Thrown into the midst of a humanitarian crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan

2018 November 2 - 15 min read - Bit Finer

What is it like to visit Iraqi Kurdistan in late 2018? Read the Nordic design agency’s life changing experience

Not many people would voluntarily travel to Iraq because the opinion is that it means war and danger. This has been fixed in the general public’s mind. When an opportunity was presented to me (Paul Post, from Bit Finer design agency) to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan for an entire week, I had my doubts, as had people around me. But they turned out to be unfounded and very prejudiced.

The purpose of my trip was to visit the Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation (BHHF) which, among 10 million non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide, is determined to follow its own unique path with unwavering commitment to the humanitarian cause.

I was invited to stay in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah for a week with many influential people from 10+ countries. The plan was to visit several of the biggest refugee camps in the world, also travelling through the country in the mountains and in war-torn villages and regions.

As we gathered in Vienna on 10 October, a certain anticipation started to form that in about 5 hours we would all be in Iraqi Kurdistan, where just 4 years ago ISIS-aligned forces had begun a major offensive in Northern Iraq against the Iraqi government. A little scary!

Arriving in Erbil — first impressions

We landed in Erbil at around 3 pm local time, the capital of the legal government of the Kurdistan region and the most populated city in Kurdish inhabited areas, located approximately 350 kilometres north of Baghdad. Once through the passport check and having got my 30-day visa, we made our way out of the airport. For a Nordic person, the weather was unusually warm and the sky was a yellowish haze, mostly because of the dust and sand.

The city is very dependent on oil prices, as ⅔ of its investments come from oil money. Between 2007 and early 2014, there were many investments pouring into Erbil, resulting in the construction of vast new developments and infrastructure. However, as oil prices dropped in late 2014, the income dried up, leading to areas of half-built buildings, and creating a very unusual scenery of tightly-knit typical kurdish houses, alternating with luxurious buildings and many half-built constructions. But as oil prices have risen again, the economy is starting to pick up once more, at least for now. We hopped into an old Toyota bus and started our way through the city of Erbil to visit the BHHF warehouse.

Me in front of the Erbil airpot

Arriving in the BHHF main warehouse in the Italian Village, the effects of war started to emerge. Near Erbil there are many refugee camps, where people struck by the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive fled and where they have stayed until now, being short of basically everything, often even basic hygiene products and medicine. Seeing the stacked main warehouse, as well as a separate air-cooled warehouse for medications, and given the help BHHF provides on the ground which is delivered daily across Kurdistan, I came to realise how far millions of refugees are dependent on NGOs providing help. And their partners. What makes me worried is that after four years, most NGOs start to withdraw from the conflict zone, but the need for help is greater than ever. But there are a few determined exceptions, such as BHHF.

BHHF main warehouse, founder Dr Mariwan Baker giving an overview

Visiting the Baherka and Kawrgosk refugee camps

Having spent my first (calm) night in Iraqi Kurdistan, the plan was to travel to the Baherka and Kawrgosk refugee camps. It is about half an hour drive to the Baherka camp, passing through the Hasham refugee camp, located just on the outskirts of Erbil, where around 400 families who fled Mosul are relocated. Dr Mariwan Baker told us that the tents where those families live are meant to last for only one year, but those families have now been living in the same tents for over 3 years. At first, decent tents were being provided, but after a short time 1.5 million refugees arrived in Kurdistan, and the region just could not handle this scale of influx. The conditions now are barely tolerable.

Once we arrived in the Baherka camp, the first impression was that we were entering a jail, surrounded by high wire fences, guarded by soldiers, nothing at all like what we had imagined. Most of the residents in the Baherka camp are Kurds who had fled from Northern Kurdistan. Brick huts as far as the eye can see. We went to visit the camp manager, who gave us a detailed overview of what is (still) happening on the ground in the camp. After four years, there are still people arriving, but there is just not enough space to accommodate them. This is one of the safest camps, but still daily conflicts occur. What seemed odd to me is that this camp (and many like it) was established by NGOs (like UNHRD), while the government offers no support at all. The camp manager said people still hope for a better life abroad (because they have nothing to go back to), but those dreams are rarely fulfilled.

Narrow streets of the Baherka camp and a open sewage channel in the middle

What struck me most was the story of one young refugee woman. She was living in Mosul with her family when her house was bombed by ISIS and her entire family was killed. She managed to escape, but the bodies of her family members still remain in the house, after all these years. She cannot collect them, because the bodies have been boobytrapped by ISIS soldiers. Every refugee has a similar story, which got me thinking that this conflict has resulted in an entire lost generation of mentally broken people. Some hope is slowly returning. For example, aid is being sent and projects established by NGOs, like the BHHF Sewing Hope project that teaches women refugees to produce wonderful handbags from local material called jajim and then helping them to sell the products abroad. In this way, the women are provided with a monthly income. Similarly, NGOs have helped start up agricultural undertakings to enable refugees to grow their own food. But these are just a few determined organisations faced with millions of refugees in need.

Team Sewing Hope in the Baherka camp, lead by Paula Horsfall

Our next destination was the Kawrgosk camp, about 30 km away from Erbil and established in 2013. We stopped on a hilltop, from where the entire camp could be seen, in all the breathtaking reality of its magnitude. The size of camp area is around 419,000m² and new structures are still being built, because the strong winds are blowing away the current loose ones. The inhabitants of the Kawrgosk camp are from Syria. The moment we stepped off the bus, we were surrounded by hundreds of children. Many of them were born in the camp and this is all the life they have seen. As we walked through the camp, we made our way to a football pitch, where young refugees were having football practice, as one of the ways they can forget their everyday worries.

Representative from Hanseatic Help engaging with young refugee children

As we got deeper into the camp, a sandstorm set in, creating an apocalyptic scene which, together with the makeshift homes, recalled the movie, starring Will Smith, “I Am Legend”. We became separated from the main group and searched for a specific home. One of our group members from Germany had a refugee friend who had managed to escape to Germany, but her family was in this camp. We finally found the house and, after telling the story, words cannot express the warm welcome we received. She invited us to her makeshift house and offered us coffee and fruits, while describing the horrible living conditions and shortage of medicine in the camp. This was the most humbling experience of my life, a family who has nothing, inviting strangers from different part of the world into their house, making them feel at home, and offering to cook 30 people dinner. A lesson for life.

Inside the home of a refugee family in the Kawrgosk camp

We arrived back in Erbil in the dark. The city truly comes alive at night, with its glowing street lights, people socialising, a city like any other. Having made our way through the scary traffic where there are no understandable rules whatsoever, we arrived back in our hotel. The first day had been intense, with a lot to take in.

Visiting the Citadel

Having been thrown straight into the harsh reality of this region, the third day was planned for us to get to know Erbil history. Our goal was to visit the Citadel, the historical city centre of Erbil and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Halfway there in our little Toyota bus, we understood that it was impossible to get through in this traffic (as it was Friday, and in Kurdistan it is a free day), so we decided to walk. We went through narrow market streets, filled with traders of all sorts. As we arrived at the Citadel, a beautiful view opened up. The mound rises between 25 and 32 metres from the surrounding terrain. The Citadel was once inhabited, but in 2007 the remaining 840 families were evicted from the Citadel as part of a large project to restore and preserve the historic character of the Citadel.

The government plans to have 50 families live in the Citadel once it is renovated, but the locals are very sceptical that this will ever happen.

The citadel of Erbil by Rawen Pasha

Travelling to Sulaymaniyah and experiencing the mountains

On the fourth day, we headed for Sulaymaniyah, where we would stay for two nights. From Erbil it is around a 3h drive (~204 km) to Sulaymaniyah through Kirkuk. It is surrounded by the Azmer Range, the Goyija Range and the Qaiwan Range in the northeast, Baranan Mountain in the south, and the Tasluja Hills in the west. As we made our way up the mountains, the roads became much narrower. We passed through one checkpoint after another that mark different regions and are guarded by armed soldiers. We also drove near Koya where on 8 September rockets hit the Iranian Kurdish opposition offices. This region is mostly controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which since 1984 has been involved in an armed conflict with Turkey, with the aim of achieving an independent Kurdish state.

Passing through our final checkpoint to enter Sulaimaniyah region

Locals say that the mountains are their best friends. This is because through all the conflicts and wars, locals seek refuge in the mountains, which the armed forces up until this day have been unable to conquer.

Once the city of Sulaymaniyah came into sight, it was very a different feeling from Erbil. It was much cleaner and more modern, surrounded by mountains. The modern city of Sulaymaniyah was founded on 14 November 1784 by the Kurdish Prince Ibrahim Pasha, and currently provides home to around 656,000 inhabitants. The city is known as the capital of enlightenment among the Kurds, but the official nickname of the city at the national level is Sulaimaniyah, the Paris of Iraq or the bride of Iraq´s cities.

After dropping off our luggage at our hotel, we headed back to the Hazar Merd Mountain to have a large group dinner on the hilltop, hosted by the BHHF founder, Dr Mariwan Baker and his family. As the asphalt roads disappeared and gravel roads took over, we wound our way up the mountain to the sound of local Kurdish music coming from our Toyota bus stereo. Once we arrived, a breathtaking view of Sulaymaniyah showed itself. As Dr Mariwan Baker explains, since 2003 the city has tripled in size and has filled the entire space between the mountains.

On the hillside of the Hazar Merd mountain, looking down to our dinner area and Sulaimaniyah

A long table was set on the hilltop, covered with local home-cooked food beyond what anyone could have imagined. As the entire group sat at the table, a movie-like feeling emerged. People were dancing, eating, singing, it was dark outside and as we were high up on the mountains, we could see the lit-up city of Sulaymaniyah glowing magically below. I thought to myself what a culture and scenery this was, yet 80% of western countries think this is a war zone, no more no less. It was one of the most impressive experiences of my life.

Cooking fish on top of the Hazar Merd mountain, on the background is the city of Sulaimaniyah

Visiting the city of Halabja and the Ahmad Awa Waterfall

Day five started with an early sunrise, as I drew the curtains of my hotel room. Yellow sky and rain. We were going to visit the city of Halabja, located about 240 km northeast of Baghdad and 14 km from the Iranian border. But what made me uneasy was the fact that on 16 March 1988, the town and surrounding district were attacked by bombs, artillery fire and chemical weapons, also known as the Halabja Massacre or Bloody Friday.

It was around an 80 km drive from Sulaymaniyah. On the way, we passed many small villages and countless fields of pomegranates and nuts. As it turned out, it was pomegranate season. When we arrived at our last checkpoint, some negotiation was needed to get us through, as some of us did not have our passports. After successfully overcoming these problems, we entered the city of Halabja and headed straight for the Halabja Monument and Peace Museum. We were greeted by Mohammad, who is one of the last few (known) survivors of the chemical attack. He guided us into the museum.

We walked through the very emotional museum showing the chemical attack and its aftermath. After two days of conventional artillery attacks, Iraqi planes dropped gas canisters on the town that included the nerve agents Tabun, Sarin and VX, as well as mustard gas. Mohammad lost his entire family. He told us how the attack was mostly wrapped by the West in silence, because they had economic interests with the government and wanted to avoid conflicts.

As we were standing in the middle of a gallery showing the victims, one survivor told us a story of how, after the attack, he was in the back of a pick-up truck, with many other children, having to spend an entire night there before any help arrived. When he woke up, most of his friends who had slept next to him were dead, including the driver. He himself lost consciousness and was about to be buried, when he woke up. He only survived because some of them had had basic survival training on what to do in similar situations. I could not have imagined going through something like this.

Halabja Monument and Peace Museum exhibition about the aftermath of the attacks

From there we headed to meet the Director General of the Ministry of Health, Mr Azad Mustafa Qadr. As we packed ourselves into his office, he told us how hard it is still to deal with the effects of the attack that happened 30 years ago. Hundreds of people still need treatment and he also explained that the second generation is often impacted by their predecessors’ health issues. They are short of all medicines, and particularly the lack of direct aid and contacts. Most of the aid arrives at Sulaymaniyah, but as it is also short of medicines, only some portions of the medicine arrive at Halabja. BHHF provides many regions with medicine and other humanitarian aid, and much needed contacts are made.

After the emotional and intense first half of the day, we once again headed back to the mountains to the Ahmad Awa waterfall, located near the Iranian border. When we were on the mountain, we were surrounded by high wire fences and crocus fields. The roads disappeared as our small bus made its way up the mountain, one half of the bus barely on the road which separated us from a long drop into the abyss. We walked the last stretch of the road and made our way up the steps, surrounded by local market stalls clamped along the mountain path. Once we arrived, the site was beautiful. We were just below a waterfall, surrounded by high mountains. For a second we forgot that on the other side of that mountain was Iran.

On our way back, there were mixed emotions of stories of war afflicted people and beautiful scenery. It was hard to take everything in over such a short time. Arriving back in Sulaymaniyah in the dark, we reflected that we had had yet another eventful day, packed with emotions.

The penultimate day on the ground — visiting the Kurdish Heritage Institute and driving back to Erbil

Day six, our penultimate day on the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan, started with much better weather than we had had on the trip. We headed to the Kurdish Heritage Institute to meet its founder, the famous Kurdish singer and journalist Mr Mazhar Khalghi. The Kurdish Heritage Institute was established in 2003 and has two main offices in Sulemani and Duhok with the goal of establishing cultural archives and the oral heritage of Kurdistan, including that of all ethnic and religious minorities, in order to record the national identity of the Kurds. We watched three short movies and had a long talk with the founder, who told us that every Kurd has a story that needs to be told.

Mr Mazhar Khalghi talking about the music they record in the studios of Kurdish Heritage Institute

After our visit to the Kurdish Heritage Institute, we drove to the top of the Azmar Mountain to have a last look over the city of Sulaimaniya. We saw wonderful views of narrow mountain roads and the city. Looking down, it seemed not at all like a usual city, but rather a unique one with a story, all hidden between the mountains. The downside, though, is that there is hardly any greenery and there is garbage everywhere, due to the government’s failure to act. It is as though the city blends into the mountains, camouflaging itself from the surrounding restlessness. Music started to come down from the city, which meant it was time for prayers.

From there we headed for our last visit, which was lunch at the house of the mother of the BHHF founder. It was a typical Kurdish example of how hospitable the local people are. A table was set on the floor, covered with food of all sorts which could feed us three times over. Even though we were on the other side of the world, it felt like home. There were people from more than ten countries sharing the same food and experience. What I have learned is that Kurds take their food seriously and there is no such thing as a “light meal”. And every meal must be finished with tea. This lunch was no exception. After saying our goodbyes, we started back to Erbil.

Checkpoint after checkpoint, we made our way out of the city along the narrow mountain roads. As we left Sulaymaniyah I noticed an unusual trend on the posters alongside the roads. It turns out that Kurds like to photoshop celebrities into posters and then use them as their commercials, like Rihanna on a Kurdish oil company poster, which was weird! Although most of the people on our bus were sleeping, I wanted to take away as much as I could from the surroundings — the mountains, one Toyota after another, narrow roads, sheep alongside the mountains, crocus fields, even the bus driver arguing with someone in Kurdish, makeshift shops by the road, suicidal motorcyclists, and so on.

Heading back to Erbil from Sulaimaniyah

We made a stop near Dokan Lake to stretch our legs and drink some tea that put us on fire. The sun was going down, sinking over the top of the hill. After 15 minutes we were back on the road in our Toyota bus with its “Chillin’ on a dirt road” playlist. After three hours we arrived back in the lit-up night of Erbil.

After dropping our bags at the hotel we spent our last night in a very unusual but beautiful restaurant. We arrived in a gravel-covered parking lot, which seemed like a shady gathering place. But as we went through the entrance, it was a cosy, bright courtyard, surrounded by big buildings. People were enjoying themselves and laughing. What a hidden treasure it was — not to mention the piles of delicious foods. What a great way to end the trip!

Lessons learned, life changed — back home

My last morning was the only time I slept late, waking up at around 10 a.m. and rested until around 1 p.m. Our drive to the airport was as local as you can get, in the back of a pick-up truck. It was the best 8 km trip to an airport I have ever had. Even the policemen were laughing — crazy tourists! They are used to locals driving like this, but not every day can they see tourists in the back of a pick-up truck driving through the chaotic traffic.

Drive to the airport in the back of a Toyota pickup truck

After passing through three security checkpoints, we were on the plane heading back to Vienna and arrived home on 16 October.
Home for two days in my comfortable flat, it was hard to imagine just how different life is there. Many people will never know, therefore will never fully understand, the humanitarian crisis. War-torn places, millions of refugees packed in rugged camps, having lost everything and often everyone, wondering if peace will ever come.

But where I expected hostility, I found hospitality and hope that against all the odds everything would fall into place, and determination to build a brighter future. Most of all, I found that with the help of determined humanitarian foundations like Bring Hope and all the people involved on the ground, this might be possible.

This trip changed my life and my understanding of the world. Kurdistan and Kurdish people are amazing, forced into a horrible situation. Therefore, we plan to support the local people and work together with leading humanitarian foundations like Bring Hope.

I truly hope more Europeans will realize soon how the refugee crises can actually be solved and how much local people want it to be solved.

That said, I want to thank the Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation from the bottom of my heart for this once-in-a-lifetime trip and experience!

Trip featured in The Sun and Sky News with Hollyoaks’ Steph Waring

If you liked my story, be sure to check what The Sun and Hollyoaks’ Steph Waring has to say about the trip
Or just watch the video from Sky News or ITV, including the family of Nobel Peace Prize Winner “Nadia Murad”, Syrian refugees and other displaced persons in the camps in Iraqi Kurdistan receiving medicines and hygienic products from the Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation Ambassador, UK actress, Stephanie Waring.

If you still want more, be sure to check the story of how Bit Finer and BringHope met many years ago or watch a short documentary about Bring Hope and about the situation in Iraq

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