In northern Iraq, golden hills and distant mountains simmer in hazy heat. Poverty, vulnerability, and unemployment affect nearly everyone here: local host communities, displaced Iraqis, and refugees from neighboring Syria.
In Chamisku, a camp that hosts about 30,000 Iraqis who were forced to flee the conflict with ISIS, temperatures frequently top 100 degrees. Every day, with incredible resilience, residents strive to rebuild their lives, despite the harsh reality of being traumatized and exiled far from home.
In an effort to establish a sense of normalcy, residents of Chamisku have recreated much of the set-up from their old villages. In an alleyway, a fruit and vegetable stall sits next to a tent with a pool table. A few steps away, a barbershop and a beauty salon face each other.
Finding a reliable source of income in Chamisku is a major challenge. To help, Action Against Hunger runs an employment creation program that serves two purposes: it helps the most vulnerable earn an income and it helps them cope with traumas and regain their self-confidence. Many of the participants in the program are mothers.
“When you carry out this type of project, you need to consider the different needs of the people,” explains Andrea Bigio, who manages the program. “It is not just about concrete needs, such as money to start a business, but also about meeting psychological and emotional needs. After a crisis, we all need special support to face difficulties and begin our lives again.”
The trainings are diverse and adapted to the local market. Among the program participants are a tailor, barber, seamstress, head chef, pastry chef, warehouseman, telephone store employee, cattle breeder. Dozens have begun apprenticeships and more than 100 have launched their own businesses, including beauty salons, restaurants, and everything in between.
A Mother Finds Her Strength
One displaced mother, Saadya, a 30-year-old with six children, was able to open a clothing boutique in the camp with the training, support, and psychological counselling she received from Action Against Hunger.
In her tent, she reminisces of happier times before she was forced to flee: “We were able to build a house, thanks to the money my husband earned.”
But everything changed when ISIS took control. “I have seen recent videos of my village. My house is completely destroyed—there is nothing left,” she says, holding back tears.
Alhan, one of Action Against Hunger’s psychosocial workers, speaks softly to Saadya in Kurdish, reassuring her and reminding her of the progress she has made. Over the last year, Alhan’s has been working with Saadya to help her face her displacement, painful past, and the loss of her husband, who died shortly after they fled.
After her husband’s death, alone with her children and traumatized by the family’s flight, Saadya felt lost. “I did not know what to do to take care of them, I felt constantly tired, I did not eat,” she says. Eventually, she found strength in her children and began to fight back. “I saw them affected by my situation, without anyone taking care of them. Then I tried to confront my circumstances, be stronger, and help them more.”
“Life has completely changed.”
While in counselling, Saadya received training, funds, and support, including two sewing machines and a generator. “[It was] everything I needed. I never imagined that one day I would have all this. Life has completely changed. Some of my customers are old neighbors who I have not seen for years. We have become friends.”
Her shop is next to the family’s tent – it is an explosion of color, a stark contrast to the rest of the camp, faded by the sun and covered in dust. The air is filled with sounds of lively discussions between women rummaging and bargaining for clothes. Saadya circulates, showing her customers the clothes and selling children’s outfits. In just three days, she earns enough to support her family’s needs for the entire month.
“There lies the real strength of this project: many people we have been counselling have overcome extremely difficult situations that have affected their capacity to manage everyday life,” says Alhan. “Thanks to the psychological support, we are seeing a huge improvement. It makes me happy seeing these changes and seeing these independent women succeed.”
An Uncertain Future
The conflict with ISIS is officially over in Iraq, but nearly two million people remain displaced. The return home will not be easy: water networks throughout the region have been destroyed, fields devastated, and health services are lacking. Those who return often do not have enough resources or savings to start their lives again.
Faced with an uncertain future, building relationships based on trust is essential to prevent tensions between host communities and the displaced and to encourage a peaceful coexistence.
“Working together makes an impact on an individual level and helps to strengthen social cohesion between the different communities,” says Program Manager Andrea Bigio. “As they begin their lives again, being an active community member is very important. We have noticed a huge improvement in their self-confidence.”