Domiz Camp, Iraq -- Darfur got George Clooney. Haiti got Sean Penn. Cambodia got Angelina Jolie. The Syrian Kurds got me, Sarah Wayne Callies. That is the simplest and most direct metric I know to convey how bad it is for them right now. Other major humanitarian disasters have garnered the attention and sponsorship of Academy Award winning actors, and the Kurds, God bless them, landed themselves a television actress who won the award for drama in college.
Things are not good in Domiz camp, across the border from Syria in northern Iraq. It's the kind of place that makes you feel like you just went twelve rounds with Floyd Mayweather. The camp was built for the 5,000 people they expected to seek refuge in it, and that was sufficient until August of last year when hundreds of refugees started arriving every day. The most conservative estimate I heard of Domiz camp's current population is 42,000 souls. Some say it's home to over 65,000. Trying to provide the most basic services to this population is like laying track in front of a moving train and quite frankly right now everyone who works in the camp is in a mad scramble. The International Rescue Committee recently agreed to take over management of the camp and it's an unenviable task. At Domiz, hundreds of people don't have shelter -- and the night before I arrived it poured rain over the already chaotic mess of mud, sewage and garbage. Tents that were put up too quickly over not-dry concrete collapsed and at least one family of 11 slept outside -- in the driving rain and near-freezing temperatures.
The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq is doing what it can, ensuring an open borders policy and allowing the refugees to work. Still, complaints are legion. Refugees say water hoses dragged through the mud contaminate their tanks and cause illness. They say that food rations don't include bread, and that prices in the camp shops are higher than those outside. Jobs in town are scarce and too often the refugees say they are exploited, earning pennies on the dollar for their work, or worse, not being paid at all. There are fears that once summer's relentless desert heat replaces winter's chill, illness could spread like wildfire through the camp.
And yet the human capital is inspiring. I met with a youth group, a women's group, and a group of community leaders, and all of them begged for access to jobs and education. There are people living here who were lawyers, doctors, engineers, designers, journalists, builders, professors and university students. This is a community desperate for an opportunity to excel, to improve itself, and to take an active role in improving their own situation.
What struck me was the degree of concern they expressed for one another. The elders spoke of their fears for the youth -- that boredom can be dangerous in young people. The men I spoke with voiced their concern for the women, telling me that they were being solicited for 'immoral' work. The able-bodied members expressed concern for the disabled among them, unable to reach the aid offices to advocate for themselves. In a population where many do not have a place to lay their own heads, more often than not it was worry for their neighbors that they voiced to me.
It seems to me that there is a window of opportunity in Domiz camp right now. Its inhabitants crave a chance to create a safe haven where they can live in peace and good health. The teachers among them have volunteered to educate the students and the students are crying out to continue their studies. One man asked for classes in English to better express to aid workers the conditions in the camp and the needs of its population. There is tremendous goodwill among the residents, who routinely take in new arrivals that have yet to receive tents of their own. These are good and generous people who are asking, not for handouts, but for support in nurturing their own community.
But this harmony will not last forever. Boredom and apathy are dangerous foes to strong community. The Syrian Kurds need help and they need it yesterday. While the IRC and other international aid organizations plan for community and women's centers, and classrooms, they also have to find a way to house the families without tents and services while anticipating the needs of the thousands who arrive every week. There are plans for listening centers for abused women, sports programs for inactive children, and health services for the disabled. But right now the focus is on getting up tents and latrines.
My new friends in the camp offered to take me around to visit their communities, and every time we parted, they asked me, with dignity and composure despite their desperate circumstances, do not forget us.
I have won no awards, have graced the covers of no big magazines, and can add no glamor to my request save the simple question from one human being to another: Will you help? The Syrian Kurds in Domiz have the IRC on their side, and our camp managers are doing the best they possibly can with what little they have. But we need more, and my friends are sleeping tonight outside in the mud. There are more renowned camps with more famous people asking for your help, and they are great people championing worthy causes. But today I am passing on the voices of the Syrian Kurdish refugees to your ears:
Please do not forget them.
IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies is blogging about her recent trip the visit IRC programs in Northern Iraq and Jordan. You can read her blogs on the Huffington Post here.
To learn more about the IRC's emergency response work tied to the Syrian Crisis, please click here.