Winter looms for the Syrian refugees in Iraq

The following article appeared in the Sunday Express Scotland on 22 December 2013:

It was the middle of the night in August when Mayor Rzgar Mustafa was awakened by an urgent phonecall from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq. Rzgar Mustafa is a tall, proud Kurd. He is mayor of the Khabat District near Erbil, the capital city of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The phone call from the Kurdish Foreign Ministry was to tell him that the border with Syria had just been opened to allow refugees fleeing from the bloody civil war to cross into Kurdistan. Some 20,000 of them were now on their way to his district in UN trucks and buses.

When I met Mayor Mustafa last month during a four day visit to Kurdistan in my capacity as President of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq, he told me with hugely disarming modesty how he had no option but to swing into action. His story, and that of his community in Kurdistan, is an example to us all.

Kurdistan has a tradition of welcoming refugees. It is a safe haven, though sitting uneasily next to Turkey, Syria, Iran and the rest of Iraq, it has never been short of troubles. During the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the al-Anfal genocide campaign led to an estimated 180,000 Kurdish deaths, with thousands of villages, churches, mosques, schools, hospitals and homes simply wiped off the face of the earth, as Saddam indulged in his own brand of ruthless ethnic cleansing.

The fall of Saddam and the American occupation of Iraq brought a wave of violence, with the vicious insurgency that raged from 2006-2008. Tens of thousands of Christians and other ethnic minorities who were being targeted by Islamic militants, fled to Kurdistan for safety and the Kurds, as always, and despite their own awful suffering, opened their doors.

President Masoud Barzani, the enlightened leader of the Kurds, whose philosophy of pluralism and respect for human rights has gained a worldwide reputation, always welcomes refugees as ‘brothers and sisters in need.’ They are provided with food and shelter even though, over the past decade, the Kurds have had little to offer while striving to rebuild their own economy.

Following the withdrawal of the US military, there has been a further deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, with over 7,000 deaths in car-bombings, assassinations and murders this year alone. Again, thousands have fled to the safety of Kurdistan, where heavily armed and fearsome Kurdish Peshmerga troops stand guard on the border with the rest of Iraq, preventing any terrorists from entering their homeland, but welcoming refugees.

Just as the Kurdish economy began to recover, stimulated by oil and gas exports and by inward investment from Turkish businesses attracted by the relative political stability and peace in Kurdistan, the civil war in neighboring Syria has erupted. A total of 235,000 Syrians have now made their way into Iraq, 90% of them to Kurdistan.

This was the basis of the urgent phone call to Mayor Mustafa in August this year. The 20,000 starving Syrian men, women and children about to descend on his villages were in urgent need of help. So the Mayor raced around his district, wakening his villagers, urging them to prepare their halls, mosques and homes to provide immediate shelter and food for those in need. He even roused the local police and set them what must be one of the most unusual tasks in the history of policing: to find 20,000 sandwiches by morning.

This was quick-response humanitarian aid on a massive scale and a testament to what can be achieved in a crisis when a community works together. At dawn the following day, with refugees fed and sheltered, the mayor could be found pacing around a large stretch of barren land on the outskirts of a village with expert representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Thus Kawergocek Refugee Camp was born.

Kawergocek is around 45 minutes from Erbil. It is one of two major refugee camps set up by Mayor Rzgar Mustafa and is now home to over 13,000 Syrians. The other camp, ten minutes’ drive away has a further 7,000. There are dozens more like it throughout Kurdistan. When I visited these camps, I saw for myself the scale of both the achievements and immense challenges that the Syrian refugee crisis represents.

Kawergocek is now covered in UNHCR tents and bustling with activity. Mayor Mustafa visits the camp daily to ensure everything is going smoothly and he is helped in this task by the expert assistance of Whycliffe Songwa, the Senior Field Coordinator with UNHCR. There are clinics, schools, playgroups, laundries, family shower-units and even makeshift shops, all in tents of one kind or another. The only concrete buildings are a hastily built central office block, where refugees can apply for local job vacancies on nearby farms or even in hotels and businesses in Erbil. The Kurdish approach is to treat everyone as an equal, whether refugee or national citizen. It is a remarkable, heart-warming sight.

I had the pleasure of meeting one enterprising former restaurant-owner, who fled some of the bloodiest fighting in Aleppo, who has set up a Doner Kebab counter outside his tent, patiently carving off slices of juicy meat for a queue of hungry customers, the rich smell attracting a swarm of wide-eyed children. Another former shopkeeper explained to me how he laid out lines of boots and shoes for sale on an old rug lying on the muddy road, catering to camp residents who left home with pitifully few possessions.

Electricity poles have been erected throughout the camp in recent weeks, bringing power to many of the tents and large water butts, shared by groups of tents, are filled by tankers every day. Communal tents, segregated for men and women, have been fitted with large-screen TVs and satellite dishes.

Yet the challenges of living in an exposed camp at the outset of winter remain. Men and women have begun digging drainage ditches around their tents to stop floodwater engulfing their sleeping quarters. I was told how truckloads of high- energy biscuits had just been delivered and special stores set aside for clothing and food supplied by Save the Children and other major charities endeavoring to stave off hunger and malnutrition among camp residents.

Morale remains high, though. During my visit, amid the din of camp life, the sound of children’s voices could be heard singing the Kurdish National Anthem in a nearby primary school tent, while toddlers played in the muddy streets with plastic bags attached to sticks; the only toys available. Babies are being born in the camp clinic and even weddings have been held. There is zero-crime in this small, tented city, as everyone pitches in together, eager to survive this ordeal and hopefully - one day - return to their homes in Syria.

For all of this to have happened in only four months is near miraculous. But now that the winter is approaching, there is an urgent need for tent-linings, stoves, heaters, more drainage ditches to be dug, road surfacing and importantly, winter clothing and provisions. Already the nights are getting colder and the first heavy rains began last week, leaving the many tracks and access roads through the camp swamped with mud.

I personally witnessed the generosity and selflessness of the Kurds who have given everything they have to help their beleaguered neighbours. Now it is our turn. Kurdistan’s young, dynamic and articulate Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, told me that he doesn’t want money sent to his government; that just causes bureaucratic pile-ups". The NGOs like Save the Children, he tells me, are doing an excellent job, but need more international support.

Can the people of Scotland rise to the challenge this Christmas?

Struan Stevenson, MEP