The cost of being a refugee

The children gather silently, sitting next to each other in a line against the wall of their ground floor house in Akre refugee camp in northern Iraq. They are unsmiling, self-contained children. Their stillness is a contrast to the boisterous shouting and laughing voices coming in through the open front door.

The oldest is fifteen, the youngest around eight or nine. They bear a strong resemblance to each other, and their mother, who is sitting in front of us is telling their story.

For Razan, providing tea for guests and neighbors is a struggle but the customs of hospitality are strong. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

Displaced from their home in Syria four years ago, Razan and her five children fled across the border to Iraqi. Being ethnic Kurds, they found a welcome in Akre — a small town in mountainous Kurdish Iraq. Despite speaking a different dialect of Kurdish they felt more at home there than they would have other Arabic speaking regions of Iraq.

The recurring theme of Razan’s narrative is how tight money is.

Her husband stayed behind in Syria to work their land and take care of elderly parents who could not make the trip to Iraq. They went into debt to pay for their escape from Syria. Razan says she has no idea how she will pay them back. It’s an imminent concern, as one of the family members she owes money to is getting married and he needs the money for his wedding.

“It’s hard to get money. I have to buy everything on credit. I can’t even afford to buy the children meat. When the holidays come, I have to go to the butcher and promise to pay him later. Look at my children! They’re all growing, but I have nothing to feed their bodies with.”
Akre refugee camp is an active place. Children play in the main courtyard which is ringed with small shops and the entrances to people’s homes. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

She gets teary. “My children prefer to sit here inside the house rather than go outside and play. It is so hard on them to see the other children run around without the worry of money. Many children here can go and buy treats or toys. My children can’t even buy gum because I have nothing to give them for pocket money.”

But Razan says she has been forced to send Mohammed, her oldest son, to work. She regrets pulling him out of school, she says, but there’s no other way for the family to survive.

He works collecting plastic bottles that he sells for reuse. It pays very little, but helps put food on the table. There is little support coming from the family still in Syria and limited social welfare in the form of cash grants for those inside the camp.

When asked about how he feels working instead of going to school, Mohammed is too shy to speak to us. He tells his mother in that he has nothing to say.

The cost of being refugees is high for this family, not just financially. Being far from home and without a reliable income source has also taxed the family’s pride and resourcefulness, and compromised at least two children’s future by denying them an education.

Amani helps around the house during the day as she is not in school. ©UNICEF 2017/Jennifer Sparks

Amina, the oldest girl, mostly stays home. Though she’s not working and bringing in an income, neither does Razan have to spend money on uniforms, textbooks or supplies for her. The three youngest children go to school.

Razan has hopes for all of her children. “I want them to be able to get good jobs, especially the girls. I don’t want them to be in this situation again, where they are unable to even feed their families.”

Jennifer Sparks is a communications consultant for UNICEF Iraq.

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