Displaced as an older person When the heart longs for home

“Leaning against the walls of a tent provides no support for an old and sore back,” says Mohamed, a Syrian Kurd. For more than two years, he, his wife Najah and son Shamal have lived in Bardarash refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Mohamed, 65, puts his coffee cup down on the saucer, and the gentle clang of the porcelain lingers in the air – a kind of sad accompaniment to the clothes dangling from a line under the tent ceiling. On the floor are a couple of foam mattresses and a carpet.

He misses his books. History, literature. Now, all he has to read is his mobile phone.

He sighs deeply and says:

“Our suffering began a long time ago. Long before the Syrian conflict started in 2011. For thousands of years, we Kurds have been subjected to oppression and murder.”

“For thousands of years, we Kurds have been subjected to oppression and murder.”

His hair is chalk white. He is wearing a long, light-grey jellabiya and a brown knitted vest. Next to him sits his wife, Najah, 61, wearing a black shawl and a dark dress. She holds a paper towel in her hands. Then there is their son Shamal, 33, in a red and blue tracksuit.

Mohamed continues:

“I blame the international community for the way things are. In politics, there is no humanity. No human rights. The world is allowing us to be attacked, to become homeless, to be forced to flee.”

Rojava

Following the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, the security of Kurdish communities was threatened by violence and instability. The main threat was the Islamic State (IS) group, which conquered and occupied territory next to Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Kurdish fighters in northern Syria engaged in fierce fighting against IS, and quickly proved to be some of the most effective ground forces fighting against the armed group.

The war gave the Kurds in Syria room to fight for autonomy. In 2013, the Kurdish-dominated area in the north-east was self-declared an autonomous region, Rojava. But this happened without international recognition.

Bombing attacks

On 9 October 2019, Turkey launched a military operation in north-east Syria. Intense bombing and airstrikes were reported.

Here is the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (GHFT) report from 2019, which describes the situation for the refugees.

“People said that the bombing started at four in the afternoon. At 5pm, it could be heard in the village. I wasn’t home then, but Najah was,” says Mohamed.

He looks at his wife. She takes up the story:

Najah looks resigned.

Mohamed adds:

“Yes, we didn’t drink tea for four days. Conditions were really humble. Still, they helped us. They did their duty and we thank them.”

Najah’s eyes fill with tears. She wipes them with her paper towel and says:

“It is very, very difficult when you see planes in the sky attacking your city. When you see tanks. And when you see children fleeing over the mountains.”

Happy in the village

“I come from Zeyda,” says Mohamed and straightens his sore back a bit.

His village is located near the town of Ras al-Ain in Al-Hasakah Governorate, in north-east Syria, on the border between Syria and Turkey.

“Zeyda is located on the flatland, where we grow wheat. We have a view of the mountain ridge, which we Kurds call Qazvan [Abdulaziz in Arabic]. In the spring, from March to June, we have a tradition of bringing the sheep up into the mountain pastures.

“We are five brothers and five sisters. I’m the oldest. My parents are still alive: my father is 90 years old and my mother is 85. They came with us here to Kurdistan – they had a tent next to ours. But they eventually returned home to Syria.

“We grew grain. Later cotton. I had a happy childhood, we played a lot – we played marbles! In the summer, when they cut the grass, we would jump in the hay. And of course, we tended the sheep.

“I had a happy childhood, we played a lot – we played marbles!”

“There was a river about four kilometres from where we lived. All the families in our village had donkeys, and we would fetch water from the river with our donkey. Our houses were made of clay and with thatched roofs. Every year, the houses had to be repaired and prepared for the winter. We children would help, too.

“Every Friday and Saturday, which were holidays, we would walk up the mountain to enjoy good food. Kebab, Coca-Cola, dolma [stuffed vine leaves], chicken or turkey.

“As an adult, I worked the same way my parents did: I supported my wife and five children by cultivating the land and keeping livestock. I also owned two generators: one for water and one for electricity.

“But now they have taken everything from us.”

He says that the health centre in the camp is closed.

“We no longer receive medical help. Shamal should have been examined by a doctor. He has a disability and we don’t know what kind of medicine he needs. Najah is in pain. And then there’s my back.”

Some people leave, new people come

Bardarash camp was originally set up for displaced Iraqis, but was used to help Syrian refugees when Turkey launched its operation in 2019. Some 17,000 Syrian Kurds came here, according to UN figures. Some of them have returned to Syria. But many say it’s too dangerous. They hope to rebuild their lives in Iraq or another country.

Today, 4,052 Syrian refugees live in Bardarash, according to the UN refugee agency (as of January 2022). Recently, 260 families came to the camp from Syria.

Missing their children

“What about the future?”

Najah starts to cry.

Najah: “We can’t expect so much from it. The future for me is to see our whole family reunited.”

Mohamed: “When people ask ‘How are your children?’, I answer ‘Don’t ask!’ because I only see them on my mobile. They live in other countries. I haven’t seen our other children in six years. I’m old and could die at any time. Separation is the most difficult of all.”

“Will you return to Syria one day?”

Najah: “We think about that 24 hours a day. But we can’t go home. Our house is gone and we can’t afford to rent a house. If we had money, we would have rented a house in Al-Hasakah.”

Mohamed: “Life is difficult in Syria. There is little food and poor public services. And not to mention security. It’s not good. There are still people there who support IS.”

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