ShelterBox meets the tradesmen and shopkeepers of Iraq's refugee camps

‘I work because I don’t want to just sit in my tent and do nothing. This is who I am, this is what I do.’

October 13, 2015

As the months drift into years a refugee camp becomes more than just a refugee camp. It becomes its own township, its own community, its own trading centre. In a unique and moving insight, ShelterBox talks to four people making the best of life as long term refugees

Disaster relief charity ShelterBox is in Iraq Kurdistan visiting refugees, some of whom may have first received its aid over three years ago. Time and climate have taken their toll on tents distributed all those many months ago, so ShelterBox’s team is there to assess refugee needs in the area, and to plan with partners to refresh or replace equipment.

The European refugee crisis has its roots in the Middle East and Africa. But those roots are deep, and now of very long standing. The camps are undoubtedly safer than where the refugees have fled from. And for many children, parents and elders they may now feel like home. But they are not.

In ramshackle shops and trading posts some make a meagre living. Others are working just to stay connected to their past. Some of the camps’ residents and workers opened up to our response teams with their personal stories. For security reasons we have changed their names, and we don’t identify the actual camps and their locations.

Nizar has been in the refugee camp for six months. He’d been cutting hair in his own barber shop in Syria for 17 years, and it was a successful business. He is barely able to support his family now that he lives in the camp, and he is eating into savings he put aside in Syria. People here are so poor he can’t rely on any income now. Nizar rents his shop, which he renovated with his own money to entice customers.

‘I work because I don’t want to just sit in my tent and do nothing. I certainly don’t do it for the money, because there is none to make! This is who I am, this is what I do. I don’t really have any customers because a good haircut isn’t a priority for people anymore, they’ve lost interest in their appearance.’ Nizar is considering taking his family to Europe, but is aware of the risks involved. His eventual goal is to return to Syria when it’s more peaceful.

Sayid is also from Syria. He’s lived in the camp for two years, and he fixes washing machines and air conditioning units. He sourced a lot of equipment from outside the camp, but there is little actual payment. It’s mainly barter, as few customers have cash, so he exchanges his skills for goods. In Syria he studied to become an electrical technician, but never had enough money to start his own business.

Sayid says, ‘People inside the camp have very basic human needs at this time. Although it’s hot here, aircon units and washing machines are not a priority for the poor.’ He can barely support his family, and would like to go back to Syria ‘because it’s home’. He also has land and property, and was farming his own land before the conflict drove him away.

Mother of six Amena lived in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, now all but razed to the ground. She fled with her husband and family two years ago. Amena opened her shoe shop in the refugee camp four months ago by borrowing $3,000, so is paying for the stock by instalments. This money is also going towards preparing her family for the winter cold. There are icy months ahead, and the camp is on flat ground open to the unforgiving desert wind. She’s not making much money, but however poor her clients, everyone will always need footwear, won’t they?

Amena was forced to become the breadwinner when her husband fell ill. She registered with UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) one year ago hoping to claim asylum in the EU. But that has already been twelve months of waiting. She says, ‘I am proud and feel somewhat satisfied that we no longer need to receive aid, that I can support my family, even if by support I mean ‘survive’.’ Survival is all. She hopes their children will get a good education and start to live in a more dignified manner when, or if, they enter the EU.

Adnan ran a thriving tailoring business in Damascus, having started young and been a professional tailor for seventeen years. But he has now lived and worked in a refugee camp for two years. Adnan tries to support his family, but is struggling because his money trickles away on basic necessities. When asked what his future plans are he says, ‘I want to go home to Damascus….‘home sweet home’. People don’t become refugees because they have a choice. They don’t go to Europe because they want to, but because they have to.’

As the ShelterBox team talked to him he was working on tailoring a pink dress, and fixing a Peshmerga (Kurdish army) uniform. He says, ‘Some of the Syrians in the camp are trying to change their reality and make things more peaceable by volunteering with the Peshmerga.’

Jack Bailey is a ShelterBox response volunteer, and was one of ShelterBox’s team on the Greek island of Lesbos, where refugee families paused for respite and shade on the long trail towards central Europe. Now Jack is part of this latest deployment to Iraq Kurdistan.

He says, ‘Adnan the tailor, with his sharp appearance, clean clothes and uncluttered shop was obviously skilled in his trade. How inspiring to see someone taking control of his livelihood and living as normally as possible in very abnormal conditions. To see him in a small shack on a dirt road in a dirty dusty refugee camp, and know that two years ago he was running a successful business in a cosmopolitan city and, by circumstances out of his control, he finds himself there barely able to support his family.’

‘He still greets us with a smile and is polite as he offers me his chair while I make notes. And as we leave he wants to know where we will publish the small article that will take a snap shot of his struggle, dignity and pride.’

Jack describes the feelings evoked by this long term refugee camp. ‘Arriving into this camp I was surprised to see how families had adapted their living space. It seemed that they had created a private space in the form of a court yard around their tents, possibly taken from their local architectural norms of high walled courtyards for privacy, or perhaps extra shelter from the sand storms that occur over the flat and barren desert landscape.’

‘The mixture of different coloured tarps and off-cuts that were used to create these court yards was striking. I was also struck by the freedom of movement of the children, their feeling of safety as they walk around the camp hand in hand or with arms around each other, in contrast to the fact that we are operating under strict safety and security protocols.’

Talking to them I’m reminded that each person deserves respect and dignity. As we were asking questions I’m listening, and impressed with people’s dignity in scratching out their own livings, and taking control of their own livelihoods, however unfruitful it might be.