Visiting a Syrian Kurdish refugee camp in
Iraqi Kurdistan: From one hell to another
By Abdul-Khaleq Dosky, Duhok - Niqash
June 15, 2012
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Recently the
conflict in Syria has been called a civil war. And
Syrian Kurdish youth are fleeing their homes for
neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan. There, they arrive in
dedicated camps where their dreams of a new life are
doomed under dusty, canvas walls.
Twenty kilometres south of Duhok, just past one
refugee camp, lies another. A group of white tents,
murky with dust, line the road. Children with dirty
faces play between them, their laughter and shrieks
loud. A young man sits outside one of the tents,
alongside the main road, nursing a small cup of tea.
This is Camp Qamishlo, a special encampment in the
far northern Iraqi Kurdish province of Duhok, in the
semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, near the
Syrian and Turkish borders.
The camp was first established in 2004 after Syrian
Kurdish youth began to protest against the Syrian
government in March of that year. The uprising was
centred in the Syrian cities of Amouda and Qamishli.
And the camp was established by those fleeing Syria
after that uprising; hence the name of the camp –
Qamishlo is Qamishli in the Kurdish language.
At first, there were no more than 100 families
living here. But the Syrian uprising, that began in
early 2011 and which some are now calling a civil
war, has seen a far greater number of refugees
seeking shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In mid May, the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees reported that, “3,673 Syrian nationals of
Kurdish origin were registered with UNHCR in
northern Iraq. An estimated 10 families and 40
singles continue to enter Duhok [province] daily.”
“The authorities in Iraq’s Kurdistan region maintain
an open door policy, allowing an estimated number of
10 to 15 families and 50 to 65 singles to enter
Duhok [province] daily,” an earlier UNHCR report
said. And this figure was expected to increase.
Now, according to official figures from the
province’s the Department of Displaced and
Migration, there are now more than 5,000 refugees in
The director of the department, Mohammed Abdullah,
broke the numbers down further: he says there are
around 334 families and 3,500 young men without
families in the area.
One of these is Ali, the young man drinking tea
outside the tent. Inside the tent, there are pillows
on the ground and a number of youths conversing.
Like most other refugees, who give part or false
Ali doesn’t give his full name because of potential
danger to family he left behind. But he will tell
NIQASH how he left Syria. He says he and some of his
friends decided to get out of the country together.
“We just wanted to get out of the hell of the war
that’s being waged by the Syrian regime against
civilians,” Ali says. “There are people smugglers
working and they charge you around US$400 to go from
Qamishli city in Syria to an area near the Iraqi
border – it’s around 135 kilometres away.”
Other reports suggest those fleeing may be paying up
to US$850 for similar journeys.
Most of the young men like Ali, who’ve made a
similar journey, are men who refused conscription
into the Syrian military. Also among them are
soldiers who have deserted. Usually, Ali says, they
are the young people from predominantly Kurdish
ethnic areas – places like Afrin, Qamishli and
Tirbassi – who cross the Tigris river at night in
small boats. The boat traffic is organised by the
people smugglers and each boat holds between 14 and
“The most frightening part of the journey was the
four hours spent crossing the borders with the
smuggler,” Ali recalls the journey he says he will
never forget, when he escaped Syria together with 14
others, five of whom were females. “We walked for
ages before we reached the river. We were all silent
and we were praying the whole time, asking God to
help us reach the other side of the river in
When Ali first reached the site of the camp in Iraqi
Kurdistan, he lived in a tent with 24 other young
men. “We were 24 people living, sleeping, eating and
fighting in one tent,” Ali explains.
“Actually one of the worst parts of the story is
that we were afraid to sleep at night because we
were worried about snakes and scorpions – the area
is teeming with them,” added Othman, another young
refugee from Syria, sitting next to Ali. “We kill
many every single day!”
As if to prove his point, another young man comes in
carrying a live scorpion with no tail. “We’ve learnt
to catch them now without killing them,” he boasts.
“Then we just take their tails off so they can’t
The conversation continues. The young men said that
before they came from Syria, they had had high hopes
of finding work in Iraqi Kurdistan and sending their
families back home some money.
But after talking to the other refugees already at
the camp, “we realized that those dreams won’t come
true,” the young men say.
“We have lots of time but we have nothing to do,”
they complain, “it’s frustrating for all of us. And
many of us actually come from poor families who need
our support back in Syria.”
While the Duhok authorities say that the young men
are able to move around freely inside the province,
the refugees themselves say their lack of official
status, which stops them from moving further into,
or around Iraqi Kurdistan, is preventing them from
Lawki Haji, a Syrian-Kurdish writer and activist,
has been in the area for a longer time than most; he
first came after 2004’s Qamishli uprising and formed
an association - the Qamishlo Syrian Kurds Welfare
Association - to help Syrian Kurdish refugees in the
Haji told Niqash there are around 500 young men and
300 families in the camp, with around 2,000 more
young men living in different parts of Duhok.
“But the difficult living conditions in Camp
Qamishlo have actually forced many to return to
Syria,” Haji says. “More than 300 young men went
back over the past few weeks because they were
unable to survive here.”
Talking to other refugees around the camp, they say
that a lot of the young men who went back to Syria
did so, because they couldn’t get a space in a tent
to live in and they had lost any hope of
unemployment or more adequate accommodation.
Additionally, one refugee who also came to the camp
in 2004 believed that local employers were tending
to take advantage of the young refugees without
official documents, paying them less or nothing.
This has also led to young men wanting to return
In Camp Qamishlo, the young men’s tents are on one
side of the street. There are about 20 tents for
single people, housing between 25 and 30 individuals
in each. On the other side are about 350 smaller
tents for families. Inside the camp there also is a
kind of playground for children, with a handful of
swing sets, and near these is a health centre that
can deal with minor ailments and illnesses.
Most of the camp’s inhabitants spend most of their
time, simply sitting in their tent doorways,
chatting to their neighbours. There isn’t a lot else
Aziz Afrini (also a false name) and his family moved
into their tent almost three weeks ago. When they
first arrived, the family of five shared a tent with
another family for around two weeks.
“There isn’t a lot of water and we’re really
suffering because of the dust and the heat,” Afrini
tells NIQASH. The camp is in a particularly dusty
area and often, the camp’s inhabitants will sprinkle
water on the ground to dampen the earth. But in many
ways, this makes their lives even more difficult and
“There’s no water and the hygiene is terrible,”
Afrini’s wife complains. “We have to share bathrooms
with many other families, as well as everything
Another problem for the Syrian Kurdish in Iraqi
Kurdistan is their lack of official refugee status.
More permanent accommodation is being built by the
state to house the campers, including a new camp at
Domiz, but many are still living in temporary
housing and tents, including an estimated 100
families in another, older camp, Moqabli, 20
kilometres west of Duhok.
For the time being, for many young Syrian refugees
their dreams of a better life, jobs, safety and
relative political freedom are still ending under
canvas walls in Camp Qamishlo. Or, unfortunately, on
the hard road back into Syria.
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