Near Kawergosk, where over 8,000 Syrian refugees live - the majority of whom share an ethnic Kurdish identity, drawing from Qamishli, Jazeera, and Hasaka in the country’s northeast provinces - the Erbil oil refinery is operated by the KAR Group. According to UNHCR figures, 47.1 percent, almost half of the entire camp, are under 18 as of May 2022.
We come across one of the local schools, and children rush up to greet us. But before we can answer any of their questions, we’re rescued by another passerby: Ahmed Khalid.*
Khalid greets us with a smile, and immediately takes us to his home, a simple building with bare walls and doshaks (mattresses) on the floor.
Back in 2013 when the refugee camp was set up, it was all tents. For almost a decade the refugees of Kawergosk lived in rows of blue and white plastic, before being slowly replaced by cement blocks and cold stone. “When we first arrived, we didn’t even have a tent to sleep under,” said Khalid.
Back in 2013 when the refugee camp was set up, it was all tents. For almost a decade the Syrians of Kawergosk lived in rows of blue and white plastic, before being slowly replaced by cement blocks and cold stone. ‘When we first arrived, we didn’t even have a tent to sleep under’, he said.
Without a degree, he had few options other than to try to continue with his studies in Iraq. Saving up $1,500 in application fees — an enormous sum of money for a local inhabitant, let alone a refugee — he applied for a scholarship in the Iraqi university in Sulemania, and won the offer to study veterinary medicine.
But even after he won the scholarship, the Iraqi government blocked him from continuing his studies due to his refugee status. The government also refused to reimburse him the $1,500, losing the family their savings.
To help feed his family, he practises veterinary medicine on the side without a licence, terrified the authorities will one day catch him.
Through his veterinary work, he is able to receive $150 every few months. The last time he received a pay cheque like that was November 2021. He spends most of his money buying medicine for the pets and animals.
Now, the temporary accommodation has evolved into a small city, with residents running almost every kind of business out of their own homes and in shared spaces. Before the war, Khalid was a university student in Syria, but civil war broke out before he could finish.
We were introduced to the mother of his family, who works in the health sector. When Covid-19 hit, she vaccinated an estimated 5,000 children in one week. She told us that she was vaccinating babies between one and four days old.
When the work began, she started encountering more children with birth defects. Many are stillborn in the camps, but those who reached the age of vaccination would often have health defects; a missing valve, or with an atrial septal defect - a hole in the heart. Many had a condition which prevented them from crying, and many more had difficulty breathing as soon as they were born.
She had been a nurse in Syria before the war. The family showed us a picture of their house on fire. Smoke billowed out of their family home after shelling from Turkey, with their fleeing neighbours sending them a photo right after the attack.
After taking a dangerous journey from the Turkish-Syrian border, the family arrived in Iraq. Nearly a decade later, they’re still there — unable to return home for fear of shelling, kidnapping, and with no home to return to.
Because of her nursing experience, she worked around the camp in the health sector helping to alleviate suffering. When Covid-19 hit the refugees, Hamza was on the frontlines. In one week, she vaccinated an estimated 5,000 children. After work, the mother Hamza would volunteer to deliver awareness sessions in the camp about Covid, such as social distancing, PPE and hygiene talks.
No governments or NGOs sponsored the awareness campaign — it was led entirely by Hamza and others like her in the camp. ‘We wanted to present something to the camp, and we will always be proud of it.’