Iraq: … For Them The Glass is Always Half Full

Some people manage to look on the bright side, no matter what. For them, the glass is always half full.
Every day in our refugee camp in Ashti, Iraq, we see their gentle tenacity and their desire to start again by looking past the hardships brought by violence and war and, above all, by helping Others.

Farhan and Murad live with their families in the refugee camp, but they are also members of staff at EMERGENCY’s Health Centre in Ashti. Farhan is one of our health promoters, while Murad is a logistician.

We want to share their stories with you.

Farhan can teach us that – no matter what – the answer is always ‘yes’

Can you convert a tent area in an IDP camp with over 11,000 inhabitants into a fully-equipped and busy barbershop? For Farhan – who has been collaborating with EMERGENCY for two years at our Health Centre in the Ashti Camp – the answer is yes.

In Ashti, Farhan (29) lives with his parents, three sisters, and three brothers. They left Sinjar, a small city in northwest Iraq near the border with Iran, more than 4 years ago.

“It was August when ISIS attacked Sinjar and began abducting children and girls. We had to seek refuge in the mountains. That’s where I stayed for 38 days.”

In addition to taking on the role of barber and hairdresser for the inhabitants of the camp, Farhan is a ‘health promoter’. During the course of the day, his job is to raise awareness of the centre’s services amongst all residents. He explains good personal hygiene practices – such as dental care – and informs people about the prevention of, and risks posed by, infections and diseases commonly encountered within the camp.

“ISIS killed all my friends,” continues Farhan, as he awaits the arrival of his next client. “I will never forget what I saw with my own eyes before arriving here.”

Soon after, he shows us the salon’s price list. “In Sinjar I owned a hairdressing salon, which I had opened with my partner. Then the city was destroyed.”

In an attempt to exorcise the experiences and pain he has lived through, and to make the reality of war known to those who have never seen it with their own eyes, Farhan writes poems and stories for children and organises satirical theatrical productions.

“In my works I speak of my life, but also of daily life in this camp.”

Judging by his smile and the look in his eyes, you’d never know that the life he’s left behind continues to knock at his door every day. All of his stories still come with a smile as he adjusts his clients’ hairstyles, shapes their sideburns, or attempts to make do with a hairdryer that splutters out of life every time there’s a sudden cut to the electrical supply.

It’s hard to think how someone who has seen so much violence could return to smiling – especially on a rainy day, in a tent with no electricity, in an IDP camp. Does life provide any answers? Is reality enough to tell the story of war, or do you also need theatre, art, and the written word? Farhan teaches us that whatever answer life might provide, and however life might go – the answer is yes.

“They all just want to return home.”

“I’m with you, but I’m also one of them.” Murad is not only one of EMERGENCY’s logisticians here, but also an inhabitant of the Ashti IDP Camp. That’s why he can tell us about life in this place from both perspectives. Every day, thanks to his job, he speaks with many different people, and hears the stories they tell.

“I’ve been living in the camp for many years. I understand people’s needs. I take care of them. Precisely by talking with them on a daily basis I’ve come to understand how living conditions are not improving: people still have problems with water, and they have to pay for electricity. It’s always the same story. I think the situation will remain stagnant for a long time. Upon arrival, tensions also existed, which have not entirely disappeared: the meeting and cohabitation of the Arab community with the Yazidis, for example. We Yazidis fled our homes because we are persecuted. Many more didn’t even make it here alive.

If there’s something that everyone tells me, it is that they would like to return home. But they can’t. The conditions are not stable enough to go back. We can’t know for sure, but attacks could resume at any moment, putting our lives at risk.”

“What’s it like to be a logistician here?”, we ask him.

“Everything is logistics!”, Murad says. “The first thing I do every morning is assess whether the centre is ready to receive its daily patients. I check the generator and the water supply. I’m in charge of transferring patients to hospitals in Arbat and Sulaymaniyah. I fix all manner of problems – big and small – together with my local and international colleagues. I’m extremely proud of my work with EMERGENCY.”

In the camp, Murad lives with his wife Lazima and their 4 children: Elyas (10), Amany (8), Amelia (7), and young Osama (4).

“We’re one big family,” he says smiling, with arms around one of his girls, whose eyes are concentrated on the cartoons playing on the television. This part of the tent serves as a lounge during the day, and at night becomes the family bedroom.

Amany and Amelia, whose minimal age difference makes them more like twins than just sisters, have just returned from school. In the camp, the presence of international organisations guarantees an education for the children. Around 11,500 people live in Ashti, half of whom are children.

“The girls attend school every morning from 8:30 to 11:30, and then return home for lunch. In the evenings, we talk about how their day went. I talk with their teachers to review their performance, and I teach them words in Arabic and English. I’d like to push them to always do better, because what I hope is for each one of them to have the future they deserve. When I ask them what they would like to be when they’re older, they sometimes some say they’d like to become a doctor. The youngest changes his mind a couple times a day. I always try to make them see the positive side of things.”

As he talks, Murad has an easy-going smile that conveys serenity and peace – reflecting the name of the IDP camp where he lives and works: Ashti. But emphasising the positive side of things isn’t always enough. Even if you’re a child.

“Some mornings, my children wake up with nightmares. They huddle close to me and say: ‘Daddy, I dreamt of ISIS tonight’. My children don’t know the reasons that led most people to live here, they’re too little. But what they see on TV can have a powerful impact on their thoughts. That’s also why as soon as we find a way to go back home, we will. I’m sure that almost everybody here thinks along the same lines.”

EMERGENCY’s Ashti Health Centre is funded by EU Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid – ECHO



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