Iraqi IDPs: one year and counting

Bashar, 46, takes a drag from his cigarette as he considers his response. Yes, he begins, life in the camp is easier now that cabins have replaced tents.

This has meant a modicum of comfort at least for the 300 families (approximately 1,800 people) who live at Harshm camp, a dusty patch of agricultural land on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

But despite the improved living conditions, plenty of problems remain for the policeman from Mosul, who fled the city when the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) made its territorial advance one year ago, last June.

READ MORE: One year after Mosul's fall: Iraq's worsening displacement crisis

Bashar, one of nearly three milion Iraqis displaced in the past 18 months, is struggling to support his young wife and three children. Used to a regular income, he is now reliant on cash grants from the World Food Programme (WFP), which allocates 19,000 Iraqi dinars (IQD) [US$16] for each family member every month.

Harshm, whose residents are mainly from Mosul and the surrounding villages, provides rudimentary schooling, training courses and medical care. But funding its always tight and the aid agencies providing relief are unable to cater for every need.

READ MORE:  Iraq's Funding Crisis

No one knows this better then Bashar and his wife Sabre, 27. Their seven-year-old daughter Hadeel suffers from epilepsy and since arriving at the camp, they have been unable to afford her medication.

"Her epileptic seizures are much more frequent, and even her behaviour is much more disturbed now," Bashar tells IRIN. "Mentally, she is going backwards," adds Sabre, the sadness of a worried mother etched on her face.

Targeted by Islamic State

Although a Sunni Muslim, like IS, Bashar says he was a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and fearing this would make him a target for the militants, he and his family fled Mosul as soon as IS arrived.

At first, they stayed at the house of a relative in Erbil, and then they rented a hotel room.

But before long, their money had run out, and they could afford neither their rent, nor the 150,000 IQD [US$130] needed for their daughter's medicine every month.

Looking around Harshm the family's plight is replicated many times over. In the first two months after Mosul fell, 730,000 people fled the city and its surroundings, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).   

READ MORE: How Iraq Came Apart

They followed an earlier exodus from western Anbar province and preceded several other waves that at the latest count have taken the total number of IDPs across the country to close to three million.

Many live in camps like Harshm, but large numbers remain in informal settlements, exposed to the cold winters and scorching summers, and with limited access to healthcare and education.

The most commonly heard complaint among IDPs in the Kurdish capital, especially those who have been away from home for a year or more, is that it is very hard to find work and earn any money.

According to IOM, Kurdistan has taken in 1.9million IDPs, on top of the 240,000 Syrian refugees it was already hosting.

Economic Pressures

The local economy was already stalling due to a budget dispute with the central government in Baghdad when IS began its advance and the mass displacement started.

The fight against the insurgent group has not come cheap for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the influx of people needing services and flooding the labour market has also had a negative effect.

READ MORE: Kurdistan nears breaking point

"In the past, people would get 50,000 IQD [US$42] for a day's work. Now they'd be happy if they found work for 15,000 IQD, [US$12.60] " says Harshm resident Walid, a 46-year-old handyman from Bartella, a small town on the outskirts of Mosul.

He shares his trailer with his wife, two sons and four daughters. Other cabins have been arranged nearby in a cluster to accommodate the families of two further sons and a daughter.

Walid is a Shia Muslim, and a Shabak, a small ethno-religious group from the plains of Nineveh, in villages east of Mosul. 

IS, which advocates a hardline interpretation of Sunni Islam, is highly intolerant of other faiths, and views Shia Muslims in particular as apostates. As a result, the family decided to make a quick getaway when the group approached their town last June.

At first, they rented two rooms, shared among 20 plus family members, but soon they were not able to afford the monthly rent of 35,000 IQD [US$300]. They moved into Harshm in August.

Money remains an issue. Walid says his sons are lucky if they get work one day a week. Often, they get none. Like many camp residents, they head every morning to a marketplace in the centre of Erbil to join scores of other men offering their labour.

The shared taxi ride costs them 3,000 IQD [US$2.50] each way, so every day they fail to find work leaves them with a net loss.

The family's financial strictures recently turned what was supposed to be a happy occasion into a cause for worry.

Healthcare debts

When Walid's daughter, Wafa, gave birth last month, she required a caesarean, which the public hospital they went to was unable to perform.

The 24-year-old was transferred to a private clinic, which charged 800,000 IQD [US$670] for the procedure.

The family had to scramble to borrow the money from friends and relatives, this additional debt now weighing heavily on their existing financial problems.

"Whatever we worked for all these years is gone. Here we have nothing," says Walid, echoing the desperation many IDPs in the camp feel.

Recognising the psychological impact of this loss, French NGO ACTED, which runs Harshm on behalf of the local government, has organised courses to teach skills ranging from knitting to IT literacy.

These programmes are designed to serve the dual function of keeping spirits up and improving the chances of finding work, but the labour market is heavily over-subscribed and even with new-found skills, few are able to find regular or well-paid employment.

Whatever we worked for all these years is gone. Here we have nothing

With jobs so hard to come by, some have taken matters into their own hands.

Abdijibar, a Christian who fled the village of Qaraqosh near Mosul with his extended family last June, has set up a stall selling fruit and vegetables in the city's Christian quarter of Ainkawa.

Arriving in Erbil almost penniless, the 46-year-old was sent US$1,500 [IQD 1.79m] by a brother living in Sweden and used the money as start-up capital for his business.

"When we came here, all the shops were selling expensive vegetables,” he says, explaining the gap in the market he spotted. “We don't have to pay rent, so we can keep the prices low, and the people come to us," he explains.

A livestock farmer, who initially trained as a priest, Abdijibar did not marry and has no children, but his nephews help him man the stall. The business does not bring in a lot of money, he says, but it is enough to provide for the basic needs of the 42 members of his extended family.

Divided families

Sometimes the consequences of IS’s conquest of Mosul affected those who fled in ways more personal than living conditions and money troubles.

Twenty-one year old Hassan got engaged a week before the militants swept into the city. Two months later, he escaped with his mother and sister to join his father, Jaber, in Erbil. But he had to leave his fiancée behind.

Hassan is desperate for her to join him at Harshm, but so far it has proven impossible to get her out of Mosul. He says they remain in regular contact, and that she complains bitterly about the conditions in the city.

Our situation is just like that of a sick person. I will take my medication and, god willing, it will get better

Occasionally, Jaber manages to speak to his three adult daughters who also stayed in Mosul.

Most news from the city is grim: the economy has collapsed and residents say IS is unable to bring in enough supplies to feed the population.

Any income is heavily taxed, and draconian new laws threaten harsh penalties for even small misdemeanours.

"When I hear these things I get very sad, but there is nothing I can do about it," sighs Jaber. Like many other IDPs, he remains hopeful he will be able to return soon.

"Our situation is just like that of a sick person. I will take my medication and, god willing, it will get better.”

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READ MORE: How 2.9million Iraqis were displaced in 18 months