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Displaced Iraqi refugees flood Erbil’s sweltering streets

An estimated 1.2 million Iraqis are currently displaced within the country after fleeing from Islamic State militants
A child sleeps in an industrial building outside of Erbil where refugees fleeing militants have taken shelter (MEE/Sara Elizabeth Williams)

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan - The streets of Ainkawa, Erbil’s Christian neighbourhood, are filled with sprawling groups of families, toddlers clutching water bottles, weary-faced women in dresses and track suits, and men of all ages hovering nearby. They are recent arrivals from Qaraqosh, a town of 40,000 near Mosul, where - until Islamic State fighters streamed in this past Thursday - Christians lived freely.

An estimated 97 percent of Qaraqosh’s population was Christian - and now those Christians are among an estimated 1.2 million Iraqis on the move.

"The constant movement of displaced people is creating an extreme situation for aid agencies which are trying to keep up with these IDPs," Ned Colt, UNHCR Public Information Officer in Erbil, told Middle East Eye. 

"We're distributing aid, but due to people constantly moving we're sometimes distributing multiple times to the same people, and many of those people have no means of carrying things. It's difficult to get accurate figures of how many people are on the move, but we say at least 1.2 million," Colt added. 

It's not just Christians fleeing the militants but many other Iraqis including Yazidis and Shabak (Shia Kurds), he added.

Majed Zora, 50, is one of them. “People are hurting here. There’s no medicine, no nappies for the babies. Some people haven’t showered in seven days,” he said.

“This is the second time you journalists have been here - what will you do for us?”

Majed and his extended family left Qaraqosh on Thursday night and found shelter in an Ainkawa restaurant owned by a distant relative. Others are in schools and strangers’ houses, sleeping 30 to a room in heat that climbs to 45 degrees Celsius during the day.

Majed’s neighbour, Safa Jamil, spoke up. “I have two messages, one for Obama and one for the Pope. Obama: Is this is the democracy you were talking about? Displaced people, car bombs, sectarian violence, those fake leaders in the Green Zone, those who you put in charge of this country? They came and in on your tanks. But it’s not too late. We’re calling on them to fix their mistakes now. We want to see action.

"And to the Pope: You asked the Christians to pray and be patient. I’ve been displaced twice - what prayers shall I say now?”

Further down the road, Ainkawa’s Saint Joseph Church had suddenly become a homeless shelter, with clothes drying in the sun and pale-blue UN donated blankets strung up from trees for a bit of privacy and shade.

People are everywhere - confused-looking kids eating crumbly stale bread, worried mothers wiping their children’s faces or fanning them in the heat. A few sit in silence, looking stunned. Men crouch in the shade with their families, or carry rubbish to an overfilled dumpster in the middle of the churchyard. It’s tidy, but there are too many people, too many thin mattresses stretched on the ground, too many bags stacked up with small children crouched nearby in the scrap of shade provided. 

Some of the displaced families speak of first-hand encounters with the men who invaded their town. “300 to 400 IS fighters came into our town. They asked where I was going and I told them, ‘Erbil,’” said a 16-year-old named Ghandi. He says the fighters he spoke with spoke Arabic and Sorani Kurdish.

“They were Iraqi. They spoke with local accents.”

Most of the people at Saint Joseph have been here since last week. They say mortar rounds were fired into town Wednesday at 9.30pm or 10.00pm and they left soon after. They describe thousands of vehicles at the Khabat checkpoint, 20 kilometers west of Erbil and a 3 kilometer-long line of cars.

Some of the displaced are middle-class people stunned to suddenly be unable to provide for their families in a situation completely out of their control. An older man in a traditional Kurdish suit says he left three homes and a thriving industrial business in Mosul – all presumably taken by IS. He holds out his palms with a wry smile: “Look at my condition now.”

Despite the fact that it is now overflowing with people, the churchyard is on its second shift of internally displaced people (IDPs). 5,000 Christians sought shelter there earlier in the week, but they were absorbed into the local community. The new arrivals, about 1,500 families, haven’t yet found another place to go – they’re just waiting, hot, confused and hungry.

On the outskirts of Erbil, another group of minorities on the run from IS fighters has settled in an industrial building. A multi-story cement building skeleton has become home to hundreds of Shabak – Shia Kurd – families who have tidily cordoned off family sections with a bit of string. There are no walls or toilets.

Among the displaced is a doctor and a nurse, and they do rounds and offer medical advice. But it is a struggle to help people without equipment or medicine. “Things would be so much better if we just had access to an ambulance,” said the nurse, a 47-year-old man with worry etched across his face.

In the 45-degree heat, people were becoming dangerously ill. One four month-old boy, so tiny he looked like a doll, was close to death. Like so many others there, little Hussein was feverish and dehydrated.

Aid eventually came to this community from their fellow Iraqis. Five carloads of water, food, blankets, ice and baby formula were dropped off by Erbil residents, one of whom was actually displaced himself, from a Christian area near Mosul.

The Mayor of Erbil, Herish Hussein, was at the scene. "This is all overwhelming, but we have no choice but to help our people. Our citizens are out donating food and water, and the government is working 24 hours a day to monitor security. There is no rest for us. As Kurds, we believe this is part of our job. We have been on this side before, and we can’t say no.”

But not all feel this way and the refugee influx into Kurdistan has caused growing resentment, with protests breaking out in recent days. For now this resentment has largely been directed at "Arabs" of Sunni Iraqis, although tensions appear to be rising.  

While resources are strained, security, for now at least, is in check. Police and Peshmerga military forces maintain order and, as in Ainkawa, the people here believe they are safe in Erbil. “Da’esh [IS] cannot reach us here,” is a common refrain among the new arrivals. 

A few minutes after the mayor left the building site, some more help arrived; two ambulances from the Erbil Department of Health, stocked with doctors and medicine. Parents quickly hoisted their sick children and formed an orderly queue, making space at the front for the most desperate cases.

After their visit, little Hussein’s mum brought him over: he was feeling perkier after some fluids and she’d been given some medicine to help him breathe.

His mother rocked him and sighed. “Inshallah,” she said. God willing.