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In Iraqi Kurdistan’s Refugee Camps
15 Years Old, A Mother And A Widow

Sazan M.Mandalawi
Sazan Mandalawi is a Kurdish writer living in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who has worked for, and volunteered with, a number of non-governmental organisations and charities. Through her youth work she is often at one…
6.11.2014  |  Erbil
Children and mothers at a water tap in Baharka camp, Iraqi Kurdistan. PIcture: Rewan Kakl
Children and mothers at a water tap in Baharka camp, Iraqi Kurdistan. PIcture: Rewan Kakl

I am a rain lover and the last two nights it rained nonstop. Yet, I didn’t feel the enjoyment I usually do when watching the rain patter down from under the patio in the garden. Because I knew that not that far away, many others would not be enjoying such a downpour.

The next morning I am walking in the Baharka refugee camp, just outside of Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. This northern region has seen more than 1.5 million internally displaced Iraqis and refugees from other countries, particularly Syria, arrive here. Around 3,500 internally displaced people live here, most of them in tents.

Camp life is harsh when it's summer but even harsher in winter months. While many of us saw the early rain as a blessing, it was a curse for the families under these tents. Many woke up in the middle of the night, flooded, children don't have boots or socks and mothers don't have the right winter clothing. Parents are selling their blankets tospend the money on othernecessities.

Walking through a refugee camp is always an emotional experience. Today I make my way through the main routes between tents following a social worker from the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, which is providing psychosocial counselling here. She is leading us to a divorced mother, whose young daughter Fatima*, around 16 years old, has a baby. The baby’s father is in Mosul.

Nearby Fatima and her mother’s tent I come across a group of women and children around a water tap.

At this point a voice in my head takes over, telling me: “who are you to show these people you care? You, who will go back to your cosy home tonight”. Sometimes I feel guilty visiting camps - so I just listen as often there is only little I can do.

I manage to push that thought aside and say a gentle hello. I don’t need to say much more before these women share their miseries, fears and challenges with me. In less than a minute I have three women speaking to me all at the same time.

I don’t know which to focus on. I manage to catch a sentence here and a sentence there. One of them is washing a few kitchen utensils, another, a baby’s bottom, and there are clothes that have recently been washed.

The woman next to me, rinsing children’s shirts complains about the lack of drinking water. A young girl, looking to be around 13 years of age is behind her, waiting to use the tap, and she adds: “yes, my son has diarrhoea from drinking this water”.

My immediate reaction is, “whoa, what? My son?”

I manage to stop myself from blurting this out. I try and act as though this is something totally normal. Now my focus is entirely on the innocent face of this young girl who happens to be a mother. I try to guess her age. Twelve? Thirteen?

It is difficult for me to ask any question because everything I ask results in four or five replies at once, from all the women. But I manage a faint: “how old is your son?”

“He’s six months.”

While the others continue talking about their problems here, I look at her and ask, “and your husband is here?”

She replies in two words, in Arabic: “ani armala”. I am a widow.

What do I say now? Sorry? My condolences? Oh?

I am used to hearing this sentence from older women, grandmothers and mothers of those killed in the fighting - but not a girl this young. Still trying to concentrate, I politely ask “how old are you?”

“15.”

And before I manage to ask anything else she rushes off to a nearby tent, lifting her dishdasha behind her to prevent it from dragging in the mud. I guess her son woke up from a nap.

I move on too. And as I struggle to lift my feet from the sludge, it starts to rain.

All the way back to town, her voice echoes in my ears. Ani armala. Ani armala. Ani armala. The innocent, baby face of the widow is embossed on my thoughts.

A 15-year-old widow, and mother to a six-month-old baby, and she is living in a tent that can’t protect against the rain, the baby has diarrhoea and even worse winter conditions are on their way.

And I also think this is just one girl’s story that I managed to catch, at one water tap. What about the hundreds of other girls, at all those other taps?