Growing a New Life in Iraqi Kurdistan

Muhammad and his family fled conflict in Syria. Now in a refugee camp, we're helping him put his farming skills to good use
Muhammad, a Syrian refugee in Iraqi Kurdistan, picks vegetables as one of his daughters looks on. Photo: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger

The fruits of Muhammad's labor

Muhammad walks from the tomato to the cucumber plants. Stopping, he smiles. "It is ripe," he says, picking a cucumber. He continues picking, satisfied with the fruits of his labor.

Muhammad is far from his farm in Syria, but in the Gawilan camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have built four greenhouses in which many refugees work daily. In the coming weeks, Action Against Hunger will take over the premises and build new greenhouses, building on the work of the project funded by a partnership between UNDP and UNHCR.

Muhammad picks a ripe cucumber in one of the greenhouses. Photo: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger

Muhammad left his farm in the outskirts of Damascus five years ago. 

"I lived near Ghouta. Shortly after the conflict began, there was shelling and fighting," he said. "The rockets didn’t stop falling for two whole days. We were lucky, if the shells fell on the left, we were on the right; if they fell on the right, we were on the left."

Relying on luck is unwise in a country ravaged by war, so Muhammad sold all his possessions, "my farm, my car, all my tools." He left with his wife and five children to head to Qamishli, in northeast Syria. 

"We stopped here before going to Turkey because my parents were going to join us." But a sniper was set up close to their home. "They could not get out, we waited for more than a month for the situation to calm down…and then took the road to Turkey."

Muhammad managed to put aside some money, but more than two years of paying rent on three apartments for his family meant his money went fast. "I spent over 50,000 euros in two years," he says. 

A new start in Iraqi Kurdistan

With their last savings, Muhammad and his family departed Turkey for Iraqi Kurdistan, arriving at the Ibrahim Khalil border post.

"I will never forget that moment. They smiled at us, they welcomed us. I had the feeling that the war was over," he said. The life of refugees does not stop, however, with that, and soon they were sent to the Gawilan camp. "We’ve been living here for 18 months, I feel much better. I’m lucky. Every morning I come to the greenhouse, I work, I can eat fresh fruit and vegetables and use the salary they create to support my family." 

Muhammad is indeed lucky. He was one of the first refugees pre-selected to participate in this agricultural project, chosen randomly with seven others. He proudly shows some of his produce.

"You see these plants, you don’t find them in Kurdistan; these are seeds that have come from Syria. If I continue to work in this region, I hope I can bring others, and develop varieties that are not found here."

Developing income-generating activities for refugees

Greenhouses of 450 square metres [more than 4,800 square feet] are currently used, and Action Against Hunger hopes to sustain this program by developing links with local farmers so that they can advise refugees. 

"Each area of the local land has its own peculiarities," says Yousif Khoshnaw, our Project Manager in charge of monitoring. "If they can benefit from the industry professionals support, they can improve the yield and quality of their crops." 

The exterior of two of the Action Against Hunger greenhouses at Gawlian camp. Photo: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger

The greenhouses have many positive effects – in addition to improving the quality and quantity of food in the camp, it’s improving financial independence. 

"Instead of buying products that come from outside, retailers are sourcing locally. They don’t have to pay transportation costs, they can discuss their daily needs. Everyone wins," says Yousif.

Muhammad appreciates the opportunities that the camp has given him and his family.

"Many of my relatives died, I lost two brothers-in-law, my father was killed by a bomb, one of my sisters was injured and I was repeatedly caught between crossfire. I escaped death several times, I'm really very lucky."

Muhammad stands proudly with his two daughters. Photo: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger

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About Florian Seriex

Florian is a regional communication officer reporting from our program and assessment sites in the Middle-East.