Mariam

Update: This year Rise Foundation have broadened their winter appeal. They are now distributing a wider range of winter survival goods, and are focussing on Iraqi orphans http://rise-foundation.org/winter-campaign-for-iraqi-orphans/

Mariam I met Mariam in Khanki camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was hiding behind a tent, scared of the crowds of other children fighting for boxes of toys being distributed by an American charity. Her expression, her eyes, were compelling and I took picture after picture of her. As I went for a wander around the camp, Mariam took my hand and came with me. When I prised her fingers off to use my camera, she put her arm around my waist.

Mariam's younger brother - a cheeky, trouble-making toddler who is always getting into scrapes.

Mariam’s younger brother – a cheeky, attention-seeking toddler who is always getting into scrapes.

Mariam took me to her family’s tent and I met her mother, father, several siblings and a few indeterminate relatives. I sat on a thin mattress on the bare floor of the tent as they gave me sweet, black tea brewed on a simple cooking stove.Mariam’s family, along with everybody in this particular camp, are Yezidi. On 3rd August this year, her family woke to the terrifying sound of Daesh (ISIS) entering their village. Mariam’s parents grabbed their children and fled to nearby Mount Sinjar. For six days, Mariam and tens of thousands of others cowered on the barren mountain, shivering through the cold of the night and sheltering from the fierce desert sun in the day. When their bag of rice finally ran out, Mariam’s father made the hard choice to face Daesh rather than starvation.

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Khanki in the dry.

With hundreds of other families, they made the run from Mount Sinjar, jumping over dead bodies and praying that the Daesh bullets would miss their mark. With the assistance of Syrian Kurdish fighters, they made it to the border of Syria, and from there, to the north and into Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Mobile phone footage of Khanki Camp after a day of rain. It has since been raining for a week.

They now share a tent in the informal part of Khanki refugee camp, just north of the Mosul Dam. This camp shelters over 120,000 Yezidis, but for those outside of the official camp (over half), there is little in the way of drainage or other essential infrastructure and I’ve just heard that with this week’s heavy rains, the worst since 1992, many tents have been washed away. Before the rains, I went back to Khanki and visited Mariam and her family for a second time. The sores on her face were worse – I’m told there’s an infection running untreated through all of the children in the camp.

Mariam's little sister. A sweet, shy girl who huddled up to me in the tent and kept kissing my hand.

Mariam’s little sister. A sweet, shy girl who huddled up to me in the tent and kept kissing my hand.

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Mariam’s gentle, responsible older brother

This time her father told me that he was terrified of winter. The family arrived with only the clothes they stood up in and have no blankets, winter clothes or stoves to keep them warm – only a small cooking stove and some thin mattresses, which they bought with the little money they had, or were donated by the few small charities visiting the camp. He told me that he also worried about the children’s mental wellbeing. He wondered how a child who had had to run through fields strewn with corpses and body parts could move on from that.

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Mariam’s family

Mariam’s father seemed to be a kind and intelligent man and I believe that he will do his best to support his children’s psychological wellbeing, but I don’t know how he and the hundreds of thousands of other people displaced by conflict in this region will keep their families from great suffering this winter. In between my two visits to Mariam and her family I spent time in the far north of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where I walked the path along which Kurds fled Saddam Hussein’s chemical bombs in 1988. On the way, in the highest of the mountains on the border of Turkey, my hosts showed me a small area on a rocky outcrop, where upended rocks marked the graves of children who died of exposure on the cold mountain nights of this exodus. My deep fear, having visited people in Khanki camp and some of the 820,000 other displaced people living rough in Dohuk province, one of the coldest areas of Kurdistan, is that history will repeat itself this winter, and on a much larger scale.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

The TV cameras have left Iraq in pursuit of Ebola right now, and it is unlikely they will return to the humanitarian situation here until people begin to die in significant numbers. I’m not prepared to wait for that to happen and so have partnered with the excellent charity Rise Foundation on a campaign to buy blankets.

Displaced people here need much more than just a blanket, but it is beyond our capacity to tackle the whole humanitarian disaster unfolding, and we feel that a blanket is the cheapest way that we can get warmth to the maximum amount of people. This is not just our assessment – blankets are also the number one item requested by both displaced people, and the authorities in the region. Blankets are also the safest way to keep people warm in tents. On 20th October, three children burned to death in Khanki camp when their tent caught fire after their parents tried to keep them warm. Rise Foundation are enthusiastic, fast-moving and efficient. They have guaranteed that none of the money you give to the #buyablanket campaign will go on the charity’s overheads, which are covered by a sponsor. This means that every $16 you give will buy a blanket which is big enough and thick enough to help keep at least two vulnerable people warm in winter.

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The back of one of the disused buildings holding several hundred families. They have only two toilets between them and there are pools of green, stagnant water around which children play.

If we can buy 100,000 blankets, we can make a real impact on the 820,000 living rough this winter in Iraqi Kurdistan, whatever their religion or ethnicity. Rise-buyablanket-POSTER-LOW

Qahar

Qahar 2Qahar lives in Babire, a small mountain village in Kurdistan framed with orchards of pomegranates and apples and gardens full of pumpkins, courgettes, aubergines, melon and cucumbers. Qahar retired from the Peshmerga to return to village life, spending his days drinking tea with friends, tending his garden and helping his neighbours out with repairs. He recently come out of retirement, however, and will be returning to his unit to help with the fight against Da’esh (ISIS). Qahar’s passion is his partridges, and every visitor has to see them. He opens the door to his shed and asks me to take pictures of the birds in their homemade wooden cages. The shed is immaculate and the partridges plump. We ask what he uses them for. “Hunting.” replies Qahar. He uses them as bait to entice other partridges. But he would never kill his own partridges – they are his pride and joy. As we leave, his wife tells us that he keeps a further two in the house, which he keeps as pets. Hunting is just an excuse for Qahar to keep his beloved birds. DSC_0379

Kazim Shanidari

Kazim 1Salahadin, Iraqi Kurdistan

Kazim was born in 1930 in the village of Shanidar in the central mountains of Kurdistan, famous for the discovery of Neolithic remains found deep in a wide cave that slashes the hillside above. He was born into an uneducated, farming family; part of the Sherwani tribe. The Sherwanis were part of a wider group called the Barzanis, the clan who have led the Iraqi Kurdish liberation movement for most of the last century.

Kazim’s childhood was characterized by unrest, as the authorities cracked down on the restive Barzani clan and their associates, and in 1935, Kazim’s entire family was arrested.

In 1945 Kazim travelled to Iran, to where many Iraqi Kurds had fled. There he took part in the first, experimental, pan-national Kurdish state – the Mahadabad Repbublic. Tribal rivalry and a treacherous deal between Russia and Iran soon led to the collapse of Mahadabad. Faced with persecution in both Iran and Iraq, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, head of Mahadabad’s armed forces, decided to take his soldiers to the Soviet Union rather than surrender to either enemy.

In 1947, with only an AK47 slung over his back, Kazim, now aged 17, marched with Mullah Mustafa and nearly 500 men for 62 days, as they zig-zagged in and out of Iran, Iraq and Turkey, fighting 9 battles along the way with government forces from all sides.

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Kazim displays a photo of him receiving a medal for his services to Kurdistan. He sits with the son of a friend who accompanied him on the trek and only recently died. They sit on the floor of the house’s living room, decorated only with a beautiful carpet and a TV. His wife plies us with tea and fruit throughout the interview. 

They travelled mostly by night, often crawling on all fours, and because villagers were scared of them they rarely had enough food to eat or anywhere to sleep other than the rough mountainside. The sick were carried on the few remaining horses. By the time they reached the Soviet Union they had lost around 28 men in battle and 20 more to exhaustion or other wounds.

Once in Russia, Stalin split the group up and spread them out around the Soviet Union, to prevent any attempts to reform a Kurdish State. Mullah Mustafa and the rest eventually returned to Iraq in 1958, many with Russian wives.

Kazim remained a peshmerga all his life, fighting alongside the Barzanis. Now he lives a simple life in a small, unelaborate house in the town of Salahhadin, on the mountain of Masif, behind the Iraqi Kurdish capital city of Erbil.

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Kazim wears the traditional dress of Kurdish men, with a headscarf in the style of the Barzani tribe. You will see President Massoud Barzani (son of Mullah Mustafa) wearing the same.

Kavout

Faces of Iraq 2Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan

  In 1988, when Kavout was just 3 years old, she and her family fled the Iraqi government’s chemical bombardments of the Kurdish north. They walked for several days and nights through the mountains to reach Turkey, where they lived for three years in a tent that blew away in high winds and in constant fear of the Turkish government crackdowns.

  Eventually Kavout’s family were granted asylum in France, and she grew up in Toulouse. “I love the way they live in France. It’s a really mixed culture in all levels.” In 2013 however, she was drawn back to Iraqi Kurdistan, wanting to play a part in the reconstruction of her homeland.

Kavout is passionately French and Kurdish – one of many young people here trying to balance complex and often competing identities. When the frustrations of daily life become too much, she goes running in Sami Abdul Rahman Park, where people from all sections of Kurdish society come to exercise in the cool of the evening. “I see all kinds of people, covered and uncovered.”

Kavout works hard to balance her day job in the government with helping charities like Rise Foundation in her spare time. When she visits the Syrian and IDP refugees, the sights and smells take her back to her earliest memories in the Turkish camps – of rats, heat, dust and open sewage. “I tell them not to lose hope – I was once where they are, and as terrible as it is now, they will come through it.”

Silva and Abdulrahman

Akre, Iraqi Kurdistan Silva 10

Silva is a beautiful, seven year old Syrian Kurdish girl with bobbed hair and dark brown eyes. She is tall for her age and but stands listlessly holding her father’s hand, avoiding our eyes and uninterested in the other children around her. “She is sick”, says Abdulrahman. “I am on my own. I can’t find work because I have to look after her all day.” My friend and I were in the middle of a children’s art project so he invited us to his room to talk later. “Go to the back of the camp and then up the stairs – you’ll find us in the darkest corner.”

They are in their underwear when we arrive – struggling with the midday heat in their tiny room on the roof of the fortress of Akre. For decades a feared and brutal prison, Akre’s bare cells have been converted into rooms for Syrian refugees. Silva and Abdulrahman are only two, so they take the smallest one; around 3m x 4m, built to house a water tank or generator on the roof of the prison. It has bare concrete walls and an ill-fitting metal door that does little to keep out the smell of the communal toilet set up in the stairwell below. Silva 9 Abdulrahman pulls on a dijdasha and then dresses his daughter, gently smoothing her hair back with clips. He divorced his wife three years ago and since then he and Silva have been on their own. As we sit on the floor and talk, she grabs my moleskin notebook and sniffs it intently, stroking the cover and then suddenly grits her teeth and twists, crumples and rips it until her father snatches it back. She crawls around me, snaking her arms through mine until she gets to the notebook again. Then a cartoon comes on the TV and she jumps up, bouncing and laughing to the music. “She loves music and dancing”. Silva 7 According to her medical notes, Silva has “autism spectrum disorder with severe social and academic impairment. She needs continuous social support, with management in specialised centres.” Instead she lives on the roof of a prison with only her father to dress her, calm her when she gets upset, change the nappies that she still has to wear, and feed her. Silva 3Abdulrahman pleaded with us to get his daughter to a country where she could receive specialist care. They abandoned their home in Kurdish north-west Syria earlier earlier this year, as Daesh (IS) closed in, and fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. All of their relatives had been split up and ended up in different regions and countries. Now his money was running out, he said, because he had to stay home to look after Silva all day and couldn’t look for a job. All we could do was recommend him to go through the appropriate UN channels. With well over a million Syrian refugees or internally displaced people in the small region of Kurdistan however, these processes are long and often futile.Silva 6 As we left, picking our way carefully down broken steps, slimy with waste water, Silva began to wail. Later we went for tea with another resident of the camp and asked if she knew about Silva and her father. Oh yes, she said, one eyebrow raised. I pressed her further; wasn’t it strange Silva’s mother left her? “He must have beaten her. No mother leaves her child without reason.” In fact, she continued, the rumour was that he had divorced three wives. Curling her upper lip into a sneer, she said “he asked a woman in the camp to marry him recently, but only on the understanding that she stayed at home with the girl all day and never left her alone. Can you imagine?”