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Middle East

Time stands still for Syrian refugees

Despite longing to return home, thousands find themselves stranded in Iraq's Domiz refugee camp.
Last modified: 27 Aug 2013 19:32

It's a losing battle trying to keep clean in Domiz refugee camp. If the gentle breeze that kicks up dust doesn't coat you, then the mini whirlwinds that twist their way around the camp will.

The whirlwinds are quite something to witness, they pop up out of nowhere, sucking dust and empty chip packets into their paths and spit them out. As they approach, everyone here covers their faces and stands still until they pass. It is just another hardship upon the 50,000 or so people who live here.

As I walk around the camp, the thing that strikes me the most is the sense of inertia. Syrians here sit on the floor just outside their tents. Occasionally a cigarette is lit. Often they sit still, only shifting ever so slightly when uncomfortable. They sit – and they wait.

There is a US military term coined by soldiers who had come back from war, who, lost in thought, would just stare straight ahead, rarely blinking. They called it the "1,000 yard stare". I have never seen it but I imagine that it looks a lot like what these Syrians are doing. Everywhere you go, you see men and women‎ looking off into the distance, staring at nothing, just lost in thought.

Sectarian element

Others though, just walk through the camp, killing time.

Hamdiya is one such woman. She arrived here seven months ago. She is nervous, as she has not yet been allocated a tent. Hamdiya is a Syrian Arab among predominantly Kurdish refugees.

Her husband, a Kurd, has managed to find a low paying job in Erbil and lives there, sending money back to support his family.

She lives with their five children in a friend's tent.

"I keep asking the authorities for a tent but they keep telling me to wait in line. I keep waiting," she says. "I want to tell you more, but I'm afraid. I'm Arab not Kurdish and I'm afraid they may throw me out of this camp."

Her words surprise me. That nervousness about being Arab I have heard several times, but had never seen.

Officially, the UN refugee agency told us that Arabs seeking ‎help are judged by the same criteria as Kurdish refugees. They estimate that some 200 Arab refugees have crossed the Syrian border and have been admitted to camps in the last week.

Clearly the sectarian element to Syria's conflict has travelled with some of the refugees.

Anger simmers

Domiz was set up 18 months ago. As it has grown, it has taken on the identity of a small town. There is a parade of shops that line the top of camps selling fruits and vegetables.
Others sell cheap clothing, and there is even one mobile phone shop, although I have not seen it open in the two days I spent here.

Whether the owner was on holiday or mobile phones are a luxury refugees can do without is not clear to me.

Then there is Ibrahim. He is one of those that take advantage of the informal economy. He walks the camp with boxes of cigarettes tucked under his arm and sells a few packs a day to help support himself and his mother.

He is angry that he is still here, seven months after he arrived. Angry that he has nothing, that this is what his life has been reduced to. "Every day I wake up I wish this nightmare was over. I wish I could go back to Syria, I want this situation to end."

His words have menace in them, a thing I hear in others' voices here as well. The kind of voice that warns of anger. In Domiz camp, there have been riots sparked by the simplest of things such as the perceived unfair distribution of water coolers, or families not being given tents.

It's only going to get worse. That anger combined with idle hands is a combination ripe for more frustrations and riots.

Domiz camp is well-run. But having essential basic services needed by the refugees, does not seem to matter. Even if this was the best run refugee camp in the world, the anger would remain.

The one thing these Syrians want is the one thing that the Kurdistan Regional Government and the aid agencies cannot give them: A passage back to a peaceful Syria.