A young man selling used clothes in a camp for displaced Iraqis in northern Iraq. (photo: Hawre Khalid/ Metrography)
In the city of Kut, one of the biggest beneficiaries of this year's Eid al-Fitr holiday – the celebration that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and which is of similar importance to Europeans' Christmas – is the second hand market.
Usually families will dress up, eat celebratory meals and give gifts during this holiday. And this year a lot of the people in this eastern Iraqi city are buying those gifts and new clothes at the second hand market, or shishan, as it is known locally.
Low income families in Kut, as well as Iraqis displaced by the security crisis caused by the extremist Islamic State group, say they simply cannot afford to buy brand new anymore. And sellers of brand new clothes say they've had to put their prices up because of a decrease in the value and stability of the Iraqi dollar.
“The shishan market is the best place for poor or for displaced families to shop,” says one woman who wished to be known only as Umm Tawfiq, or the mother of Tawfiq; she is in her 50s, a former school teacher and one of Iraq's millions of displaced people – originally from Ninawa province where the security crisis began, she has no idea when she will be able to return home. “We have no other choice than the shishan market,” says the mother of four, who also buys clothes second hand because any income the family does have must be spent on ore urgent items.
Umm Tawfiq says she is also very disappointed with shop owners here, in the commercial district. She believes they have raised their prices intentionally in order to make the most profit from the upcoming holiday and she says they don't seem to care about the displaced here, or the low income locals, at all. “Their only concern is to make profits,” she says, her face tired and sad. “They don't have any sympathy.”
According to officials in Wasit, most of the internally displaced Iraqis living in the province come from the Tal Afar district, near the city of Mosul in Ninawa province, northern Iraq. Mosul is one of the strongholds of the Islamic State, or IS, group. Officials say there are around 870 families here as a result. Most of them are living in a compound on the Numaniyah road, about 30 kilometres from the centre of Kut, which was built to house pilgrims as they journeyed south. Mostly these families are dependent on donations from locals or from international organisations
On the other side of this equation, sellers in the second hand markets say business is great. “Most of our customers are displaced families who don't have enough money to buy new goods,” says Ali al-Assadi, one of the second hand traders. “Add to this the high prices put on imported clothing and our business is flourishing. There is much higher demand fir used goods at the moment.”
The prices of the used goods differ, depending on quality and country of origin. For example, al-Assadi says, a piece of children's clothing may sell for as little as IQD250 (about US$0.25) while other clothing sells for much higher prices.
Many of the larger second hand trading businesses get the used clothing in the form of large bales. They are known as “baleh” in Arabic, which is actually just a form of the English word, bale. In Arabic, baleh is a catch all phrase for any used goods. The bales of clothing come from more affluent countries, from Europe or the US and they often come to Iraq via the United Arab Emirates. Then the bales tend to be brought to Baghdad where they are sold on to traders.
“Demand for these kinds of goods has gone up dramatically because of the collapse in the Iraqi dinar's value,” another second hand trader who didn't want to be identified for business reasons, told NIQASH – new and imported items are just too expensive, especially for low income families and Iraq's internally displaced.
“Sometimes we go to camps or other areas where there are many displaced families to sell and display our goods so they don't have to come to the market,” the trader continued. “We know these families are living in extremely difficult conditions and that they can barely cover their expenses. They live on donations and we hope that by bringing the second hand goods to them, we can be a little helpful.”
Local donors are also helping the second hand market thrive.
“Every now and then we do campaigns where we collect money and clothing from well-off families in the district,” says Najat al-Waeli, who heads the Women's Horizon organisation based in Kut; most of the charity's work is focussed on helping displaced women in the area. “In some cases we collect money and we buy the piles of clothes ourselves to distribute to the families.”