November 19, 2014

Iraqi Kurdistan: Mothers Struggle to Take Care of Their Children

As the winter approaches, thousands of refugees who have been displaced by the civil war in Syria and insurgency in Iraq are facing a precarious situation. Partly owing to the lacking infrastructure, thousands of lives are at stake as temperatures start falling below freezing and refugees are left without proper shelter, food and clothing.

Photo courtesy of jan Sefti@flickr

Below is an article published by The Telegraph;

Natalia has osteoarthritis. She developed the condition after hand-washing her family’s clothing for hours each day, in freezing cold water.

The 29-year-old rubs her shoulder and winces.

“It takes three to four days for them to dry,” she explains. Her own children are often forced to wear damp clothes.

“All three of them have coughs because of it. But that’s not the only reason, there are so many problems. It’s the cold, the lack of food, the place we live in,” she says.

Natalia is one of the many displaced mothers faced with the struggle of keeping their children healthy and their families fed throughout Iraqi Kurdistan’s bitter winter.

As aid organisations mobilise, with deliveries of blankets and heaters, the mothers I spoke to in this region, told me of their worries about the coming freeze and the devastating effects the cold temperatures could have on the younger children.

Winters in Kurdistan reach zero at night. The rain is persistent. Often it comes thundering down for hours on end, washing away tree branches, flooding the roads and makeshift refugee camps.

The air is constantly damp – the sort that seeps deep into your bones and you just can’t shake without a hot bath and a mug of tea. Or, a roof on your house, at the very least.

There are no such luxuries here.

Approximately 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced by the conflict since mid-June and over 1.2 million of them have found refuge in Iraq’s Kurdish enclave. In the capital city of Erbil the grey skeleton of an unfinished building is now home to up to 300 people who fled from Bartella, Qaraqosh and Mosul – cities that are now under Islamic State control.

Inside this vast shell, tens upon tens of families live in prefabricated cabins that were originally set up as offices for the site’s construction builders. Blue plastic sheets cover gaps in the half-open ceilings and small electric heaters fail miserably to warm the plastic rooms. There is no insulation. Mothers, fathers and children all cram on to makeshift sofas made of wooden planks placed atop concrete blocks. But even the shared human heat is not enough to keep them warm.

Tom Robinson, director of local NGO Rise Foundation is heading up a campaign that seeks to deliver warm blankets to Iraq’s displaced families. But for many it’s not enough and more needs to be done before those blankets will keep families warm and dry.

“The most vulnerable refugees will suffer greatly during the winter because of the lack of adequate shelter and basic amenities,” he tells me.

Inside Natalia’s cabin, a puddle of stagnant water has partly seeped into the room, dampening the carpet – as well as the clothes on her family’s backs. A woman attempts to sweep it away but the lack of drainage in the unfinished building makes it almost impossible to keep the place dry.

Nidhal, 54, tells me that she can’t wear socks because of the water. Instead she walks around in flip flops, her bare feet white as snow. “I have to mop up the water from morning until night,” she sighs.

“It’s really cold when we sleep. We have kerosene heaters but they [aid agencies] didn’t give us any kerosene,” she adds.

Next to her Natalia now buries her face in her hands and cries quietly.

A minute earlier the displaced mother-of-three had been joking about her matted hair and tired expression: “I was so young, now I am older because of the suffering,” she says, holding up a photo of herself in her hometown as two of her children huddled around her.

Back in Bartella - less than 13 miles east of Mosul - the young mother worked at a beauty salon. But in Erbil, Natalia must stay at home to take care of the children.

“Even if I did work, it would be long hours for very little money. They know I’m a displaced person and they will exploit that,” she explains.

In a neighbouring cabin, lives 36-year-old Nadia. Her room is immaculately clean. A television flickers in the background and her daughters smile politely.

But as winter swiftly approaches her main concern is the lack of hot water. “We only have two boilers for all the families here,” she says.

Nadia’s bright pink dress and green toenails stand out against the dark backdrop of the tiny cabin. Like every displaced mother, she faces an upward battle this winter. Daily routines like cooking, washing and taking care of the children have turned into arduous tasks as a result of a dire situation. Things will only get worse as the rainy season begins and temperatures throughout the Kurdish region of Iraq begin to plummet.

The shy mother-of-two explains that cooking for her family has become a back-breaking chore. The rudimentary kitchen is minute and dark. The sheer number of residents using it at once often results in people getting badly burnt.

“Sometimes when you’re cooking the gas finishes, or you have to wait for the other women to finish the cooking so you can start. It’s very chaotic,” she explains.

“Some families rent in Erbil but its very expensive,” says Hanaa, 36, whose husband, once a church guard, has not been able to find work since they reached the Kurdish capital in August.

She sits on the damp floor, as she tells me that that her one-year-old daughter developed bronchitis because of the cold. “It’s not like being at home, where you can take care of the children properly,” she says.

Opposite the makeshift refuge the local church distributes medicine. Hanaa says they are not as effective as the ones prescribed by doctors – but the absence of a stable income means they can’t afford those.

Her 80-year-old mother nods in agreement. She can’t move because of a leg injury and sits quietly, swaddled in blankets.

“I’m going to die because of the cold,” she says.