[This post is being published out of order; the photos and experiences are from September-November 2012]
I arrived in Iraq in early September 2012, expecting to be sent to Kirkuk after some initial briefings at our coordination office. I had been hired to spend six months living in Kirkuk, working semi-remotely to support our project in Hawija, where MSF is supporting some activities of the local hospital. Unfortunately, there were a series of bombings in Kirkuk just before I landed in Iraq, so the team was temporarily relocated. Rather than have me sit twiddling my thumbs in the coordination office, waiting for the dust to settle in Kirkuk, we agreed that I would lend a hand up north in Domiz Refugee Camp for a week or two, as the young MSF project there had never had an expatriate logistician. The team would drive down to Erbil each weekend for some rest, so I would only need a few days’ worth of clothing. I packed my bag appropriately, leaving most of my stuff at the guesthouse in Erbil, and hit the road. Little did I know, those two weeks would stretch into three months.
In April 2012, as fighting in neighbouring Syria intensified and spread, Domiz Refugee Camp was set up to receive some of the people who’d begun fleeing across the border the month before. The camp is located in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Iraq, about 10km southwest of the city of Duhok as the crow flies, or 15km as the tarmac lies (for unknown reasons, various websites and Google Earth say that the camp is northeast of town, but this is definitely incorrect).
Initially planned to hold about 5000 people, the camp rapidly surpassed that figure, straining the limited resources available to the mostly-Kurdish Syrian refugees living there. MSF was warmly welcomed into the camp in the spring of 2012 to help manage the healthcare needs of the growing refugee population.
The refugees living in Domiz camp were incredibly hospitable to me. Each day that I was there, I made an effort to take a walk and say hello to people in the different neighbourhoods within the camp, and on these walks my colleagues and I were almost invariably invited to sit down for a hot drink and some friendly banter. One day, we even got invited for a meal of epic proportions in the tent of one of the first families to arrive in the camp months before. This family became known in the camp for taking in new arrivals who had not yet been assigned a tent in which to sleep or given a food ration to feed their children, and hadn’t enough cash to get by in their first days.
It was a surreal experience for me, to sit alongside my assistant and the Field Coordinator assistant, the Directorate of Health ambulance driver, and two of our MSF drivers, in a yellow tent extended upwards with makeshift low cinderblock walls, eating a multi-course meal that would easily excite Anthony Bourdain, in the oldest sector of a rapidly expanding refugee camp for Syrians in Iraq. While the family had limited resources, they worked very hard to help themselves and others, and the meal was their way of welcoming us and thanking us for the work MSF was doing in the camp.
While such a grandiose meal was uncommon, we were offered hot drinks everywhere we went. Strong Arabic coffee – black and bitter, with a thick sludge of grounds to leave behind at the bottom of the little porcelain cup, and the initially unfamiliar cardamom pungency which took me by surprise the first time it rose to my nostrils – dealt a caffeine slap that would have spun my head through a full 360° turn if my neck were only capable of it.
The more frequently offered option – sweet tea, a deep orange river with brown swirling currents steamily streaming into tiny glasses already a quarter to a third with white sugar – had a gentler effect on my heart rate, though too many glasses in one day risked triggering a hyperglycaemic headache.
I soon appointed myself unofficial camp tour guide for any new MSF staff and visitors arriving in the project, taking them on walking tours of the key sectors of the camp, highlighting the rapid evolution of the camp and our activities, and, most importantly, taking time to sit down with camp residents for tea or coffee, no matter whether the new MSF arrivals felt they had the time to spare or not. Most people were excited at the opportunity, but when the occasional person felt otherwise, a simple phrase solved the problem every time: “They’ve invited us in for tea; we don’t need to stay long, but it would be incredibly rude to refuse the offer altogether.”
Armando, a Mexican MSF doctor who organised triage training for the health centre staff, was particularly keen to visit with camp residents:
During the time that I was working in Domiz camp, it was through drinking tea that we learned about the challenges faced by its refugee inhabitants.
We also heard interesting information and rumours that were going around, some of which could affect the refugees’ healthcare needs. Sitting in tents brought us closer to the community, and helped the community members feel more at ease seeking healthcare at the primary health centre that MSF operated in the camp.
We put a human face on what appeared otherwise to be a strange company employing foreigners to do who knows what. We learned what people did and did not know about the nongovernmental, charitable nature of MSF, and shared information about the healthcare options available to them, free of charge, including referrals and free transport to the local government hospital for some treatment options that we didn’t offer in the camp.
With this information, we could adjust our strategy for community health workers and counsellors doing outreach work within the camp. We also increased our own security: the community respected us for the work we were doing in the health centre, but also for the way we interacted with them closer to their homes, always waving and smiling as we walked or drove around, joking with the children, listening during our tea drinking sessions, and advocating for their non-medical needs to the relevant organisations working in the camp.
Although Domiz is far nicer than Dadaab (the world’s largest refugee camp), living in a refugee camp is not easy, and conditions are tough. It rains heavily and snows every winter in Duhok governorate. It’s incredibly hot (average high of 41-42°C in July-August) and dusty every summer there. With no end in sight for the war in Syria, Domiz Refugee Camp may remain home for a long time to come for the refugees who welcomed me so warmly during my short stay there.