There were moments when what I saw and heard took my breath. I smiled. I choked back tears. I found myself fidgety, nervous.
As an American I have to admit that I was anticipating some hostility and a fair amount of blame from the people for their present situation. But that was not at all what happened.
Instead, what I encountered from the people was the opposite: I was received by them warmly with open arms: women embraced me, kissed me on each cheek and pulled me into their trailers, forcing fruit and Pepsi into my hands. The men were quick to shake my hand and the children all ran up and asked for their picture to be taken. A woman dying from cancer – who may or may not have access to pain meds – welcomed me into the small trailer she has now been confined to living in and beckoned me to her bedside. Wincing and short of breath, she grabbed my face, kissed my cheeks and whispered "thank you."
Not once did I experience a moment of hostility, but instead my eyes were met by the tearful gaze of so many who feel completely alone and abandoned, but a gaze which at the same time was filled with joy because my presence there, however brief, brought with it the hope that the world had not forgotten them, and that maybe soon help would come and they would be able to return home.
What it's really like to live in a refugee camp
Erbil itself is a city frozen in time. Only a few years ago it was on the fast track to becoming the next Qatar or Dubai of the Middle East: construction was booming and everywhere new buildings and condominiums were popping up in what was a promising upward economic tilt. However, after the rise of the Islamic State and the sharp fall of oil prices, the construction came to a screeching halt and building projects, highway remodels and construction renovations were simply abandoned. Incomplete edifices, one of which was to be a large new shopping mall, are scattered throughout the city.
As investors, homeowners and contractors suddenly found their pockets empty and their hands tied up in litigation, families fleeing from ISIS poured into the unfinished buildings and took refuge. Some have been living there ever since, while the majority have gone to one of the many camps that have been formed throughout Erbil.
The stench of sewage wafts into rooms and coats the air.
Once the grim reality set in that it would be more than just a few days or weeks before the people could go home, the Church acted swiftly and aggressively in setting up the camps. Most of them are overcrowded, with families packed into prefabricated trailers between 1-3 rooms each, at times housing 8 people or more. The largest Christian camp in Erbil, called the Aishty camp, is located in the Christian suburb of Ain Qawa, and is divided into three smaller camps: Aishty 1, 2 and 3.
Fardos, who lives in a squashed, two-room trailer in Aishty 1 with five other members of her family, including her mother and children, worries that the snakes and insects that creep into the trailer will get to her infant daughter.
As I squeezed in with the family around their humble kitchen table, Fardos told me they all escaped from Qaraqosh Aug. 6, 2014, when ISIS attacked. When they got to Erbil, they initially took refuge inside a church hall, where they slept on the floor along with 14 other families, numbering more than 100 people in total. There was barely enough room to walk between the people, and at night they couldn't get up without disturbing the others. After moving into the camp, problems abounded.
Bathrooms were few and hard to get to, there was little space inside their flimsy trailer, they had no water and "the room stunk a lot."
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While the majority of the issues have been taken care of, the stench of sewage from where the water is hooked up under the trailer wafts into the rooms every now and then and coats the air. Many of the 250 families in Aishty 1, roughly 1,000 people, live in 1 room compartments set up inside a warehouse with no windows. Though they now have bathrooms, the camp still doesn't have showers, leaving residents, including many elderly, the option of either not bathing, or walking long distances to other camps where they can freshen up.
On our second day in Iraq we as a delegation took the long, bumpy road to Dohuk, which sits near the Iraqi border with Turkey, and near Mosul. The city is where the majority of the Yazidis fled and is the closest we came to ISIS territory.
As we walked into the Dawodiya camp – which is about 60-70 percent Yazidi, followed by Christians and a few Muslims – the smell wasn't initially obvious. The stench of sewage sets in only after a few minutes. It comes in waves with a gust of the breeze that carries the scent of the murky water flowing in thin canals carved into the dirt pathways that snake through the camp for drainage.
Suffering abounded in each of the "homes" we entered. My heart ached as I walked into the trailer of a grieving mother whose son, just one month after being married, joined the Kurdish army forces, known as the Peshmerga. He was killed after only a few weeks of fighting ISIS on the front lines, and is referred to as one of "the martyrs." His picture now hangs on the wall of his mother's trailer with a rosary draped over it.
Another story that made my stomach churn was that of Hazar Namir, a 32-year-old Yazidi woman born in Sinjar. As our delegation crammed into her trailer, we were told that she, her husband and their three sons were all abducted by ISIS when the militants stormed the city Aug. 3, 2014. While Hazar and their sons managed to escape in November 2015, after more than a year in captivity, her husband remains in the hands of ISIS.
What had they done to her? Did she know where her husband was? Did she have nightmares?