Seagulls Without a Sea: Days at Internally Displaced Persons Camps in Iraq

Photograph Source: Levi Clancy – CC BY 2.0

At the beginning of this year, I had a chance to pay a few visits to two Yazidi IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in the outskirts of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. I visited the camps as part of a field research trip to collect qualitative data for an international organization. The research focused on young boys and girls who had been attending sessions to engage in dialogues and conversations about pressing issues in Iraqi society such as citizenship, gender, culture and heritage, media, and other critical topics.

Today I would like to share with you some scattered and memorable moments I spent with some brilliant Yazidi young girls and boys whose dreams, like those many Iraqis from different diverse backgrounds, have been shattered by the brutal consequences of the US occupation of Iraq, which include the creation of ISIS. It goes without saying that the Yazidi suffering is inseparable from the horrific violence experienced by many Iraqis like Assyrians who had their homes, culture, and history in Mosul and its surroundings intentionally erased by all the internal and external parties that funded and created a monster they named “ISIS” to cover their tracks. Same applies to the horrific consequences experienced by Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, and other religious and ethnic groups in different parts of the country who have suffered a great deal. Yet, of course, the mainstream media will always focus on some groups and neglect others, depending on their political agendas.

Despite the chilly rainy days in January, February and March, many young girls and boys attended these debate sessions to engage with their facilitators and with each other. I must confess that even to me, as a field researcher, it seemed futile for these young people to attend such sessions when they are living in tents with the lack of the most basic human needs and services. Deep inside, I admired their resilience and perseverance. I admired the fact that they were there engaging in meaningful dialogues despite the lack of bread, milk, and medicine.

While observing one of the discussions in a big cold “classroom” in the camp, one young man, Baha, caught my attention while eloquently sharing his thoughts on the importance of public speaking. He talked about how Iraqi young people can only make changes in their society by learning to boldly express themselves. “We need courage. Courage is the key word here – we can’t change the reality of our country if we don’t learn how to communicate and have genuine dialogues with each other.” As participants continued to debate what makes a good “public speaker”, Baha said that, in a sense, even singers and actors can be public speakers because they deliver and make public statements. Their art and creative works are a form of public speaking. He later told me that he greatly appreciated the different views expressed by others. He said that there is something meaningful in discussing with people who see things differently. “That is the only way you learn new ideas and perspectives,” he added.

During one of the session breaks, Baha lit a cigarette and approached me to introduce himself. He is a 24-year young man who highly values education. He wishes to become a teacher at a high school or a university one day. “I am currently studying geography at the University of Duhok. Despite the harsh reality of living in this camp. I insist on finishing my education and becoming a teacher one day,” he said enthusiastically. I asked whether he is enjoying the discussions so far and what drove him to join the program in the first place. Baha said that engaging in a dialogue with his peers is very important for him for two big reasons: “First, I want to become bolder in speaking in front of people.” I asked about the other reason. He went on, “The other thing for me – and am sure for many young participants in the room – is that life in the camp is very harsh and it can be painfully boring and monotonous for young people. You have no idea how stifling it is for a young person to be confined here one year after another.” For Baha, attending these sessions can really make a difference by debating and interacting with each other. “It might be a trivial point for an outsider, but when you are cooped up in a tent in a camp as we are, attending such sessions is a great release. It is a treat, indeed,” he said.

I asked Baha to share more about the harshness and the confinement of living in a camp. “I have been here for five years now. Can you imagine how long and exhausting that is? I fell in love, got engaged, got married, and now have two children. All of this happened here in this camp!” I asked him how it feels to go through all these big life events in the camp, “you first think it is temporary and it will end soon. But years go by and you must live. It is sad for me that my children are ‘camp children’, but I must live my reality. I can’t afford living in denial.” A sad pause followed. I broke the silence by asking about his children. He shared, “my son is three years old and my daughter is so cute – she is just eight months old,” he said with a more cheerful tone as he pulled out his phone to show me their pictures. I said that it must be hard to accept what is supposed to be a short-term condition to become a long term one. “Many people had to painfully come to terms with the fact that they are here to stay for a long time. I will give you an example, many people have been fighting to replace the tents they live in with brick structures. This is a sign of permanency. As it stands, these tents are very dangerous in cases of fire. Many people have died in tent fires. One case happened just here. The mother, in total fear and confusion, rushed inside the tent to fetch her baby whom she thought was in the cradle. She pulled the cradle quickly and ran outside only to find out that the baby wasn’t actually in the cradle.”  Baha thinks that it is unfair not to allow camp residents to erect brick structures to further protect themselves. He said that the tents are unbearably cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. “The rules – I don’t know who came up with them – state that you can’t erect any walls or anything higher than 20 centimeters around your tent.” Baha was frustrated with those who made the rules in the IDP camps. For him, they do not realize how hard it is for displaced people to be there for such long periods of time.

When the session ended, Baha approached me again. He lit another cigarette and started sharing some reflections from the second part of the session. Soon after, another female participant approached me to say hello. Ramzia, a 22-year old female from the same session, shared that she really believes that breaking the fear of expressing oneself in public is very important for today’s youth in Iraq, especially for women. She then went on to tell me why she is interested in engaging in debates and dialogues with other young people in the camp, despite knowing that some male attendees “are narrow-minded and may gossip about girls later.” When I asked her about her dreams and future plans, Ramzia said: “I wish I had the chance to complete my studies. I quit school at 9th grade – since we came to the camp after ISIS invaded our city. In Shingal [aka Sinjar], my brother was the biggest inspiration for me. He loved books and studying, and he really had a big impact on me. When he died in a car accident and we were forced to come to the camp shortly after, I lost all hope and interest in life altogether. I realize now that I must somehow reignite my passion for learning. For young women in our society, if we don’t study, we are expected to get married. I don’t want to marry yet. I am too young and want to experience life. I feel that a program focusing on debates and dialogue is helping me reconnect with my passion for learning with all these discussions. I hope that, in the end, it will help me have the courage to study on my own and take the exam I need to go back to school and compensate for the lost years in the camp.”

The themes of the lost time and being out of place are recurring and consistent in many stories of young people forced to live in IDP camps. Many young people I met with had two primary wishes: some wished to find any chance to leave Iraq (most dreamed about going to Germany). Others wished Iraq would be back as it was before. These two wishes seem contradictory at first glance. Yet, with some pondering, it seems to me these wishes capture the lack of security and stability. In that sense, they are two sides of the same coin in that they represent the lack of security and stability. The desire to leave the country signifies the yearning to build a home in a safe and secure place, despite all the difficulties and humiliation that come with moving to another country as a refugee.  Another recurring theme I noticed when speaking with young men and women at the camp is their insistence to live life, despite all the alienating forces and dirty geopolitical games that forced them into IDP camps in the first place.

As we were leaving the camp, I wondered whether refugee and IDP camps are a sign of compassion towards displaced people, or are they signs of how far humans have gone in causing harm to each other? This question is as complicated and slippery as the lives of those forced to live in these hard and unforgiving spaces. On our way driving into the camp earlier that day, I had noticed that as soon as the city of Duhok was behind us, we took a right turn on a bumpy and muddy road filled with potholes. The quality of the road looked as though it had been neglected and forgotten for ages. There were vast agricultural lands and tons of man-produced litter and trash on both sides of the road. Countless glass and plastic bottles, old remains of flat tires, plastic bags, and empty food packages and boxes all distorting the wheat seeds trying to break up the soil to celebrate the forthcoming spring season. There was something sad and disheartening about the bumpiness of the road with all the trash piled up on both sides. In a sense, I realized, it spoke volumes about the reality of where the driver was taking us – an IDP camp. It also captured so much of the Iraqi reality of neglect and suffering. It captured the kind of world that these young people have inherited and are trying to escape from. I wondered who is going to clean all this trash on both sides of the road if we do not do it together?

As the driver was leaving the camp gate at the end of that day, I saw many seagulls flying over the camp. Despite my certainty, I double checked with everyone in the car whether they were seagulls. They confirmed. There was something telling about seeing seagulls where there is no sea. Perhaps like the displaced people in the camp, these seagulls have lost their sea? Perhaps, like these displaced people, the seagulls have learned to keep flying no matter how far from home? Looking out the window, there was one long fence on the right side where the IDP tents are located. On the left side, there were many camp shops offering all things camp residents need. Fruit and vegetables, car mechanics, a barber shop named “Paris”, ration foods, shops selling phones and accessories, bakeries, and many other convenience stores. To my surprise, there was even a jeweler. Considering that most people stay in camps for long periods of time, having a jeweler for those who can afford it made sense. Life does not stop for five years (or more). Like Baha, people will love, get engaged, and marry, and have children despite the camp. I wondered whether Baha got his engagement and wedding rings from the same jeweler shop?

Despite the many sad images and stories, there were many signs of people full of life. I saw many children returning from schools or playing outside, teenagers and adult men and women dressed in their finest clothes with very attractive haircuts. It was heartwarming to see that people still wanted to take care of themselves. It is a way of challenging everything that has happened to them. Outside some of the tents, I saw children playing, clotheslines with many colorful clothes on sunny days, water and oil containers and barrels, and other basic tools of daily life. I saw that many people had planted trees, which gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is beautiful to see trees planted. We need to plant trees not mines for each other in Iraq. Yet I also thought of them as a sign of permanency; a sign that life in the camp has been normalized. It is dangerous when pain, oppression, and confinement are normalized. At that moment, I remembered Baha’s comment about wanting to replace the tent materials with brick walls which, like planting trees, acts as a strong reminder of how long this has taken and may continue to go on. I thought about Colin Wilson’s words in how, at times, life in its entirety can become one big exile. That once we leave home, there is no way back, because nothing is ever the same again. I thought, with a great sorrow in my heart, about the many departures that lead to no arrivals. I wished deep in my heart that Baha, Ramzia, and all the other camp young men and women will reconnect with their homes or find new homes one day. I also hoped that the seagulls hovering over the camp will find their sea one day.


Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.