Winter looms for Syrian refugees in Iraq

Winter is fast approaching in Iraq’s Kurdistan as heavy rain threatens the Syrian Kurdish refugees

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Winter is fast approaching in Iraq’s Kurdistan and as heavy rain threatens to exacerbate an already dire situation for the region’s 235,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees, local organizations are fighting a battle against time in an attempt to soften the cold blow of winter.

November gave way to colder seasons, as Kawargosk’s 12,400 inhabitants saw their tents and roads flood, following hours of torrential downpour. In a camp riddled with ditches and stagnant water, the more common source of concern is the rain, and its effects on the refugees’ health.

With temperatures dropping to below zero during the coldest months of January and February and the often unabating rain, local organizations like Refugee Integration, Support and Education (RISE) have been planning ways to keep the refugees safe, with the UNHCR tents, from suffering the winter’s battering.

“We are worried that the rain will flood our tents. Our children don’t have warm clothes or shoes for the winter. What the organizations give us is not enough,” said Damascus-born Ghazala.

Ruwayda, a young woman from Qamishli, Syria, said that the clothes provided by the organizations are not appropriate for the winter months and worries that her children will get ill. The mother of two recently took her son to see a doctor in Arbil, where she was given medicinal salt to fight off infections; a weak remedy in the face of winter influenza.

The quick spread of disease and illness among families that live in such close proximity to one another is a reality that has yet to receive substantial support. Many of the refugees agreed that they lack medical help.

“The children need milk, they are not getting their vitamins and this will cause them to become ill,” said Ghazala’s neighbor.

“One box of food a month is not enough,” said Ruwayda as she perched by the stove, boiling water for tea. The conversation fast turned into a debate, as families joined the discussion in an attempt to explain their needs and worries. It became clear that flooding was a prime concern.

Mammoth task

RISE has taken on the mammoth task of assisting in preventing water from swamping the accommodations. The organization has engineered a makeshift drainage system and has employed refugees to assist in the project, in this way alleviating the widespread sense of boredom that often prevails in these camps: “Many of us are like prisoners here because we cannot work,” explained Ghazala’s husband.

Hassina, an elderly and vivacious woman from Hasaka, marveled at the possibility of an efficient drainage plan. “Zor bash,” she said in Kurdish - very good. “We were told that our tents would be fitted with concrete floors, but this never happened,” she said, an approving chorus resonating around her.

There is no time left to install the concrete blocks in Kawargosk, and local organizations are quickly having to improvise, often with very little help or expertise. The UNHCR plans to provide plastic sheets as additional flooring, as part of their winterization package; but these are unlikely to prove useful in the event of a flood.

While rain and poor health are the worst of many evils, the kerosene-run stoves are also a source of trouble. That morning one of the tents in Kawargosk caught fire, in a matter of minutes everything had been burnt to ashes, enveloped by a thick column of black smoke.

However, no one was injured. “My main concern during the winter is the stoves. We have to use them, but we are afraid to because they run on kerosene. They cause problems, like the one we saw today,” said Ruwayda, in reference to the burnt-down tent. In response to these dangers, the UNHCR has begun a mass information program, advising the refugees on the fire hazards that could result from the use of kerosene stoves.

Purpose built camps like Darashakran provide a safer environment in the winter, through the use of concrete foundations for the tents. But the camp’s capacity is set at 10,000 refugees, meaning that more than 100,000 Syrians in the more makeshift camps will be forced to endure the harsh Kurdish winter with very little protection.

In June, the UNHCR asked for nearly $5 billion to be designated to Syrian refugees. According to an analysis published in September, donations from the international community are $2.7 billion short of the U.N. appeal; this shortage of funds will have grave implications on the overpopulated camps in the coming months.

Mass influx

In an attempt to accommodate the mass influx of Syrian Kurds, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has also appealed to the international community to increase funds: “The capabilities and the budget that we have are not enough for the large influx. That is why we have been approaching the international community. We have a human and ethnic responsibility towards them,” explained Hemin Hawrami, head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Buffering the refugee camps has become a race against time, one that should have started months ago. Safe in the knowledge that winter was still far and not a threat to the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Kurdistan Region, and the millions that are displaced throughout the wider region, many of the organizations overlooked the fast-approaching season.

While it is the first winter that Syrian Kurds based in Kurdistan are facing as refugees, they are aware of the difficulties that will inevitably arise and the dangers they face. This is yet another source of concern for the hundreds of thousands of people who already face dire circumstances.


Sofia Barbarani is a London-based freelance writer, with an MA in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies, King's College London.

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