Visiting Ashti refugee camp
Many of us go about living our lives, day in, day out, we carry out chores like shopping for food at the store, going to work, getting in our cars to travel to and fro, very basic things that we have become accustomed to doing, it is almost just routine; however, visiting refugee camps is all but routine. The day I went to Ashti Camp in Sulaymaniyah people there were gathered in solemn silence for a funeral. I noticed, just to the side of the funeral area, a large PEACE sign laid in cement on the ground. I thought to myself, “isn’t that something, here in the midst of a funeral, among refugees who have known only war for years, someone placed a silent reminder of what is really important.”
Today is food distribution day here at ASHTI Camp, my organization, Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation, learned 4-5 months ago that this camp never received shampoo, ever. In more than two years not one organization knew of or reacted to this glaring need. When we discovered it, we brought 2000 pieces of baby shampoo. Clothes and some mattresses will be delivered by Bring Hope in a few months. Hamza, the Deputy Camp Manager told me 2855 families reside here. The refugees come from different areas, some from Mosul, some are Yazidi from Shengal, some from Salahaddin, what struck me most was the number of people with red hair. Americans think of Irish immigrants when they see people with red hair, clearly I had much to learn.
I loved my learning experience, I only wish more people could watch, touch, experience this heartbreak like I did, it puts everything else in one’s life into perspective. Hamza told me Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation has delivered aid here four times since they became aware of their needs and another distribution is set for tomorrow. So I set off to talk with the people living here, to learn from them and enrich myself.
It had rained the night before and the camp was very muddy, people’s belongings had been dragged out of their tents and were hanging everywhere in hopes of drying before another storm would again drench them, bedding, clothes, pillows, anything and everything they possessed – mud and all – hanging in the cool breeze. I stopped to speak with a family, they were 6 members, two adults and four children ages 11, 8, 6 and 2. They had been in another camp for 1 year before coming to this camp where they have been for 2 ½ years. A Muslim family from Bashiqa the mother told me they escaped by car and were very lucky as explosives were everywhere.
I spotted a tent with rows of small snack items, I asked, “Where do you get this food?” The 17-year-old girl in charge of running this small shop said they go to town, buy a few things and bring it back, then sell what they bought to make some money so they can get other things they need, like food. Beda was her name, she explained her family has 12 members and things are very hard for them. The small tent was full of water, but she managed to get most of the snack items up and out of the mud and salvaged almost all of their inventory. We were standing ankle deep in mud though.
I must say most people were happy to speak with me, I felt very welcomed and the entire experience is really more than I can adequately describe on paper. Most of the children looked very tiny for their age, a small boy walked up to me, age 12 I learned, his name was Shurooq (please forgive me if I misspell names, as my concentration was on learning about experiences and connecting to people on a personal level) he said, “I some English”, I responded, “that’s great, tell me, what do you know?” Shurooq proudly and loudly exclaimed, “I love you!” Up to me ran his siblings or friends, I am not really sure, Hamad age six, Leila age ten and Hisham age 3, they were all talking and smiling and I smiled back, we couldn’t understand each other, but I believe they knew I was happy to see them.
My eye caught a small boy who was playing with a makeshift wooden gun so large he could barely carry it, he looked to be about 2, but I later learned he was three and part of two families comprised of seven and four people respectively. The families were from Salahaddin, they have been here 3 years. One of the mothers explained they left the city when ISIS arrived. They took small boats from Dujail on the Tigris toward Baghdad then they came to Kurdistan. She told me, “Saddam murdered lots of people.”
Lastly, I want to say a bit about collaboration. It seems many NGO’s protect themselves and their donor base afraid other NGO’s may usurp them or their funding, this mode of operation is very limiting and not useful for collaboration. If we remember who we are all working to help, which is the people in trouble, perhaps we can see a way to implement true collaboration in the spirit for which it is intended.
I do not want to single one NGO out, as they all have a very restrictive, almost secretive modus operandi. Let me simply say, Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation has tried unsuccessfully to establish a working relationship with this camp’s emergency hospital. We have a great number of medicine donations and want to make stocking their shelves easier and more efficient, rather than simply accept these donations from us (nothing is being asked of them, except to take these donations for the people) they prefer to decline the help. It befuddles me.