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Displaced in former Mesopotamia

Displaced in former Mesopotamia

Visiting refugees from Syria and Iraq

(21/01/2015) Having fled from IS, around 1.5 million people live in refugee camps – in Turkey alone. Welthungerhilfe has been providing emergency aid together with its Alliance2015 partner People in Need (PIN) since November 2012. We support affected and displaced people at various sites in Syria, Turkey and Northern Iraq. Welthungerhilfe Secretary General, Wolfgang Jamann, recently traveled to the Syrian border region. Here he describes his impressions from the journey. 

It is not easy to find the right words for this visit. The humanitarian crisis in and around Syria has already been documented with too many superlatives – the highest number of refugees and displaced persons, the worst political upheaval since the genocide in Rwanda, the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. And anyone like myself who travels for a week with local employees through Eastern Turkey and along the Syrian border to Northern Iraq, will experience something of the suffering of the population that is now tormented and chased by dozens of warlords in an increasingly confusing region.

Visiting a refugee camp in Northern Iraq.
Visiting a refugee camp in Northern Iraq.
Then - a hairdresser. Today - a refugee. Tehani S. with her children.
Then - a hairdresser. Today - a refugee. Tehani S. with her children.
Half-finished houses, tents and other makeshift shelters provide a roof over the head, but mostly not enough protection from the cold.
Half-finished houses, tents and other makeshift shelters provide a roof over the head, but mostly not enough protection from the cold.
Together with local partners we have been able to provide for almost one million refugees.
Together with local partners we have been able to provide for almost one million refugees.
The journey through the Syrian border areas is almost impossible to describe in words.
The journey through the Syrian border areas is almost impossible to describe in words.

Often just escaping with their lives, around 1.5 million people in Turkey alone are eking out an improvised existence as a refugee. Like Tahani S., who fled from Mosul in June with seven children and is now holding out in a makeshift shelter in Kızıltepe in Mardin province, needing urgent medical help and whose children cannot go to school because they can’t afford the bus fare. In their life before the capture of Mosul by IS – known by all here as just ‘Daesh’, because the terrorists are neither Islamic nor represent a state – she was a hairdresser and her husband was a taxi driver. Today they are aid recipients. Displaced persons. Desperate.

We meet many such families, sometimes provided for in refugee camps equipped by the Turkish Red Crescent, sometimes in half-finished buildings, makeshift and protected by tarpaulin or hastily built windows, and mostly without the short-term prospect of taking control of their own lives again.

Humanitarian aid faces huge challenges

The funding for the World Food Programme is threatening to run out. Aid deliveries in front-line areas are always linked with danger to life and limb. And in Syria itself, people in need can only be reached by partner organisations, for which both life and the work is made difficult, to express it mildly.

But it is precisely these partners upon which the burden and the success of the aid rests. Welthungerhilfe is working especially closely with the Red Crescent societies in Turkey, in Kurdish areas and in Iraq. The Turkish disaster prevention authority AFAD and the Kurdish provincial government are also supporting us, ensuring the security of our aid workers and clearing away bureaucratic hurdles.

As a result of the valuable cooperation with Syrian, Turkish and Iraqi partners, over the past two years Welthungerhilfe has been able to provide almost one million people with food, tents, winter relief and cash vouchers for daily needs. Our programme has grown rapidly and almost every day we receive a new suggestion to expand our work.

Political solutions seem remote

6,000 tons of flour for bakeries in Aleppo? School building in the refugee camps? Food for the border regions? The demand is there and Welthungerhilfe now has employees and friends on the ground who can make much of this happen – our regional director Ton van Zutphen and his team achieve the extraordinary. And that is bitterly necessary, as the next spring offensive will bring more refugees, and perhaps also returnees to liberated areas, who need initial aid.

No-one knows currently how pacification can succeed in this once flourishing region, formerly known by the beautiful name of Mesopotamia, before the articificial border demarcation. Political solutions seem remote, military ones are uncertain. And few of the conflict parties are concerned about the fortunes of civilians. The refugees themselves find themselves once again in religious and ethnic groupings – the Yazidis here, the Kurds over there, the Arabs somewhere else. Fragmentation of the region seems certain, complete disintegration is a threat. No-one can predict the course of the new year, but it seems certain that it will require a long and deep breath until the end of this crisis.

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Further information

45 NGOs with representatives from Syria, Jordan and Libanon amongst other have developed recommendations for the Berlin Conference on the Syrian Refugee Situation:

NGO statement, Berlin Conference 10/2014