One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done while traveling was visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq and being able to help improve (even if it was just by a small amount) the situation of those suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in our history.
For more about Kurdistan, read my 50 Tips for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan
Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq
The camp I went to is called Darashakran and it’s about 40km north of the Kurdish capital, Erbil. There are several refugee camps around Erbil. All of them have been going since pretty much of the beginning of the Syrian War. Over 50,000 Syrian refugees (a mix of Sunnis and Kurds) live in Darashakran camp and its population has been increasing constantly since it was set up four years ago. Yeah, it is fucking crazy. The camp is like a small city.
Bringing toys for the Syrian children
The objective of going to a refugee camp was not only to find out how refugees do actually live, but I also wanted to provide them with any kind of food or supplies which might be useful to them. Unfortunately, a refugee camp in Iraq does not receive a lot of attention. War and misery happen all across Iraq, therefore local Iraqis have too many things to worry about…
According to a local Kurd I met, most of the help they receive comes from the Kurdish Government and it is mainly to satisfy primary needs: pasta, rice or milk. Bringing them food would be very helpful indeed! But I talked to several locals and they told me that, if I wanted to do something different, I could buy toys for the children. Why? Because they barely have any and for sure that would make them feel very happy. I found it to be an awesome idea!
Therefore, before heading to the camp, I stopped at Erbil’s main bazaar and bought two bags full of 30 different toys.
The way to the camp and my new Syrian friend
The only way to get to the refugee camp is by car. Shafia, who was the receptionist of the hotel I stayed at, introduced me to a friend of hers who could actually take me to the camp by car. His name was Blend and he was a young guy who turned out to be Syrian as well.
On our way to the camp, I got to know many interesting things about Blend. He told me that he moved from Syria to Iraq with his family about 10 years ago in order to find better opportunities. Nowadays, his father is the Minister of Agriculture in Kurdistan. This is what he claims at least.
One interesting thing I learnt from my trip to Iraq is that the massive Syrian influx is not something new which began with the current war, but it has been happening for over a decade. All because of the dictatorial regime lead by one of the biggest motherfuckers in the XXI century: Bashar Al Assad.
Accompanying this interesting conversation was the Iraqi Kurdistan road to the camp which was beautiful. It was a pleasant one hour drive. The sun was shining over green fields and plantations of wheat and young shepherds were wandering around them with their sheep.
Getting inside the Syrian refugee camp
The camp was huge. Much bigger than I could ever expect and it was fully militarized by local peshmergas (Kurdish soldiers) who were preserving the Syrians’ safety. At the camp entrance there was a checkpoint but, thanks to Blend, I didn’t experience any sort of trouble. He basically said that I came to bring toys for the children so I was more than welcome.
Once inside the camp, we just pulled over the car, got down, went on the side of the street with all the toys and offered a toy to a Syrian girl who was passing by. Shyly, she took it and went quickly to her mom. Consequently, a few other kids also slowly approached me and shyly picked up a toy.
Everything was going very smoothly but in a matter of 30 seconds everybody started to realize what was happening and a massive bunch of people came to me asking desperately for a toy. In the first instance, they were just asking me if I could please give them a toy but in the end they just grabbed all of them out of my hands. I ran out of everything in less than a minute and many people were still asking me for more.
‘’Shit… I should have bought more’’. That’s what I thought, but anyways, I think it would have been the same.
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But anyhow… It was great and when everyone left, a couple of moms came to me and showed me their gratitude with a very honest smile. Truly, I can’t describe how I felt at this precise moment but, without any doubt, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
They also wanted to invite us for food but I don’t know… I felt sorry about it. Kindly, I refused the invitation but I did accept some tea in exchange.
Life in a Syrian refugee camp
It was time now to walk around the camp and to check how life is over there. As I mentioned before, the camp is huge. It is like a small city, but not only in terms of size but also from a social point of view. Since the camp has been set up for over 4 years, refugees have already built shops, a school, a mosque and other services. They no longer live in tents but they have built their own solid houses with materials provided by the Kurdish government.
Yeah, it seems that Syrians have started a new life over there. But, honestly speaking, the camp conditions were as bad as I could had imagined. It was really sad. Dirty streets, dust everywhere, poor hygiene… Not much more to say about it. Fortunately, I wanted to highlight that Unicef Iraq is involved in providing a water supply and medical services to the camp.
Lots of children and lots of men in suits
There were two things which I didn’t expect and surprised me so much. One of them was the huge number children that were living in the camp and who were the largest part of the population. Seriously, there were children everywhere.
The second and even more surprising one was to see all these men dressed in suits. Then I recalled that many of these refugees are people with a high level of education, from engineers to lawyers, who belonged to the middle class in Syria. These people had jobs in their home country and of course wore suits occasionally, which they brought to Iraq along with all their other clothes.
The true story about a Syrian refugee
It was already time to leave. We had spent the whole afternoon and part of the evening walking around. Once we had said goodbye to everyone, Blend took me to another refugee camp which had one peculiarity versus the rest of the camps: it was a camp for rich Syrian refugees only. Can you believe it?
It was a totally different concept of a refugee camp, as they were all living in relatively nice villas and had kind of good cars. Blend took me there because his first cousin was living there as a refugee, together with his family. We went to his house and they invited me to have shisha and drink tea. I really wanted to ask his cousin how did everything start and how did he end up in Iraq. He explained to me that he was from a beautiful village in the eastern part of Syria. One day, the Islamic State took over the village. They had two choices. Either submitting to their rules or leaving. That was the only story…
Read more true travel stories:
Sneaking into an Afghan village in Pakistan
Tales of backpacking in Kurdistan
Airbnb in a Palestinian refugee camp
Visiting the forbidden Russian town of Baikonur without a permit
Tales of the Nubian people in Sudan
The day I was accused of being an Islamic State spy