From Brutality to Beauty: Syrian Children Take on the International Art World

I recently had the following article published on Contributoria. Here it is again, with more photos!

Ola portrait

Syrian refugee Ola, paintbrush in hand. Photograph by Lucy Tyndall

Ola is strong-willed and smart. She’s usually the first of her friendship group to dive into the painting tent and organise all the others: mixing paint to perfect colours and bossing everybody around. To her teacher Lucy she’s a sweet, talented all-rounder who’s always at the heart of the action. But today she’s just not herself. She stays apart from the others, head drooping and little interest in the painting. Lucy is worried and elicits Lilian’s help in finding out what is wrong. Lilian comes back some time later and says that Ola is sad because she’s remembering her two brothers who died recently in a terrible accident.

Lucy Tyndall is the project manager of the pioneering Castle Art project at the Rise Foundation, a small NGO based in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Lilian is one of her local volunteer helpers and Ola is a young Syrian refugee. Every Friday morning, Tyndall and a handful of local and international volunteers pile into an old transit van at Rise Foundation’s base in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, and drive two hours through picturesque but barren plains and mountains to reach the small town of Akre.

Changing brutality to beauty

An otherwise unremarkable settlement, Akre became synonymous with terror when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the building of an imposing prison in the design of a castle, set prominently on a hill in the centre of the town. Built in the heartland of a region fighting against the dictator’s rule, the prison was designed for the detention and torture of political prisoners: a warning to all rebellious Kurds nearby.

When refugees from the Syrian civil war began to flow into the Kurdish region in greater numbers, Akre prison was turned into a refugee camp. It now houses around 1,400 people in its former cells, administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government and fed by the World Food Programme.

When Tom Robinson, director and co-founder of Rise Foundation, visited Akre with his team in early 2014 to help set up and stock a library at the camp, he found the atmosphere “so grim — it was not a nice place to be living in, with all the memories of a former totalitarian regime.” He and team member Nils Henrik came up with the idea of brightening the prison with the help of the camp’s younger refugees by painting murals on the walls. In October 2014 they brought in a new project manager, Tyndall, a former policy advisor to the New Zealand government with a passion for art that she has nurtured since her own school days.

Translating trauma into hope

The early days of the project were tough. The Rise team couldn’t communicate directly with the children until they found people to interpret for them. One of these was Kawther Ahmed. A refugee living in Akre herself, Kawther helps to run the UNICEF school in the camp and every Friday Rise Foundation employs her to help organise the group of around 25 children, mostly girls aged 10–14, who are the core of the Castle Art project.
Early on the children were given pieces of paper to draw what they wanted, in the hope that these could form the basis for murals. Fresh from war zones, however, most of the children’s first pictures were scenes of terrible violence.

“We are not professional art therapists,” says Robinson, “so we couldn’t delve into their trauma in this way.”Neither were they suitable for murals whose purpose was to brighten up the camp.

Photograph by Lucy Tyndall

Now, Tyndall works with the children to translate their pictures into something that retains their power and meaning, but gives hope and brightness to the community. “One day Hindreen came to me with a drawing of a bird crying in a cage,” says Tyndall. “We worked on it together and the final painting on the wall was of a cage with the door open and a bird flying out.”

In this way, Tyndall allows the children and the camp community to drive the direction of the project. “It’s important to give them a sense of ownership and control,” she says. “That gives them hope for the future and takes away some of their powerlessness.”

I ask Tyndall how she deals with it if children bring up traumatic experiences from the war. “I give them a hug and put a paintbrush in their hand. All I can do is to give them the means to process it themselves.”

One day Najar, one of Castle Art’s most promising students, came to Tyndall with a drawing depicting an explosion of music. “She told me that it was a heart exploding with all the things that can’t be expressed. She said that when she puts the paintbrush to the wall, she can say the things that she can’t say out loud.”

From art project to art programme

The remarkable thing about Castle Art, however, is that it hasn’t limited itself to being a one-off painting project, a bit of fun for underprivileged children. Tyndall has approached this as a sophisticated art programme that produces potent art works in a unique setting.
“I emailed my old art teacher the other day,” says Tyndall. “I wanted to thank her for the amazing education that I got, which inspired me to make art a part of my life. When I work with these girls, when I see their talent and desire, I just keep thinking that they should have been beside me in school. They should have been getting the same chances and same education as me. What I’m doing here is thinking back to what I was taught, and trying to pass that on.”
Tyndall has taken her cue from the ambition of the children in the group. “They all want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers,” she says. “There are some very talented and driven individuals and I want to show them what they are capable of.”Each week Tyndall gives the students a project to work on during the week, usually with artist models.
“When I was at school we were given examples of artists’ work. The idea is that you first emulate their style, then you appropriate it, taking from it what means something to you and developing your own style” said Tyndall. “One week we looked at the work of Pablo Delgado. We cut out pictures of tiny scenes and pasted them around the camp walls. We had a cutout of a tiny man flying away with this umbrella next to an air conditioning unit and little birds sitting on cracks in the wall.”

Working with Pablo Delgado as inspiration. Photograph by Rise Foundation

Bringing in Banksy… fun, spray paint and irreverence

Recently, Tyndall has begun to focus more on street art with the girls, and has introduced spray painting and stencilling. Apart from having so much fun with the spray paint that only some of it ends up on the walls, Tyndall wants the children to connect with the wider background of the genre, rooted in irreverence, regeneration, beautification and rebellion.

Akre prison is a symbol of historical repression and torture: a prison now filled with victims, who are trapped there simply because they can’t go home. “It reminds me of the Berlin Wall,” says Tyndall. “I want to give the children ways of punching through the walls of their prison and retaking some control over their lives.”

Akre prison, where the refugees live. Photograph by Amy McTighe.

It is also a huge canvas with plenty of potential to create for dramatic images. With its cracked, decaying walls and dark history, Tyndall believes that Akre prison is perfect for street art, both politically and aesthetically. “I believe that this is one of the most special art spaces in the world,” she says.

One of the most famous artist models she brought them recently was Banksy. She showed the children a picture of the artist’s work on a controversial separation wall in Gaza. The image was of two children with bucket and spade looking through a crack in the wall to a tropical beach beyond. In response one of her students, Newruz, drew bars across a crack in the wall of Akre. Out of the bars reached a pair of arms, as a bird flew away.
Tyndall often selects artist models because of their background. Stik, for example, is a street artist from the UK who experienced a long period of homelessness and used art to give him a sense of purpose and focus that helped him get his life back together. His stark stick figures suit the canvas of Akre prison, and are accessible for the children to emulate, but his story can also inspire them.

Photograph by Rise Foundation

The endless battle for funding

Tyndall’s passion for the project is reflected in the children. “One of the kids told me she was always so excited about Friday afternoons that she can’t eat lunch that day.” But with so little funding she doesn’t know how long the project can continue.“
When the car bomb went off 200 metres from our house in Erbil last week, my first thought was that I hadn’t left enough paint for the children to continue by themselves if I had to leave the country,” says Tyndall.
Rise Foundation is a small NGO and faces a constant battle to raise money for its projects. “From month to month it’s unclear whether I will be able to support not only the refugees we work with, but my own staff,” says Robinson.
He sees their small size as an asset. “It enables us to react quickly and flexibly, unencumbered by some of the bureaucracy that slows down larger organisations.” But he does wish that they had a steadier stream of income.The current budget of the Castle Art project is around $800–1,000 a month — mostly salaries for the artist and coordinator Rise employs from within the camp.

I ask Tyndall what she would do if somebody gave her $10,000 to spend on the project. After a bit of incredulous laughter she begins to fire off her wish list.

Photograph by Rise Foundation

“I could buy paint for a year. No, wait, three years… I could buy them so much paint. I want to give them a huge paint reserve, so that they can carry on if we have to leave.”

Then I asked what she would do with $500,000. This time she hit her stride. “I want to bring artists from the region and the world to work with the kids and employ more local artists to help them regularly. I want to spread the project to other camps. I want the children’s work and story to be featured in a gallery exhibition in the West. Hell, I want to take the children to be at their exhibition!”

Tyndall explains that the children very rarely leave the prison and that when they take them on occasional picnics in the surrounding area “they’re beside themselves, running around, jumping across streams and just playing like normal kids do. Can you imagine if I could take them to London? To see their own work on the wall and all these people looking at their work?”

Connecting the children with the world through art

Tyndall is very keen to connect the children with the international art scene. She sees this as a way of keeping their situation in the minds of the world. She wants to show not only their talent, but their humanity and individuality.

Diana’s work inspired by Ricardo Cavolo, which shows her hopes and dreams ‘tattooed’ on an outline of her head. The stairs on the neck represent the number of years before Diana can finish school and become an engineer. Photograph by Lucy Tyndall.

“These children are a wasted generation if their talents and humanity aren’t nurtured. They have the passion and drive to fix their own country. They never talk about fighting; they want to be pharmacists, artists, lawyers, doctors, engineers. All they want to do is go home.”

When Tyndall asked Newruz what she would do to rebuild Syria, she replied that she would paint all the walls of Damascus.

This strategy of engagement has had some success. One student, Diana, drew a picture of a heart with a flame shooting out of it. It was so like the work of Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo that Tyndall gave her more of his work to explore. Then she tweeted the results directly to Cavolo, who responded enthusiastically.

Tyndall’s hope is that she can persuade more artists around the world to engage with the children and perhaps even to visit and work with them in Akre. She also hopes that their art work will give them a voice in a world that otherwise ignores them.

With the gradual drift of Europe towards the right, it has become acceptable for immigrants to bear the brunt of people’s frustration. In a continent that had the greatest displacement of people in the 20th century because of conflict and persecution, it has become acceptable to refer to this new wave of refugees as sub-human, vermin.
In this new narrative, Ola is a cockroach. Violence in Syria drove her family from their home and country. Her parents chose to try to get to Europe illegally, hoping to find somewhere safe to live and the opportunity for their children to make something of themselves. As they crossed the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat there was a terrible accident and two of Ola’s brothers, aged 13 and 15, drowned.
The rest of the family were forced to turn back and seek sanctuary in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Now they live in a dark, damp, oppressive prison, where the only respite from the monotony of virtual captivity and the ghosts of the prison’s brutal past, are the splashes of colour and ideas that Tyndall and her team bring into their lives.

 For three hours a week Ola’s passion and talent soar, and through her art she speaks to her community and to the world. Perhaps it’s only through her painting that the world can start to see her not as a feral human, or vermin, but as a child.

Find out more about the Castle Art Project by visiting their blog or emailing info@rise-foundation.

Photograph by Rise Foundation

Buy a Blanket

You may have noticed my support for Rise Foundation. In this post I’ll explain to you how and why I decided to partner with them and launch a campaign to help IDPs in Iraq survive winter by buying blankets for just US$16 each.

The Problem

More than a million people who fled persecution by Daesh/ISIS/IS face a harsh winter living rough in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with nothing to keep them warm.

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.

Over 1.3 million victims of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have fled to the safety of Iraq’s Kurdish north. The western province of the Kurdistan Region, Dohuk, is hardest hit. Normally home to 1.3 million people, because of its proximity to the conflicts, it is now supporting at least 820,000 displaced Syrians and Iraqis, most of whom arrived since August this year. You can read more about this in Mariam’s story.

Most of the IDPs fled at the height of summer and have only the light clothing they were wearing when they ran. The United Nations has assessed that at least 146,000 of these displaced people are at serious risk. Translated into non-NGO speak, this means that the youngest, sickest and oldest will die this winter unless they have the means to keep themselves warm.

The Campaign

Buy a blanket for US$16/£11/€13 to help a family keep its most vulnerable members warm this winter.

A friend of mine reached an agreement with a factory in Turkey to supply and deliver high quality, thick, double blankets for US$16 each. Local government officials agreed to facilitate these across the border into the Kurdistan Region, where Rise Foundation will receive and distribute them to the areas of greatest priority.

Why Blankets?

The cheapest and fastest way to keeRise-buyablanket-POSTER-LOWp the most people warm.     

  • Blankets are portable, allowing us to help communities that are not yet settled.
  • Blankets are cheaper than stoves and faster and easier to buy and distribute than clothes.
  • Culturally, most people in the region use only blankets as bedding, sleeping on simple foam mattresses on the floor.
  • Refugees/IDPs themselves asked mainly for blankets.
  • Blankets do not have the same safety risks as stoves in tents. Three children have already died as a result of a tent fire in a camp, as their parents tried to keep them warm at night.
  • A donation of US$16 is affordable for most people who want to help, allowing everybody the possibility to give what they can and know that their generosity has, entirely by itself, affected an entire family.

N.B. We took great care, when sourcing the blankets, to make sure that we didn’t just go for cheap, but for warm. The ones we selected are popular in the region and will keep two adults or three children warm on a cold night.

Why Rise Foundation?

Transparent, efficient, professional, fast-moving, no overheads on this project: Every penny/cent donated goes on blankets.

I was frustrated by much of what I saw in the aid sector in Kurdistan. After attending a distribution of unsolicited toys, shipped half way round the world at great cost, and distributed by well-meaning volunteers, which ended up in a near-riot between townspeople and a refugee camp, and with police officers beating children with sticks, I realised that it takes more than good will to actually do good in this situation. It requires experience and professionalism.

On the other hand I was shocked when I gained some insight on the ground into the hyper-bureaucracy of many large, well-known international organisations. So much of their time and money goes on writing reports, holding meetings, providing security to international staff, salaries and marketing. They also source most of their goods from far away, meaning urgent aid arrives months too late and with incredibly high shipping costs. Neither do government agencies seem willing to help. In a meeting with the British Department for International Development (DfID) officials in October I was informed that while they had a £13 million budget for Iraq, they couldn’t spend it right then because of political issues (Iraqi and British).

Blog BAB 2So I decided to partner with registered charity Rise Foundation for the following reasons:

  • They are intelligent, insightful and experienced; they are capable of making the right assessments of what is needed and where.
  • They are honest and trustworthy and all of their accounting is fully transparent.
  • They are relatively small and efficient, and for this project all of their overheads have been paid, meaning that all money donated goes directly on blankets, not on administration.
  • They co-ordinate well with other NGOs and government departments inside Kurdistan so that efforts don’t overlap.
  • They are religiously and politically unaffiliated and base distributions on to needs-assessments only.

Final Thoughts

This campaign enables people from all around the world to make a significant impact on the lives of innocent people caught up in terrible circumstances beyond their control. For many of the most vulnerable, a single blanket could be the difference between life and death this winter.

I realise that the ‘your x amount of dollars/pounds can do this’ is a hackneyed phrase in charitable appeals, but in this case it absolutely means that, because every US$16 donated is guaranteed to buy a blanket.

When the first distribution of 5,000 blankets is made, Rise Foundation will make sure that somebody takes a picture of every single person who receives a blanket. With some technical assistance we hope to be able to display this to all of our donors (sign up for email updates after you’ve donated and they’ll send you things like that direct).

How you can help

Donate and spread the word. #buyablanket.

Obviously our first request is that you donate money (click here).

But we also need you to spread the word, because greater understanding of the issues, and personal recommendation is key to raising awareness and support for this endeavour. If you believe in our campaign, please become an ambassador for it and sent this post out as an email to your friends, or create your own message about why you believe this is an opportunity to make a little bit of money go a long way to help people in great need.

Please also spread the word on social media. You can use the posters from this post on both twitter and Facebook, and the hashtag #buyablanket. You can contact me on my facebook page if you have any further questions.

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One of Rise Foundation’s projects has been to distribute food on a weekly basis to displaced families living in unfinished buildings around Erbil.

What’s the difference between an IDP and a refugee?

Working on the #buyablanket campaign with Rise Foundation I became quite frustrated that I couldn’t just use the word ‘refugee’ to describe people who fled violence in Iraq to the Kurdish north of the country. Everybody understands what it means to seek refuge from fear of persecution and violence, but I felt that people would just be flummoxed by ‘IDP’ – a bland, unevocative acronym. I began to look into it and discovered that the distinction is far deeper and the implications more wide-reaching than just semantics.

IDP Blog 2

Spot the difference: IDPs or refugees?

The short answer

– An IDP (Internally Displaced Person) is somebody forced to flee their home to another part of their own country.

– A refugee is somebody forced to flee their home and seek refuge in another country.

The legal answer

According to the 1951 Convention on Human Rights, a refugee is somebody who…

 “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable…to return to it.”

An IDP is… well, an IDP has no status in international law. They have the same human rights as any other person in the world, and as civilians they are theoretically protected in armed conflict, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has no responsibility for them, and no other nation or international body is required to assist them.

While IDPs make up almost two thirds of global populations seeking safety from armed conflict and violence, they have far fewer rights than refugees.

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Map of global internal displacement as of 2012. Click picture to enlarge.

So who looks out for IDPs? According to the United Nations (UN), respect for sovereignty is paramount, and as such

“It is the Governments of the states where internally displaced persons are found that have the primary responsibility for their assistance and protection. The international community’s role is complementary.”

Well that sounds fair enough – governments need to be held accountable for the protection of their own citizens, no matter where they choose to live. Theoretically, yes, but many of the countries where people are forced from their homes because of armed conflict, are not in a position to adequately support mass movements of people. Not only that, but many of these countries are in varying degrees of internal conflict, and the government may not be willing or able to protect certain sections of society. In some countries it may not even be clear who the government actually are.


Official boundary of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

How does this affect Iraq? I thought it was a functioning democracy? Yes, it is. On paper. But in reality it is in a state of near-civil war. The politics will be explained in a separate post, but in essence you have Sunni and Shi’a Arabs fighting for power in the main body of Iraq, and the Kurds quietly setting up their own country-in-waiting in the north.

The Kurdistan Region has its own government and security forces and operates virtually as a separate country. This means that it is largely protected from the violence of the rest of Iraq. This is also the reason that many of the minorities persecuted by Daesh (ISIS) have sought refuge there.

So shouldn’t the government in Baghdad just send more money up to the Kurdistan region now that more people are living there? That’s what should happen. But there’s a long-running dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), so they are not helping out in any substantial way.

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UN report on the influx of refugees up to late August 2014. The situation has continued to worsen. A note on numbers: The UN counts family units and then estimates them at 6 people per family. In reality many families in this region are far larger.

So what’s the situation for IDPs in the Kurdistan Region? Dire. The local government and ordinary Kurds have been going all out to help IDPs arriving in their region, but the numbers are just too great. In Dohuk province – the area closest to the most troubled area of Iraq, they have now more than 800,000 IDPs, plus at least 200,000 Syrian refugees.

Most of the IDPs arrived in June-August 2014, particularly those fleeing the conflict in Shingar. Since the normal population of Dohuk is only around 1.3 million, that’s nearly double the amount of people now surviving off the same resources as last year. Imagine the whole population of Virginia turning up in North Carolina over two months, or every citizen of Scotland moving to East Anglia in a month. What if they all turned up with nothing but the clothes they stood up in? How would that affect the lives of ordinary people?

I can tell you because I’ve seen Dohuk first hand. Normal life has stopped; children cannot go to school because IDPs are living in them all; hospitals are running out of resources; building work has ceased as IDPs live in all the building sites. These are just a few of the areas of impact. And yet the international community has no obligation to help.

Some international and government agencies are doing so, but the only ones acting with any urgency are the locally-based NGOs. I feel a separate blog post coming on about my experiences of NGOs in Iraq, so I’ll end by saying that if you want to help, I recommend visiting, which at least tackles the most urgent issue of how these people are going to survive a harsh winter in the northern mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Further Reading

– For a sense of the living conditions for the IDPs, read my last blog post on Yezidi girl Mariam and her family.

– For facts and figures on Iraq’s IDPs and other people in need, see this very clear, one page UN report IRQ_snapshot_en_141014.

IDP blog 1


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

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 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

Festival of Sacrifice

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Muslim pilgrims on the Hajj circle the Kaaba in Mecca.

On the evening of the 10th day of the last month of the Islamic year (Dhu Al-Hijja), Muslims begin a two day celebration known as Eid Al-Adha – Festival of the Sacrifice. This marks the end of the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage of Muslims around the world to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Eid Al-Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God’s command. The Old Testament story tells that God intervened at the last minute to save Ishmael, and gave Abraham (known as Ibrahim in Islam) a lamb to sacrifice instead.

On the first evening of Eid, Muslim families traditionally slaughter an animal and prepare a feast for the following day. On the main day of celebrations, they travel around their community visiting each other and receiving hospitality and food.

This year, celebrations in Iraqi Kurdistan were muted. Much like Christmas in the West, shops in the run-up to Eid would normally do a roaring trade in sweets, gifts and clothes. This week, however, traders in the Souq were wheeling around wooden carts still heavily laden with sweets, complaining that nobody was coming to buy them. Not only is the economic hardship, caused by a financial dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, hitting people hard (most government employees have not been paid in months), but the current conflict with Daesh (ISIS) casts a heavy shadow over the region. Few felt like celebrating.

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

I spent Eid in Dohuk – one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces, and the one hit hardest by the influx of refugees from the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in Iraq. My host family put on traditional clothes and kept a basket of sweets for children going door to door, but otherwise spent the day in muted relaxation; far from their usual programme of non-stop guests, all-day tea-boiling and gastronomic over-indulgence.

“This is no time for celebration. Every family knows somebody who has lost a relative fighting Da’esh. How can we celebrate, with such unhappiness everywhere?”

The Battle for Shingar

The main problems with press coverage of the fight with Daesh (ISIS) in the north of Iraq are the absence of decent maps (the BBC one is just plain wrong) and the western press’s general lack of understanding of the strategic and geographical issues in play (with some notable exceptions – see further reading below). Here’s a very basic outline to help explain.KRG map

Where is Kurdistan? The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is an autonomous region of northern Iraq. It has its own parliament, army (Peshmerga) and domestic security force (Asayish). Then there are the areas outside of their borders where the population are mostly Kurds, but they do not come under KRG administration. These are often known as the Disputed Territories.

Why the dispute? This strip of land contains many billion barrels of oil beneath its surface, which both the central Iraqi government and the KRG would like the profits of. For the KRG however, it runs deeper – control of Mosul, Kirkuk and the areas around them would allow the KRG to look after their fellow Kurds.

Why do Daesh want this area? Primarily oil. Selling oil on the black market brings in millions of dollars a day, allowing them to recruit, fight and function like a state army.

But why Sinjar in particular? Sinjar, or as the Kurds call it, Shingar, is actually a region as well as a town. West of Mosul, it helps Daesh to shore up the link between Syria and areas of more solid Sunni Arab support. It also gives them access to Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul.

Shingar is also the homeland of the Yezidis, who are a religious minority persecuted by Daesh for their beliefs. When Shingar fell to Daesh, many Yezidis fled to Syria or Erbil, but geography forced some of them up Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for many days. This is inhospitable terrain, especially in the height of summer, and those trapped on the mountain suffer greatly.

Blog Shingar

Graphic from the Washington Post. A little confusing as it’s the view from the West, but helps to understand the terrain. The red line at the bottom is the border with Syria.

Military Strategy In the battle for Shingar, there are several strategically important towns; Zumar (Zummar), Sinjar (Sincar, Shingar) and Rabi’a (Rabia). Whoever controls these, controls access to the whole area.

Interactive Daesh map

Excellent New York Times map.

Fierce fighting continues in Rabi’a and Zumar and control changes regularly. The Peshmerga sustained significant casualties in the battles for these towns but today have regained control of Rabi’a. It is expected that they will progress to Shingar soon.

On a lighter note, Zagros TV just showed Peshmerga delightedly holding up fake beards they had taken off Daesh fighters killed in the battle for Rabi’a.

Further references This New York Times interactive graphic is about the best and most accurate map I’ve come across, and although it’s from 2009, descriptions of the ethnic, strategic and political issues are pretty spot on. This Al Jazeera video gives you an impression of the battle around Zumar. This Washington Post series of graphics illustrates things from the perspective of US air strikes.