Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My First Day in Suleymania: A visit to Qalawa Refugee Camp, Suleymania, Kurdistan--062911

It was noon and the driver arrived to pick me up. I had accepted a new job and was moving once again, this time to Sulaymaniyah, after 4 months living in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan. The modern city of Sulaymaniyah was founded on 14 November 1784 by the Kurdish prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban who named it after his father Sulaiman Pasha. Because it was founded as the capital of a powerful Kurdish principality, Sulaymaniyah has developed into a large city with a population of about 1million people. It is the cultural center of the Sorani-speaking Kurds and an important economic center for Iraqi Kurdistan.
A view from the Dukan Lake, Suleymania
I had a mixture of happiness and nostalgia, leaving Erbil, which I already considered home, even though it was very different from my home; language, culture, women’s place in society, but I had learned to accept it and love it, I had friends and had established many relationships. I was happy and ready to try Suli’s way; everyone I had talked to said it was better than Erbil, in terms of customs and traditions, they kept stressing the fact that people in Sulimania were more open and that I would feel better here.

Om Suli, I was invited to attend a puppet show in the Qalawa refugee camp and of course I was in, since I love anything that has to do with children. We arrived to the camp and were greeted in the entrance by a man. There was an empty, rocky and dusty lot and my first reaction was one of shock. I had only seen the Palestinian refugee camps which looked more like neighborhoods, with cements houses, being established more than 50 years ago. Blue tents served as roofs, held by big tires. I didn’t go inside the camp, since the children were practicing and anything could distract them; I perfectly new this from my experience working in a summer camp in Palestine. Instead, few girls came out to receive us and I greeted them in Arabic: Shlonish, How are you? Then I used a more colloquial expression: Shaku Maku, more like what’s up, and they replied; Kulshi Maku, Nothing’s up! This is a normal Iraqi response. We were all laughing!

Qalawa Camp was formed in June 2006 by a group of IDPs on an empty piece of open land southeast of Sulaymaniyah center. It is located in Sharwani area, near the Rizgari fuel station. We were told there are around 59 families living here. I approached two women that were near and asked them how long they were living in the camp, one of them said that she was from Baghdad and was living there since 2009. She said that there were no jobs and that they had problems with electricity.

According to a 2008 report from the International Organization of Migration (IOM), camp residents face poor conditions, as they have no sanitation, loose garbage around the tents, no electricity and no toilets. In addition, there have been cases of typhoid reported. IDPs have access to a mobile medical unit and water is being trucked in. The camp was formed when a large number of families fled sectarian violence in Baghdad and Diyala. During our visit we were told that the children from the camp do not attend school. According to a report from the Danish Immigration service from their visit to the camp in 2010, there were 27 children of school age in the camp in 2009. They were not enrolled in school, particularly if engaged in begging and lacking alternative sources of livelihood, declined UNHCR supported transportation to schools in the neighborhood. Only few of the camp’s children can read.
The children’s messy, untidy hair reminded me of their reality as refugees, but their smiles and beautiful eyes lifted me up. I started to ask their names, and they all took turns to tell me their names. One of them clung into my arm and kissed it, my heart wanted to melt but I smiled and kissed her head back. It was very hot and dusty, and we were trying to set up the stage for the puppet show. It was just a colored banner in Arabic and English welcoming everyone, but it was meant to serve as an interface between the public and the actors. We laid some blankets in the dusty ground for the audience to sit overlooking the mountains.
After some running around and playing, we were able to gather the children in a circle, to get ready to start the show. Then one of the AUI professors, who have been working on the camp arrived and our circle was destroyed. They all gathered around him to welcome him. The roles were reviewed by the volunteers and the children took their puppets and gathered behind the improvised stage. The show started and the puppets as well as the children’s heads were coming up and down. The narrators, a boy and a girl, who were able to read, took turns in telling the story and the children came on stage often times delayed, but we laughed and clapped and enjoyed the performance. The children were happy and full of energy despite the burning sun. It was the first time that they had the opportunity to show their abilities in public. The event was very simple, and yet empowering. It was a symbol of what can be achieved if we can give time, love, solidarity and hard work.

I can’t wait to go back to Qalawa, it reminds me how blessed I am and why I am here; to share what I have with others and to make these children hope for a better future. It reminds me that I CAN do something to change the world by changing peoples’ lives, one at a time.

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.” A. Roy

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