Jonathan Henderson/Genesis

Trading places

Iraq | Once a war zone itself, Iraq now hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees

Issue: "Divided we stand," Dec. 1, 2012

Four years ago Dohuk was a different city of refuge in Iraq’s far north—located far enough from insurgent bombings in Baghdad and Mosul to provide a place of protection for targeted Iraqi officials and once-successful street merchants. In the hills beyond Dohuk near the Turkish border, the north’s Kurdish government helped the displaced Iraqis build villages of new concrete block homes. Some made their way to Syria, seeking permanent refugee status far removed from war.

Today the escape route has reversed. Syria, once a haven for the region’s war torn, has itself become a place to flee: More than 350,000 people have left Syria since fighting between rebels and government forces erupted in March 2011. The civil war has forced an additional 1.2 million to leave their homes, but they remain in Syria, many living out of abandoned buildings and in public parks. 

Most of those who’ve crossed borders are camped in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan—but over 43,000 so far have escaped to Iraq. 

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The Domiz camp outside Dohuk opened in March and averages 500 new arrivals every day. From about 20,000 residents over the summer it’s grown to over 34,400, according to an October assessment by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. 

“I can’t sleep at night; I still have images of soldiers shooting from the roofs of the buildings,” whispered a traumatized young girl named Magi inside her family’s tent. “There was rocket fire everywhere and we were really scared,” her mother Rojin told UNHCR.

“There were power cuts all the time in our building and prices went up significantly,” she continued. “It was impossible to buy bread and oil, shops were always closed and Magi was crying because she was hungry, so we decided to flee the country.” 

Refugees at the camp are mostly Syrian Kurds who crossed the border on foot or arrived by taxi, sensing the Kurds of Iraq would welcome them. Throughout warmer months they lived in tents, with food and water—and the occasional rechargeable fan—provided by UNHCR and some non-governmental aid groups. With winter’s approach—bringing cold temperatures and not infrequent snowfalls—workers are taking advantage of warm afternoons to construct more permanent concrete block shelters and latrines. Teachers run a temporary school in the camp, but medical care and many supplies always run short. And like young Magi, many who arrive are suffering trauma. 

Given the security situation for Syria and its neighbors, non-governmental organizations are finding work difficult inside the camps, and to serve the displaced inside Syria. Switzerland-based Medair and World Vision are providing assistance to Syrian refugees living in informal settlements in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Samaritan’s Purse and British-based Barnabas Fund are working through local churches to assist the displaced. 

“I’ve worked in a lot of conflict areas around the world, but the stories we are hearing from the Syrian families arriving in Lebanon are absolutely heartbreaking,” said one Medair aid worker (who could not be named for security reasons). “Many are escaping unspeakable violence where neighborhoods have turned on neighborhoods, and aerial bombardment, shelling, and gunfire have become the norm.”

The biggest challenge now, according to Medair president Tabitha Kapic, is how to stay warm during the coming winter: “Their simple shelters are simply not adequate to protect them from the coming snow and freezing cold temperatures.”

In November Syrian opposition leaders met in Qatar to revive and restructure their controversial organization. Though the rebel Free Syrian Army has been accused of atrocities in Syria and ties to militant groups, the Syrian National Initiative hopes to provide a blueprint for civil government that could win Western support and provide a way to ease from power President Bashar al-Assad. But with about 200 civilians dying every day as the two sides fight it out, Syrians are likely to continue to flee to places like Domiz.

Where the refugees are

More than 350,000 civilians have left Syria during the 19-month conflict, and the UN says up to 700,000 may leave by year’s end. 

At least 1.2 million Syrians are internally displaced

Jordan: 105,737

Turkey: 101,834

Iraq: 42,661

16,500 have fled to Europe

At least 7,000 to North Africa, mainly Egypt


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