Residents of the Laylan camp carry bedding. (photo: شاڵاو محهمهد)
Omar Sabbah has not left the displaced persons' camp where he is now living for two whole months. Originally from Tikrit, he says that if he wanted to leave, he'd have to walk a long way on an unpaved road. There are no easy ways to get out of here, he complains. “Life in the camps is another kind of prison,” he says. “We can only hope conditions improve in our own home towns soon so we can return there.”
Sabbah is one of around 8,500 people living in 1,800 tents in the Laylan camp for displaced people, about 20 kilometres out of the northern city of Kirkuk.
When he managed to escape the extremist group known as the Islamic State that had control of Tikrit until recently, Sabbah said he'd never expected to end up living in such a remote area.
Although the Islamic State, or IS, group was pushed out of Tikrit Sabbah doesn't think he can go back to the city anytime soon. The city was liberated by a mixture of pro-government Iraqi forces, which also included a large number of fighters from Shiite Muslim militias. These have been both celebrated for their victories and controversial because of bad behaviour after the fighting ended.
Omar knows this only too well. He has already changed his first name to Ammar. In Iraq, it is possible to tell which sect or tribe any person is from because of their names. “The Shiite militias hate the name Omar, which is why I changed mine,” Sabbah explains. “It's going to make it easier for me to return home in the future.”
Before being forced out of his home by the extremists, Sabbah used to work as a barber. He has set up a small business doing the same thing here in Laylan camp but unfortunately his customers don't have much money and he isn't making a lot. What he really wants to do is go back to his little shop in Tikrit.
In fact, Laylan camp is starting to resemble the longer term camps elsewhere in Iraq and in other crisis regions. People don’t know when they'll be able to leave so they have started small businesses here, creating ways to earn a living.
Next to Sabbah's tent there is a cart selling falafel sandwiches, chicken and mince meat. Opposite his tent is a butcher shop and a small market where used clothes are being sold. The camp's administrators are allowing the displaced Iraqis to set up these kinds of small businesses so they can make some kind of living.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there are other problems developing at the camp as it becomes a more long-term home for Iraq's displaced.
Medical services are an issue. According to the residents, there is only one small and relatively primitive medical centre and one ambulance. Apparently the ambulance will only take patients out of the camp if it is full, due to the distances that must be traveled. Currently the health of children and old people is being endangered by the very high Iraqi summer temperatures, which sometimes rise to as high as 50 degrees Celsius.
When one of her children got severe stomach pain recently, Aisha Hamid, a mother of eight, took her son to the medical centre. She was told that he should go to the public hospital in Kirkuk.
“But when I took him to the ambulance driver, I was told that we would have to wait until there were some other patients travelling too because the ambulance couldn't go all the way to Kirkuk just because of one patient,” Hamid told NIQASH. She and her sick child had to wait for 45 minutes before the ambulance would leave.
Another major issue for children living here is the curtailment of their education – there do not seem to be enough schools in the camp and the children often go out to earn money for their families instead. Farhan Hussein Saleh, the head of Kirkuk’s Department of Education, says there are two schools inside the camp and that they have to take the students in two shifts. Even doing that though, they don't have room for everyone.
Mustafa Faisal, 13, is now selling fruit in the camp. But he hopes to go back to secondary school one day soon. He says that his father promised to buy him a bike if he managed to complete high school – and the teenager remains hopeful that he may one day earn that bicycle, back in his hometown.
Right now, it doesn't seem as though Faisal will be able to return home anytime soon. The security crisis in provinces like Anbar, Salahaddin and Diyala is ongoing. But there is also no doubt that the longer Iraq's displaced stay in the camp, the worse their daily lives get.
The residents at Laylan would like the authorities in Kirkuk to find them better places to live. But this is almost impossible as local government officials point out that the cost of hosting the displaced must be shared between the different provinces from which they come. Meanwhile the displaced families living out here in the summer heat must simply carry on without any real future planning - all they know is that they have exchanged one awful situation for another.