American movie star Angelina Jolie visited a Syrian refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan this week. NIQASH went behind the scenes during the UN special envoy’s visit; after the celebrity stopover, refugees’
The helicopters bringing Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie and the visiting Iraqi government delegation to the refugee camp appeared in the skies at around 11am. The actress was coming to the Domiz camp in Iraq’s northern state of Dohuk as part of a tour of countries bordering Syria – including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and lastly Iraq - that she was undertaking in her role as a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And people in the camp were understandably excited to see her.
The helicopters flew over the camp before landing on the far side, where the mayor of the district and the camp manager were waiting to accompany Jolie on a tour of the camp.
In July the UNHCR noted that “the number of Syrian refugees of Kurdish origin registered with UNHCR and the Iraqi Department of Displacement and Migration in the Kurdistan Region has almost tripled since April, with more than 6,500 registered and over 1,400 awaiting registration”. The camp that Jolie was visiting is now home to almost one third of that refugee population, with more expected shortly, the UNHCR said at the time. Camp officials say that the Domiz camp now takes in between 100 and 300 new refugees each day.
And as Jolie arrived in the camp, it certainly felt crowded. As the actress’ arrival seemed imminent, the gates around the camp, where she was expected to arrive got more and more crowded, particularly with younger people.
When the car bringing Jolie to the camp got closer, people started to run in every direction, pushing one another to get closer to the gate they believed she would come in, and where they could take pictures of Jolie with their mobile phones.
But because of the massive crowds, which were also admittedly pretty aggressive, Jolie’s convoy headed to the UN offices on the other side of the camp, rather than coming in through the main gate.
Security staff made a corridor for her through the crowd and as Jolie passed through the refugees on her way through to the office, she seemed happy to see them. The crowd did its best to try and touch her as she passed, or to take her picture. And professional reporters and photographers followed her every move.
Local reporters managed to get a brief statement from Jolie, who said she was happy to have seen the Domiz camp. It was one of the largest she had visited, she said, and also one of the best organized.
“I have been to the four borders of Syria, and this is the first camp I have been to where they are already preparing for winter and also where there are ID cards, giving the refugees freedom of movement, which is an extraordinary thing,” Jolie said.
Jolie concluded her statements to the media by praising the locals in Dohuk. “I have seen that the people of Dohuk province are passionate about this situation and that they treat the refugees well. I want to highlight the noble efforts of the Iraqi government and the people of Iraq to support Syrian refugees. At this juncture, it is critical that Iraq receives urgent international support and continues to welcome refugees across its borders.”
Eventually a handful of refugees, mostly women or children, were permitted into the UN office where they could speak to Jolie themselves.
One of these was Nadia Ali. “I met her and asked her to help refugees here by sending specialist medical staff because there are disabled people here who need treatment,” Ali recalls. “She promised to do everything possible to voice our concerns and to relay our requests to the appropriate authorities. She also promised there would be more donations made in the future.”
After a half hour meeting with the refugees Jolie left the camp, taking a white UN pickup truck back to where the white UN helicopter awaited her.
Back in the camp, one woman, Dalazar, sat next to her tent and watched the helicopters fly off in a whirlwind of dust and noise. She hadn’t joined the crowds trying to see Jolie. “I was just sitting here and I hoped that she might come this way and visit me. I wanted her to see my disabled child and to help me to save her life, or at least maybe get some doctors to come and treat her,” Dalazar said. “But she didn’t come.”
A young man stood next to Dalazar’s tent. He was busy examining the photos he had taken with his mobile phone. And he said he’d enjoyed the adventure of Jolie’s visit. “I love this actress, I’m a huge fan. And I ran about 300 meters behind her car just so that I could take her picture,” he enthused. “I got about 20 pictures but only one was close enough to see anything. But I will always remember her visit!”
Camp official Niyaz Noori agrees. “Many of the Syrian refugees coming to Iraq now live in this camp,” the liaison officer for the camp said, “and they’ll never forget when Angelina Jolie came to visit.”
Meanwhile at the entrance to the camp hospital, we meet a young man holding one injured hand carefully with the other. “I was taking pictures of Angelina Jolie with my mobile,” he explains, “and I didn’t see a hole in the ground because it was so crowded. I fell over and I think I’ve twisted or sprained my wrist or something.”
Walking further into the camp, we see a young girl standing outside her tent holding up an A4 sized picture of Jolie. She says she’s been waiting for Jolie for a while because she feels certain the movie star will come this way and will bring sweets – because, the girls says, everyone knows she loves children.
“She’ll bring us sweets and beautiful clothes,” she explained, unaware that Jolie had left the camp some time ago.
Of course not everyone knew who Jolie was. While we were moving around the camp, an older man, around 60, with grey hair and tired eyes, approached us.
“I’ve heard that a famous actress is about to visit the camp. Do you think you could help me to get closer to her so I can tell her about my problems?” he asked us. “We don’t need food or tents. We just want to get out of this miserable situation. I left my second wife and half of my 16 children behind in Syria. We just want an end to this crisis. We just want to go home.”