A half-finished home is safer than no home at all. Nearly 2,000 people have sheltered, sweltered and shivered in these breeze block shells for over two years. Now ShelterBox and partner agency ACTED have transformed and weatherproofed unfinished buildings in a Northern Iraq village.
ShelterBox Response Team volunteer, Rachel Harvey reports from Iraq
Seje is a village like no other. It is largely made up of houses belonging to members of the Kurdish diaspora, but many of the building projects stalled when the local economy crashed in the face of continued conflict and a falling oil price.
The walls and roofs are there, but windows, doors and paintwork were never completed. Around 2,000 of Iraq’s internally displaced people – as many as thirty sharing a single house – were offered temporary refuge here. For most, ‘temporary’ has turned into a protracted two years, and there is no immediate prospect of a return home.
So disaster relief partners ShelterBox and ACTED launched a joint project to provide ‘sealing off’ kits to make good the houses. PVC windows and doors, wood, tarpaulins, tools and fixings were given to households to seal-up the open spaces. At last these long-suffering families are protected from dust, animals, bugs, summer heat and winter cold, and have some measure of privacy.
Barkat Ibraheem Khalaf (photo 2nd left) lives with his extended family in the village. Sixteen people share a house including five children, one of them just 13 days old when ShelterBox visited this month. The infant, Barkat’s granddaughter, has been named Kanawer, which means ‘where is our home?’ in Kurdish.
The Khalaf family home was once a small town called Gar Azer Shengal nestled behind Sinjar Mountain. But the town was overrun by Islamic State forces in 2014. The family fled and has been living in the unfinished building in Seje ever since.
‘Before we had this we just had some thin plastic sheeting,’ said Barkat. ‘It was terrible. In the summer everything was covered in dust. In the winter the rain came in. It was like a flood with the kids paddling around in the water.’
Now things are much better he says. The sealing off kits from ACTED and ShelterBox have provided protection from the elements and Barkat says it was all easy to install because the correct tools were provided. The family’s original home back in Gar Azer Shengal has been destroyed and the village is ‘occupied’. If Islamic State is driven out of Iraq will the family return? ‘I can’t say yes or no,’ he said. ‘There is no trust anymore.’
Barkat’s family and many of their neighbours in Seje are survivors of one of the most notorious episodes in the Kurdish battle against so-called Islamic State. In August 2014 IS seized control of the city of Sinjar in Nineveh province. There were reports of mass executions and women being taken into slavery – the UN records that 5,000 Yazidi civilians died. An exodus of hundreds of thousands of people onto barren Mount Sinjar followed. Aid was dropped by helicopter, but over the coming weeks only one in ten was able to leave the exposed mountain and head for displacement camps. Seje and its abandoned and unfinished houses offered some protection to around 2,000 of these battle-weary travellers.
Among the displaced citizens of Seje are twin girls born 31 August 2016, still unnamed when our photo was taken (photo top left).
Also Hanif, a widow age 45 who was stranded on Mount Sinjar for eighteen terrifying days. Hanif says there was no water or food beyond the meagre supplies they had carried with them. The very day they fled to the mountain Hanif’s daughter gave birth to baby Afreen, which means ‘creation’. Afreen is now age 2 (photo top left) so has spent all her young life in the makeshift dwellings of Seje.Hanif shares half a divided house with her daughter and three granddaughters.
The building, like most others in Seje, was just an unfinished shell when they moved into it, no windows or doors, only gaps in the concrete walls. They tried blocking up the gaps with stones and bricks but that cut off all natural light and the house was very dark. Now that ACTED and ShelterBox have stepped in, new hard-wearing windows and a door have been installed, keeping out the dust in summer and the cold and rain in winter. ‘It was very hard to keep things clean before.’ Hanif said. ‘Now things are much better. We are protected inside.’
Khudedo and his extended family (left) were forced to flee from their homes in Telazeer near Sinjar in August of 2014. From a community of 1,200 people Khudedo thinks only 100-150 were rescued or escaped. The rest were captured or killed. He recalls being trapped on Sinjar mountain. ‘Those times were really difficult. No food or water. We were really afraid.’ The nearest small spring was a 10km walk away, and the journey was far from safe. Khudedo explained that at one point they were so short of water they began using the caps from plastic water bottles to measure out rations for each person.
After a while a safe corridor opened up, and Khudedo was able to arrange a few vehicles to help bring his family to safety after walking close to ten hours. He and his sons were construction workers in Seje, working on the very house where ShelterBox recently found them. They knew the owner of the house lived abroad and would not be returning, so they contacted him and he graciously allowed them to live there in his absence. The home is large, but Khudedo lives there with his five sons and their families – around 30 people in total.
The ‘sealing off kits’ have made a great difference. Khudedo recounted having to shake out all their clothes and household items every day as the rooms would fill with dust. During the winter, they blocked the windows with stones to keep out the cold and wind, but the rooms would be so dark it was difficult to see. ‘These windows and doors really have made all the difference, and even though this will not be our house forever, our family finally feels safe and happy living here.’
His family longs for the day when they can return home, but they are afraid of what they might find. ‘We don’t know the condition of our homes or if anything is even still there. We don’t know how long it will take for the fighting to stop. We have the skills to rebuild our house, but we have no money left and no materials. We are also afraid of returning because Islamic State were our neighbours and they might still be there. We cannot return unless we have protection.’
ACTED and ShelterBox are now preparing to respond to an anticipated humanitarian disaster centred on the city of Mosul, Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq. A military offensive aimed at liberating the city is expected to trigger a massive displacement of people, an estimated 600,000 or more. Initially aid will be focused on increasing the capacity of camps for internally displaced people in Northern Iraq, but a second phase will offer portable aid to people on the move.
ShelterBox is funding the sourcing of basic non-food items kits and shading materials, ACTED is purchasing them locally and arranging storage, delivery, and distribution to displaced families. ACTED and ShelterBox have partnered many times before around the world, most recently after the Nepal quakes in 2015 when they sourced shelter materials in country and delivered them to some of the highest-altitude communities on the planet.