Tea and tales from Ashti camp, Iraq
A glimpse into family life in a camp for displaced people in Sulaymaniyah, where the World Food Programme provides assistance in the face of the threat from COVID-19
Khuzaira and her young daughter Hitachi settle down for tea in their tent. It’s a makeshift structure with a kitchen area and two other living sections. Cousins and more extended family are visiting. They remove their slippers, and step gently onto the matting inside. “We are a large family,” she says, gesturing for everyone to sit.
Ashti camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Sulaymaniyah governorate hosts around 2,000 families. It is a short drive outside Ashti town, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Conflict which surged in 2014 caused many families such as Khuzaira’s to flee their homes.
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Despite the retaking of areas from ISIS at the end of 2017, due to persisting security issues, lack of basic infrastructure, services and work opportunities, many people have been unable to return home. WFP continues to provide monthly stipends to the most vulnerable people in camps such as Khuzaira’s family, to meet their food needs.
Now working to safeguard families’ health against COVID-19, WFP and its partners have been taking as much care as possible during distributions of cash assistance to IDPs and refugees in camps: maintaining safe distances as people redeem their cash entitlements, using masks and hand sanitiser, sterilisations to clean frequently used items, washing hands regularly. Awareness-raising sessions about COVID-19 with camp residents and staff, including food-shop owners, are also helping people protect their families and the camp community.
Khuzaira’s sister arrives with a tray of tiny glasses, filled to the brim with strong, piping hot tea. Everyone sips slowly.
“We’re a farming family, from Salah al-Din,” says Khuzaira. Salah al-Din is the governorate just southwest of Sulaymaniyah. “We lived in Yathrib. In 2014, my husband was killed in the conflict.”
She adds: “Leaving was better and safer for us, than staying in Salah al-Din after that. But our journey to safety was not easy. We could only bring what we could carry — so very little food. And we had to sleep out in the open. One night I remember waking up covered in insects, crawling over our faces and in our hair.”
“When we arrived, we stayed for 10 days by the registration centre, before proceeding to Ashti,” she says. Looking around her family’s faces, she seems relieved all over again that they made it to the security of the camp. It is a completely different life to that of the rural communities beside the river Tigris, where they are from. “We are glad to be safer here, and the children are able to learn.” There is in fact a school in the camp, right opposite Khuzaira’s family’s tent, although classes are on hold due to the lockdown.
I ask what they cook, what they eat. As WFP provides cash assistance via Mobile Money Transfers, each month this means that families such as Khuzaira’s can redeem their cash entitlement via a code on their phones and spend it as they wish at food shops. “Rice, lentils, white beans, chickpeas,” she says, are their staples. “The cash entitlements let us choose the food we need. I understand about the nutrition, and we do our best in this difficult time of the coronavirus. Right now we only focus on basic foods in order to survive. We have enough now, I remember how it was before we arrived here.”
“But we depend on my son’s daily employment and because of the lockdown and curfew, he is unable to work. Without the monthly cash assistance, we’d have to buy food on credit from the camp shops. We respect and appreciate all the measures that staff here are taking for sake of our safety and health. Especially in the distribution sites, to avoid crowds.” Crowd control in camps has been key during the crisis, including caps on the total number of people in food stores at any one time, and keeping everything as clean as possible. Posters on the precautionary measures are displayed in all the camps where WFP works.
Khuzaira is starting to prepare for lunch today — a lentil soup for all the family. It smells divine. It’s also healthy. “Right now, we are worried about my sister, who has a thyroid problem and high blood pressure,” says Khuzaira. Having more complex conditions means that the hospital in the camp is unfortunately unable to cover all their needs — Khuzaira’s sister has to visit an external hospital out-of-camp. Now with COVID-19, everything becomes more complicated for hospital treatment, as everyone waits patiently for the situation to improve.
Khuzaira begins to fix another dish, offering to share with us.
“While my family and I are thankful to be safe and to have some basic comforts here,” she says, “I will never forget sleeping in a ditch by the road. But we do want to go back [home], when it’s safer for my family and children. To rebuild our houses, and to farm again.”
Additional reporting by Talar Kareem
With thanks to USAID FFP, the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO), Japan, Canada, Belgium, Italy, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland for their continued support to the people reached by the World Food Programme in Iraq, including during the COVID-19 crisis.