Iraq Arwad’s life as a refugee during the pandemic

She fled the war in Syria. Now, she lives in Iraq, where she has opened a beauty salon. But the virus struck like a bomb. Her customers stopped coming. And the number of infections is increasing daily. “A mother must never give up. No matter how difficult life is,” says Arwad.

The pandemic is affecting us all. According to the Centre for Stress and Trauma Psychology, different people will experience the consequences of Covid-19 very differently, based not only on their previous experiences and personality, but also on the extent to which they are directly affected by the pandemic.

The city of Dohuk is located in the north-western part of Iraq, surrounded by the Bekhair and Zaiwa mountain ranges. It has always been on the trade route between Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In addition, Dohuk is the gateway to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Arwad opens the door to her flat and welcomes her guests inside. Her hair is hidden by a black hijab, her face covered with a light blue medical face mask. She is wearing a long white blouse, a black jacket with a narrow belt, black tights and sandals.

Alan’s assignment

A young man with a photo bag stands waiting in the middle of Dohuk. His name is Alan Jalal Ayobi. He is 28 years old and works in communications for the Giving Hope For Them (GHFT), based in Iraq and the Middle East.

Alan has travelled to Dohuk to interview Arwad. The aim: to give GHFT’s supporters a picture of what it is like to live as a displaced person in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

He is waiting for his ride to the town of Zakho, where Arwad lives.

They sit on the sofa and chat. Alan gets ready to take some photos and conduct the interview. He opens his bag and pulls out his photo equipment. Arwad says that she is fine with being photographed, but she doesn’t want him to take pictures of her face – even with her mask on. Alan politely asks why. Hadn’t she agreed to portrait photographs for the interview?

She replies that it has to be this way. She plans to go back to Syria one day and doesn’t want to expose herself to possible persecution. She also has some family reasons for keeping her identity secret. Although Alan is disappointed, he is used to this happening in the Middle East.

Alan made the trip to Dohuk from Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Erbil is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is located in what was once Mesopotamia – the area between and around the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Today, the area is called “The Fertile Crescent”.

Alan spots GHFT’s driver, Shawkat Omar, in his pick-up truck. The drive to Zakho will take them just over 50 minutes.

Covid-19 in Dohuk – in Arwads words

“The first time we heard about Covid-19 was on the internet. We never thought the pandemic would come here to Zakho. But it did come, and when people became infected here, we started using hand sanitiser and focusing on frequent handwashing.

“Then came the shutdown. It lasted for almost three months and came during the period when my husband and I were about to finalise our divorce. At that time, I was already feeling miserable. It felt almost normal to be in pain.

“But what was really bad was that the shutdown had such major financial consequences for us. I could no longer work. But I still had to pay rent for both my flat and my salon. 

“That was hard.

“It is still hard.

“Even though we are not infected with the virus, we are still affected – and in a way that may even be worse than being infected. Except for a few weeks, schools have been closed the entire time. They are still closed. We have had to stay indoors. The children argue about every little thing. They’re tired of everything being put on hold. They’re tired of us not being able to afford to buy anything.

“I have no financial security. I am constantly afraid that something will happen to me – because then how will my children survive?”

Alan fastens his seatbelt. But he feels uneasy – he reflects on the fact that he’s in an area with relatively high levels of infection. Every day, between 300 and 500 new Covid-19 cases are reported in the Dohuk Governorate, which is home to about 1.3 million people. Alan must be very careful to protect himself.

In Zakho

In the car, they talk about how fast the coronavirus seems to have spread in the country. They drive into Zakho. The Khabour River flows through the city. An ancient stone bridge towers over the water. It’s called Dalal in Iraqi, Pira Dalal in Kurdish. It is 114 metres long and 16 metres high. In the spring, people often have picnics down by the river and around the bridge.

Here, Alan meets his colleagues Omar Ahmed and Media Sleman. They work for GHFT providing financial support to improve food security and self-sufficiency for displaced people. They know Arwad, the woman they are going to interview, very well. Omar, who speaks Arabic, will be translating for Alan during the interview. They show him the way to her home. They stop at a three-story block of flats.

This is Arwad’s story

“My name is Arwad. I am 32 years old and come from Damascus, the capital of Syria. I am recently divorced. I have four children.

“We are originally Kurds. We lived in a neighbourhood with other Kurds. But I never learned Kurdish. I grew up with five brothers, as the only girl in the family. I played with the boys and became a bit like them.

“My childhood was wonderful.

“I finished upper secondary school, and my favourite subject was Arabic. My dream was to write books in Arabic or become an Arabic teacher. But my father didn’t want me to further my education.

“He used to work in a furniture shop, and he also worked in the Syrian military for a time. He died a year and a half ago. He was a good and humble man.

“Much loved.

“My mother has always supported me. When I was a child, she took me everywhere and I learnt all the names of the neighbourhoods of Damascus.”

“After I left school, my mother supported me so that I could learn a trade. Our neighbours ran a beauty salon, and when I was 17, I started working there. After two years, I knew how to do most everything.

“I got married. And I started receiving customers at home.”

Fleeing from the bombs

“Then the war came.

“It started with demonstrations. Then came the bombs. Our neighbourhood was hit several times.

“Can you imagine that? It was horrible.

“Two of my brothers moved to Kurdistan, Iraq. I followed them later with my mother and my children. My husband stayed in Syria to find work. The plan was that we would stay in Kurdistan for six months, and then return home when everything had calmed down.

“But IS group took control of several areas in Syria, and we couldn’t go home.”

A new life in Kurdistan

“My husband eventually came to join us in Kurdistan. He found work in food production, and I worked for a short time in a company that makes glass. But it was difficult because I was still breastfeeding my youngest daughter. Every day, my son had to bring the baby to me at work so I could feed her.

“I was so tired.”

“Life was difficult when we first came to Zakho. We came from another country with a different language, and it was especially hard for some of the children to adapt.

“But I managed to have them registered in school. This is my dream: that all four receive a good education. I have three daughters and a son. My eldest daughter, Tasnim, is now in her second year of business administration at university. My son’s name is Mohamed, he is in his second year of upper secondary school. Sana is in the sixth grade and Jana is in fourth.”

Five wonderful days

“This spring I found a place here in Zakho, which I rented to run a beauty salon. But it needed to be renovated, and I didn’t have the money. One day I received an email from a friend. She sent me a link to GHFT where I found out how to apply for financial support to establish a small business. I applied.

“And got a positive response.”

“First, I had to attend a five-day course held by GHFT. They were the best five days of my life. It was so much fun. I learnt so much.

“But then the pandemic hit. Everything was postponed.

“In May, I received financial support from GHFT, and thank God for that. They paid out the money in two instalments. I used the money to renovate the salon. I didn’t get to finish everything. But I got most things done.”

Arwad’s message to the world

She becomes quiet.

Alan looks at her. He asks:

“If you were to say something to the world, Arwad, what would you say?”

“I would say that, even though war destroys many lives, it can also make people stronger. It can make you a better person. A person should be strong enough to handle any situation. If she is a mother, she must never give up her children. No matter how difficult life may be.”

Her eyes are smiling now. She says:

“A person should do her best to fulfil her dreams. If she doesn’t succeed, she should help her children so that they can fulfil their dreams.”

Alan thinks: Arwad is strong.

She has hope.

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