By JULIA FOODMAN
CLAREMONT, Calif. — Amid war-torn Syria and Iraq, hundreds of thousands of citizens have been forced to leave their hometowns in the wake of alarmingly deteriorating conditions. There is a common misconception that most of the refugees have relocated to Europe and the United States, but this is far from reality. Vast populations have been forced to reside in overpopulated camps which have become long-time realities for legions of men, women and children.
Designed as temporary housing for up to 1,000 families, Domiz1, nicknamed “Little Syria,” is the biggest refugee camp in Iraq. Since opening in 2012 on a former American military base in northwestern Iraq, it has become a permanent home for many, and a community has sprouted. There are now businesses and nine schools for the roughly 12,000 children younger than 12 and a population of more than 35,000. Slowly but surely, Domiz1 is transforming from a safe haven to a squalid city with ramshackle permanent housing constantly under construction.
There is certainly an element of chaos to living in Domiz1, which has been largely ignored by the media. Law virtually does not exist. Domestic violence is believed to be widely unreported as well as child marriage, child labor and labor exploitation. There are also significant water shortages, temperatures rise to 114 degrees Fahrenheit and sanitation is woefully insufficient; essentially no sewage system exists. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees holds operational power but is not in a position to establish Domiz1 as a permanent home for anyone.
“When new refugees arrive at a camp, they’re just happy to be alive,” said Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said at a talk at Claremont McKenna College in February. “But when refugees have been in the same shelter, designed as a temporary haven for years on end, the camps transcend into ghettos, with gangs, violence and fraught with danger.”
Doctors Without Borders has developed a significant presence at Domiz1. “The clinic is always crowded,” Lava Abdul Rahman, a gynecologist at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) maternity clinic said at a UNFPA conference in 2014. Each day, 30 to 35 pregnant women come to the clinic for prenatal care, she noted. During a six-week period in summer 2018, there were more than 200 childbirths. The clinic provides a spectrum of support and care, including family planning, maternal health care, as well as counselling, psychosocial support, awareness sessions, recreational activities and life-skills courses.
“Words like ‘unsustainable’ don’t paint a picture of how desperate these times are,” actor Angelina Jolie, who serves as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees special envoy, said during her sixth visit to Domiz1 in 2018. Refugees’ lives “are on hold indefinitely because of the war,” she said. “They cannot go back, they cannot move forward, and each year they have less on which to live.
“When there is not even the bare minimum of aid, refugee families cannot receive adequate medical treatment, women and girls are left vulnerable to sexual violence, many children cannot go to school, and we squander the opportunity of being able to invest in refugees so that they can acquire new skills and support their families.”
With frigid winters, deathly desert summers, an extreme shortage of food, water, shelter, medical supplies and other essential materials, and no future in sight, there is little escape from Domiz1. While the camp is certainly better than a ravaged Aleppo or other cities torn apart by the Syrian civil war, Domiz1 remains a camp intended for desperate people to reside in temporarily that is becoming a wretched permanent home for tens of thousands.
(By Julia Foodman, Feb. 14, 2019)