I spent two weeks in Iraqi refugee camps

It’s even worse than you think


The horrific picture of Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the shore of Bodrum this month reminded us of the horror which the Syrian civil war and the arrival of ISIS have brought to this now desolate region.  And while it may have awoken many, sadly global interest seems devastatingly cyclical.

This summer, having seen the displacement of millions of refugees, I decided to take a trip to Iraq and see the situation for myself.

Iraq isn’t exactly a popular destination this time of year. With an Islamic terrorist group running around beheading everyone, daily bombings , power cuts and – of course – the suicidal heat, you can understand why. But contrary to popular belief, the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq is a somewhat safe-haven.

The Kurds have vehemently protected their land and the region has consequently adopted over two million refugees from Iraq and Syria, so the majority of camps and refugee programs are here.

A standard UN tent

A standard UN tent

I spent two weeks in Sulaymaniyah in the North-East and was fortunate enough to work with Kurdistan Save the Children (KSC). They are the charity at the forefront of life-savingly vital aid provision in the region, and cater to everyone regardless of ethnicity or religion.

I’ve seen the pictures and read the stories, but I never expected the horrendous reality.

Me with two refugees

Me with two refugees

The camps are overcrowded, dirty, and tired. People arrive every day hopelessly seeking help. The searing Iraqi heat reaches over 50 degrees in summer and doesn’t exactly help the situation either (getting a tan isn’t quite the priority here).

At times we would have to fit hundreds of kids in a small tent for lunch, which although horrible was better than outside. I had to distribute their lunch of a small piece of cake and some juice. Not exactly a luxurious meal, but they all ate happily with a smile.

But the atmosphere is deeply depressing. People here have fled from the horrors of death, rape and bombing. The women cry, the men wallow in despair, and the kids play innocently around the camp, blissfully unaware on the fact this can only be a temporary fix. Despite limited resources and funding though, KSC have still been able to accommodate thousands into tents.

Kid's get ready for lunch in blistering heat

Kid’s get ready for lunch in blistering heat

Arbat Camp houses the majority of refugees fleeing Syria, and provides sport and schooling so none of the children fall behind. Although the kids are cheerful and love taking part in dance and language classes I got to help out with, it’s still at its heart a refugee camp. Charities like the one I worked with can only do so much without funding. The situation is dire, and no amount of pictures and videos will show just how much help these forgotten people require.

KSC also have programs in the cities aimed at other refugees who fled beyond the camps. Hospitals, youth centres, nurseries and schools are all running for any child and opportunities to learn English and musical instruments are made readily available.

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Syrian refugees pose

Talking to some of these kids and seeing the joy these activities bring is like nothing I’ve experienced before. So many of them are so talented yet most will never have the chance to progress. It really makes you see how much we take our lives for granted. Essentially where we are born is a lottery, and they lost.

Being there, it’s easy to see first hand how the situation in Iraq and Syria doesn’t appear to be getting any better. Aid organisations are running out of funds, ISIS remain strong alongside their affiliate terrorist groups, the Syrian war continues to rage on and refugees continue to be denied access to other countries.

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I went to volunteer in Iraq this summer thinking I could be the saviour of these people in some small way — and seeing the harsh reality of the sheer scale of the problem, I got a big ego check.

And the same goes for anyone who shows up outside of a camp as if they’re Mother Teresa. They don’t need a knight in shining armour, they need a god-given miracle, they need funding and they need an end to the war.

This crisis is no joke, the world will only be a better place when we work together and help or donate to groups like the one I worked with. If not, we can expect to see a lot more suffer the same fate as Aylan Kurdi.