might just be a lifesaver.
AFTER SAYING goodbye to the Domiz families and the Christians in Ankawa, it was honestly difficult to envision a better life for them. Despite their gratitude for a temporary safe haven, despair shadows them.
“We are miserable,” one Christian woman told me with a weary smile. “Miserable.”
As my plane took off, her face was just one of the innumerable snapshots of Kurdistan swirling around in my head.
Sorting through it all, trying to fit the pieces together, somehow I was reminded of the 850,000 Arabic-speaking Jewish refugees from Muslim lands that flooded Israel in the 1950s-1970s.
They, too, had been expelled with nothing but the clothes they wore. They, too, had lived in tents.
They’d also mourned their losses and struggled to learn a new language and customs. And they had to reach deep into themselves to find enough faith and strength to go on.
They had no UNHCR or UNRWA. But they had one great advantage: They had come home. They were Jews in the Land of Promise. Amid all the difficulties, “Next year in Jerusalem” had become – in spite of everything – a miraculous reality.
Will Kurdistan ever become a true home to the refugees who have found a safe haven there? Or will they someday safely return to their ravaged homes and villages, summoning the courage and resources to rebuild? Or will they travel on to new nations, and try to start over? Right now, no one can say.
Only through the kindness of others, the strength of their families and heaven’s tender mercies, will they find their way. And may God go with them.