Tall, unfinished concrete buildings loom over the city of Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. I see no movement inside or around any of the buildings; none whatsoever. This gives rise to an eerie feeling. The buildings sit half-finished and empty due to low oil prices and rampant corruption. The economy of Kurdistan is in shambles. Teachers and governmet workers are not receiving salaries. There are insufficient medicines to treat the sick; 1,200 cancer patients are going without treatment. And these economic challenges are compounded by the continuous arrival of people desperate for food and shelter.
Every fourth person here is a refugee or internally displaced—people seeking refuge from the war in Syria or Iraqis fleeing cities taken by ISIS. There are now 245,000 Syrians in Kurdistan, with more arriving each day. Internally Displaced Persons number over 1 million. A person from IOM told me that just last week 4,000 families arrived, displaced from Iraq’s Anbar region to the south.
Although the news has been dominated by the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians plus 3.4 million displaced persons in Iraq. “The Kurdish have been very generous, but now they are barely keeping their heads above water. If another 100,000 families come, it will be unthinkable, “ an U.N. agency representative told me. “Kurdistan has taken more refugees that the European Union, and yet they have to get on their knees to beg for assistance.
The U.N. refugee agency is in a contingency mode. A major offensive against ISIL in Mosel, only 50 miles away, is only a question of time. Tens of thousands could be displaced. Where will they go? How will they be cared for?
There are more than forty refugee camps in Kurdistan, but only 39 percent of the refugees and 20 percent of the IDPs are accommodated by the camps. The vast majority live wherever they can. The economic crisis here has caused the UNHCR to move away from a charity approach and towards a cash assistance program, like that implemented for refugees in Jordan. “What they need most is cash so people can pay rent, buy medicine….support the local economy.” The U.N. has launched an appeal for more than $860 million dollars.
The compassion of these representatives is as palpable as their distress. “People’s resilience is unbelievable,” said a young woman from IOM. “It has given me faith in the ability to bounce back, to appreciate life.”
I met with a Dominican sister who is herself displaced from the nearby town of Qaraqosh, which fell to ISIL in 2014. She told me about a new elementary school which they have started. The children belong to displaced families, as do all of the teachers.
“We have come to recognize the only way to build community is through education, not only to the 6th grade, but through high school,” she told me. “We have decided to fight ISIS with education.”