Fighting in the so-called Islamic State has forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes in Iraq´s Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces. Many have fled in dramatic circumstances, only carrying their personal belongings. More than 850 000 internal refugees have found refuge in Iraq´s Kurdistan region, according to the UN. Only a fraction of these live in refugee camps, the rest have found shelter in rented houses, schools or public halls. Every fifth refugee is reported to be living in unfinished accommodation with no electricity, water or heating. Temperatures during this time of year drop to around zero during the night. People in Need has helped 2322 such internal refugees since the autumn and is at present distributing further aid in the region.
People in Need have been helping the most affected refugees together with Al Mesalla, a local non-governmental charity, since November of last year. It has released 1.9 million CZK for immediate aid from the humanitarian fund of the People in Need Club of Friends. „We help primarily those refugees who do not live in refugee camps and are far away from the bigger cities, therefore they rarely or never receive humanitarian aid,“ explains Marie Skálová, coordinator of Man in Need humanitarian programmes in Iraq.
Some of the refugees have risked a perilous journey across the Sinjar mountain range. „We spent six days in the mountains with no food and no water. It was summer, the heat was unbearable, many of those fleeing with us died of dehydration. Helicopters threw us some supplies but these mostly got ruined or scattered in the countryside. So we ate roots and leaves in order to feel something inside our stomachs,“ is how 41-year old Khalid Rasho Qasim describes the flight of his family from the town of Sinjar in the Nineveh province of Northern Iraq.
Khalid´s family belongs to the ethno-religious Yazidi minority. Because of their religion they are a target for the so-called Islamic state fighters. If they are captured they have the choice between converting to Sunni Islam or death. Men are then usually forced to fight alongside the radicals and women are sold as sex slaves. When neighbors warned Khalid that IS fighters were getting close to their town, he did not hesitate and took his family of ten on the long journey across the Sinjar mountains, „We left all our possessions behind, we could not carry anything, we just fled to the mountains,“ remembers Khalid. He himself carried his sick wife Leila, one of his sisters carried his handicapped son Kainwar and a neighbor helped their frail grandmother.
After walking for six days, the family, with the help of Kurdish fighters and UNHCR managed to cross Syria and reach the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. Together with 28 000 other refugees they reached the town of Sharia where they now live in a single concrete room in an unfinished building with no doors and no windows. „Here in Sharia we received two mattresses and two blankets. Every month we get food rations,“ explains Khalid. The biggest problems is the cold and what they would welcome most would be a heating stove and some material to cover the windows. The family can never return to their original home because the IS fighters have sold it.
The other refugees have similar stories to tell. Since last November People in Need have helped 200 families. „We provided mattresses, foil to insulate their shelters or wooden boards and tools to cover windows. The most vulnerable, such as widows, orphans, the handicapped, victims of sexual violence or the elderly have also received financial aid, which they can use to buy medicines or things they need for the children,“ adds Marie Skálová.
Now we are distributing aid to a further 240 families in the villages of Pe-Bizne, Karuda, Bajiv Barav and Bajiv Miri. They receive winter clothing, mattresses and blankets, materials necessary to repair their temporary shelters, financial aid, and most important of all stoves and kerosene for heating. There is now a three-person People in Need team in Erbil and Dohuk which is assessing the needs of the refugees: „According to what we have seen, people most of all need stoves and fuel, winter clothes and cash with which to buy medicines and other things they so desperately lack,“ lists Naďa Aliová, PIN coordinator working in Kurdistan, who adds that the refugees will continue to require help for at least several more months.
The armed conflict between the Iraqi army and the so-called Islamic State fighters has affected all of Iraq´s 18 provinces and has had catastrophic side-effects. According to UN statistics, by the end of 2014 more than 5.2 million people have needed help to survive. More than 3.6 million of Iraq´s inhabitants now live in areas under IS control and of these 2.2 million are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. The escalation of violence in January 2015 has caused a further 1.8 million people to become refugees in their own land.
People in Need in Iraq
People in Need has been working in Iraq since 2003. Apart from delivering humanitarian aid, it has also provided help with building schools and ensuring supplies of water. In the past few years it has concentrated its efforts in the areas of education and developing local NGOs. It is now re-establishing its presence in the country and re-opening its office in Erbil and Dohuk.
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