By Ihsan Hussein
I woke up early the morning of 7 August, exhausted from the week but ready to move forward with the weekend distributions in Al Obaide Camp. My family was excited all week for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, and the large celebration we would have at my parents’ home. However, with complications and the poor ongoing security situation in Anbar, IOM’s distribution of non-food items (NFIs) to Syrian refugees in the camp had been continually delayed until that morning. It had been a long, hot Ramadan, and despite the existence of modest healthcare, sanitation, and electricity, morale in the camp was low.
Typically Eid is a time of relaxation, celebration, and community, as families visit one another and give out sweets and gifts to their children. Yet for the thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the on-going conflict and took shelter in Iraq over the last year, this year’s Eid had a more sombre atmosphere: far from home and family, with few to no possessions and little money to spare.
That weekend, while our friends and families prepared for the large iftar feasts to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, my team and I distributed packages of NFIs to the refugees living in Al Obaide camp. Packages included blankets and pillows, mattresses and plastic mats, towels, plastic cabinets, cool boxes, fans, gas cookers, rechargeable lights, and hygienic items, which we distributed to 550 Syrian families. The days were long and it was hot and dusty, but the smiles which lit up as families received their NFI package made the time fly and my heart soar.
As part of my work, I also bring together refugees' voices and stories, investigate the way these displaced people live, and ask what more can be done for them. Over the past year, I've heard some very sad stories, as this is perhaps one of the gravest refugee crises the world has seen for a generation.
Although families' basic needs are being met, a heavy air of despair hangs over the camp as people feel trapped in a strange, unwanted environment. In my experience, I’ve found that camps are not a happy place. People don't see this as a long-term situation for themselves. In fact, many people continue to leave the camp to return back to Syria. When faced with these two options, it seems that more people are prepared to chance their luck in a war zone than slowly stagnate in a place like this.
Over the weekend I met a young man who, when I spoke to him, sounded tired of living in this limbo. His daily routine consisted of simply walking between the tents in the camp. “I just wake up early in the morning, spend some time inside the tent, and then I go to the neighboring tents to see what is going on. After that I come back home and take a nap.”
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable. Yet they represent the majority of the refugees who have fled Syria. Even in times of peace, it is usually women who look after children, the sick and injured, and the elderly. When emergency strikes, this burden of care can multiply. I met a young mother who left Syria with her small children. Her three-year-old daughter needs surgery, but she can do nothing for her. Her sadness and hopelessness at her daughter’s illness was obvious. She told me, “I've been asking the people who are in charge of the camp to provide my daughter with possible assistance but till now, I haven’t received any help.”
Yet, I also notice that there are so many people who prefer to look forward, rather than lamenting what was. I count myself both lucky and saddened to have met some truly inspirational people in the camps, such as the young man I met on Thursday who graduated from high school prior to leaving Syria, but was unable to enroll in university due to the conflict. He was forced to come to Iraq with his family when they finally felt their lives were in danger staying in Syria. Still hoping for a brighter future, he told me “We came to the camp about a year ago. We thought we would only be here for a couple of months, so we left so much behind. But when we realised it would be longer, people around us started to become violent and negative. This life is taking a toll on my father, but I still hope that one day I will enter university and make a new life for myself.”
And there are those who look at life as one giant learning experience. During the time I spent working with those residing in Al Obaide camp, I met a lot of people who might be unhappy but were never dejected. They say they are simply wiser because of their experiences. Perhaps they have suffered, but they have also learned something from it. Despite all the catastrophes and horrors coming out of Syria, some people remain optimists and dream of the day that they can return to their homes. I met one such individual on our last day of distribution. He said to me that it was really very disappointing to see his fellow Syrians having to leave their homes, living on a temporary basis in neighboring countries. But he strongly believes that sooner or later, the day will come and they will all be back home to re-build Syria. “You always have to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, because it’s there even if it’s around a bend,” he said.
As sunset fell on Friday, we finished our distribution and loaded up the trucks to head back to our families. Spending the weekend with these strong, incredible people, we all tried to create the sense of community that they had left in Syria so that those marking Eid would have something to celebrate. Though every day I work with IOM is an unforgettable experience, I know this weekend will stay with me for the rest of my life. It doesn’t matter how big or small a difference we are making. If everyone made just a small difference, we'd end up with a big difference. Seeing the gratitude of the families in the camp, it's a fantastic feeling knowing that you can make a difference for them.
As Head of the Satellite Office in Anbar governorate, Ihsan Hussein’s job is to offer essential advice to IOM’s Rapid Assistance and Response Teams (RART) on how to facilitate an integrated approach to address the most urgent needs in emergency situations. With the crisis in Syria, he feels that they are constantly in an emergency situation.