Hoping and Waiting Away from Home

By Shenah Abdullah:

Little Dilo escaped; her parents are left in their village under Daash control

Little Dilo escaped; her parents are
left in their village under Daash control

These days, one’s identity is of great significance and, wherever you go, people’s ethnic and religious backgrounds are emphasized. “We are Arab-Shabak and Shi’a from Telkif,” “We are Kurdish-Shabak and Shi’a from Bartilla,” “We are Yezidis from Shexan,” “They are Yezidis from Shangal” , etc.  Each group and each family tries to clarify their religious and ethnic background as well as their place of birth in order to untangle themselves from the chaotic web of blame which keeps turning ever more complex and confusing. What they all want to clarify is that they are all “victims” of the recent mayhem caused by Daash, and they insist that they have been targeted due to their backgrounds, be it religious, ethnic, or both—and they all have stories to tell that require our attention and empathy.

Having watched, heard and read countless stories from internally displaced people (IDP) from all over this region, and having all felt helpless while doing so—some have decided to get directly involved. Involvement of different kinds – such as becoming a volunteer fighter under the banner of Kurdish nationalism or protection, working in newly established refugee camps, collecting humanitarian aid, or visiting different groups of refugees in their temporary shelters – has been on the rise.

Visiting the visitors at home

Due to the enormous flow of ever-increasing IDPs in the recent months and weeks, the authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have not been able to give accurate statistics of the numbers of refugees or their backgrounds. Neither do we have information of the refugees’ current place of temporary residence. We hear of Arbat, Dukan, Hajyawa, Ranya, Chemchama, Duhok, Zaxo, etc. on the news but most people have no clue about where exactly they are in these cities and towns. In order to directly deliver aid, you have to go to these cities and towns and ask the locals. “Which school? Which neighborhood? Which group?”

On 22nd August, a small group of volunteers visited three schools which refugees from different areas of the Kurdistan Region and Iraq have come to inhabit as temporary shelters in Dukan, outside the city of Sulemaniah.

We found our way around in the town of Dukan with the help of traffic police and the locals.  We were able to locate three schools out of the five in the area where refugees are currently staying.

School one, in lower Dukan accommodated twelve families (60 people, out of whom 32 were children— ages ranging from six months to 13 years). People confirmed again and again that they were in very good hands and were being taken very good care of by the locals. All the families in this school were Shabak Arabs from Tel Kaif.  Speaking with a mixture of different Arabic dialects, our group began communicating with the men, women and children. They were very welcoming and answered our endless questions.  Did they need anything? “No, they have brought us everything we need. The people from Dukan have been very good to us.” We asked for their permission to distribute a large bag of toys amongst their beautiful children. To our stereotypical surprise, these kids were really well behaved and stood in a long queue patiently to receive their own selected toys. A group of women were kept busy with their infant kids, and the rest were either watching us or cooking lunch on portable gas burners.  As for the men, they just silently watched us and didn’t get involved. Meanwhile, the children continued with their careful choosing and comparing. For that short period of time we were there, they were mostly occupied and content, both adults and children alike, and we saw glimpses of hope in their faces.  Our stay was kept short as it was time for lunch and Friday prayer. Permission was granted for group photos with the children. Several different beautiful photos of the kids are what remain of our brief encounter. We thanked everyone for their kindness to let us into their temporary home and said our goodbyes.

School two, in upper Dukan, had 18 families with nearly 80 people—of whom 42 were children, we were told. The families in this school were all Shabak Kurds from Bartella.  They too were very welcoming and invited us inside one of the classrooms, which was kept cool for the two families staying there.  All the rooms had electricity and some form of air conditioning, cooking utensils, small possessions they had brought with them and their sleeping essentials.

Everywhere, inside and outside the rooms, stacks and stacks of school desks were visible. “We are lucky because none of us have been killed or kidnaped like the Yezidis. They had a catastrophe but thank God we got out quickly because we were warned before Daash were near,” said the man responsible for the entire school. He spoke fluent Sorani and, in response to my question of how he knew Sorani so well, he replied,  “I was in charge of one of the local political parties in my town so I learned Sorani.” Did they need anything?  “We get daily delivery of food and water and anything else we ask for. They have been very kind to us,” he explained. They also thanked people from Dukan and surrounding areas and said they only lacked tandoor for making nan. The women said they wanted to make fresh bread like they had done daily back in their homes. “We have received a lot of flour which we can make into fresh nan.” They asked for seven tandoors for all the families and we promised to do something on our return to Sulemaniyah.

Waiting, Hoping and Praying: Hajar and Her Grandchildren

School three, also in upper Dukan, had 14 families—numbering nearly 70 people yet no one could provide us with an accurate number of children staying in this school. The majority of the families were from Shexan—all Yezidis. The school also housed four Yezidi families from Shingal. We were told that these four families had lost one or two family members, and several other members were either missing or in their villages under Daash control. We visited one elder woman by the name of Hajar, who told us she had lost her husband, and two of her sons. Three grand children and one of her daughters-in-law were left in the village of Siya Shekh Khdr. A village now controlled by Daash.

The man in charge of this school told us about the four families upon our arrival. “They are all very poor and in pain because they have lost family members. You should visit them.” Following his advice, we continued through the main school corridor and enterd daya Hajar’s room.

She recalled: “It was early in the morning when they came to kill and kidnap us. I could only take my six grand-children (from one son), and my daughter in-law with her eight month old. You see these seven children? They are missing their families. I don’t know how to comfort them. This little one, (a beautiful four year old girl-Dlo), constantly asks for her patents. I just pray to God that they will not kill them. I just pray!”

Hajar and Dilo, two generations of a Yezidi family. Hajar has become the sole protector of 8 people.

Hajar and Dilo, two generations of a Yezidi family. Hajar has become the sole protector of 8 people.

She then went on talking about her husband, “My husband’s brother later found us and told us that the Daash men shot my husband and killed him because he had tried to save some of the women they wanted to kidnap. These kids have lost their grandfather”.

While she was painfully retelling this story, her grandson, eight year old Salam started crying and we tried our best to comfort him. Our photographer handed Salah his camera and he started taken impressive photographs of people around him. I wondered, how many times had he heard this story retold by his grandmother and how many more times will she have to re-tell it in front of these kids?

The six kids from one family included: Dlo-female, four years of age; Salah- male, six years of age; Salam-male, eight years of age; Haya-female 13 years of age; Sami-male, 15 years of age and the eldest, Syva-female, 18 years of age. The older kids’ faces were full of pain and yet they kept on smiling for our camera. Will they ever see their families again? Are they still alive? What will be their fate and that of thousands of other Yezidis?  These were the questions running through our minds.

Family picture: Hajar and her grandchildren and her 20 year old daughter-in-law

Family picture: Hajar and her grandchildren and her 20 year old daughter-in-law

The lone wife of the second son busied herself with her eight-month old son.  She was only twenty years of age and newly married. On the front of both hands tattooed in both English and Arabic, were the words ( L O V E and H U B I ), a reminder of her husband. I tried to ask her some questions but she kept lowering her face and I respected her decision to remain quiet.

For now, they were all under the wing of their kind elder guardian—who’s torn full white clothing and head scarf reminded her of her role as their sole protector, for now. On her face were many lines of the ups and downs of a past life only she knew. There were to be many more fresh lines added of this new chapter in her life—one that only she could endure.

During this Friday, tears were shed, stories were told and painful glances as well as beautiful smiles were caught on camera and many more were undocumented.  To ease a little of their physical as well as psychological pains, we tried to distract the kids and their observing families with drawing and coloring.

The majority of the children painted colorful nature scenes, and Salam drew a portrait of our photographer—who happens to have a full beard. Salam gave it the title of Daash. We all laughed except for grandma who told us, “Please don’t mention that word in front of the children,” she knew what the word meant to all of them. A word now synonymous with violence, kidnaping, death and destruction—for locals and outsiders alike.

This was the story of one family; there are thousands and thousands of similar stories told and re-told in the hundreds of shelters these families now occupy. Refugees from all parts of the Kurdistan Region, the rest of Iraq and all over Syria may have food and water and a roof or tent to “protect” them, but they re-live the atrocities of the past weeks, months and years on a daily basis and will do so for many years to come. Yet despite all that they have experienced—they continue to hope for the return of a loved one, dream of returning to their homes and envision telling another survival story to a new generation.

What we can do in the meantime is to try to give a helping hand to whomever we can, however we can, in the hope of rekindling what lies deeper within each one of these refugees. We can also provide an alternative story; the human stories which are more hopeful and more tolerant than the grim dark stories we hear from media sources. People in this region know that life events will continue to challenge their very existence and would tell you how they have survived many waves of violence in the past. Even though this happens to be one of the cruelest waves to hit their shores, nevertheless, they have learned how to survive with the help of their families, relations and neighbors in the past—and today too, they continue to rely on everyone around them because they know, together, they can continue to hope and wait away from home.

Shenah Abdullah is a lecturer and researcher in social anthropology living and working in Sulaymani, Southern Kurdistan.

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