Keeping children alive
Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Iraqi Kurdistan when the Syrian border reopened in August. As they settle into a new life of hardship but relative safety, recent arrivals share their stories, hopes and fears.
The authorities are setting up new camps, but some refugees are living in temporary ones, under very basic conditions.
On 25 September, the ICRC distributed hygiene and household kits to more than 1,300 people in the temporary camps at Bardarash and Qasrouk, working closely with the UNHCR.
Nasreen and her sisters-in-law Jwan and Fatima fled the fighting in Damascus with their seven children. "We have a very nice apartment on the outskirts of Damascus and my husband has a small restaurant," she explained.
But clashes became more frequent in their part of Damascus. "Bombs often fell close to our house and bullets hit the walls of the apartment," she recalled. "We were expecting to die any minute. The children were scared of the bombs and explosions. My husband said I had to get out of the country to save the children."
Her two sisters-in-law lived in the same building and left with her, along with their children. A rented minibus took them on the 15-hour journey from Damascus via Aleppo to the north-eastern town of Qamishli. "There were checkpoints all along the road, some manned by the Syrian army, others by armed groups," Nasreen explained. "They stopped us and searched everything, even the children's' pockets."
After spending two days with relatives in Qamishli, they took another minibus to the last checkpoint, eight kilometres from the Iraqi border. The road ends there, so they had to continue on foot, under the burning sun. "We walked for more than ten hours," Fatima explained. "The children were getting tired, but we had to run in order to reach the Iraqi border before sunset. Otherwise we'd have had to spend the night in the open." They finally reached the Sehela crossing point in the late afternoon, where they were registered before a minibus took them to Qasrouk transit site.
Their husbands stayed in Syria to sell the family homes and belongings. "We feel very safe here, but we're worried about our husbands," Jwan said. "Every day we tell them to hurry up and join us!"
As we were talking, Nasreen received a phone call from her husband telling her that he and the other men had managed to sell their belongings and would be leaving to join them as soon as possible. The news brought smiles to everyone's faces. "It sounds like we'll finally be back with our husbands again," said Fatima. "Although we're still afraid it might not happen. The journey from Damascus is very dangerous. But God is great and we will pray that our husbands will soon see their children again."
Azad Sulaiman and Mutiaa Mohammad lived in Qamishli with their five children. Life was hard. "I was a daily worker on road construction sites," Azad said. "I often didn't earn enough to feed my family. We were living in one room and we were short of clothes and blankets, because we had to buy medicine for my daughter."
His eldest daughter Fansa (14) has only one kidney. Even that is malfunctioning, causing her severe pain. Fansa's deteriorating condition was the last straw; the family decided to leave.
They left in the back of a truck with their neighbours. When they arrived at the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, they had to wait 11 days before being allowed to cross. "We had very little food and water," Azad said. After they entered Iraq, the authorities took them to Erbil, and from there they moved to a transit camp in Bardarash football stadium.
Mutiaa sat with her two daughters, watching her three sons playing outside the tent. "Even though we're living under blankets, I feel safe. And we have enough food and water," she explained. "The only thing I want now is for Fansa to get better. She needs an operation, but we can't afford it, and there were no medical facilities in Qamishli that could treat her."
Azad is worried. "We fled because my daughter needed continuous treatment. But if she isn't treated very soon, I'm going to lose her for ever."
Fatima Jumaa Sleman, mother of seven children, also lives in a small tent in Bardarash football stadium. "One day, I heard that three people had been arrested in Qamishli and brutally killed," she explained. "So I decided to leave, to keep my children alive."
But like Mutiaa, Fatima left at least partly because the conflict has disrupted health care in Syria. One of her sons died two months ago at the age of 19 from thalassaemia, a genetic blood disorder that requires frequent blood transfusions. Two of her other sons suffer from the same disease and she is now hoping they can be saved.
"Since we arrived here, their father has been taking them to hospital in Dohuk for blood transfusions," she explained. "I don't want them to go the same way as their brother."