We sat on a floor covered with layers of cushions and carpets that acted as buffer against the cold ground. Circled around a small kerosene heater we huddled, trying to keep warm. With our coats on and 3 more layers underneath, we sipped on hot instant coffee that warmed us from the inside out.
A mother of seven wrapped her arms around her young daughter. A fond embrace provides her with warmth and serves as a reminder to herself - they are alive, together.
When winter settled in and the cold came, I knew to expect low temperatures and maybe even some snow. With no electricity for up to five hours a day and living in a un-insulated, concrete home in the city center, we rely on layers to keep warm. We sleep with hot water bottles and try to ignore when we can see our breath inside the house. When we do have electricity, we enjoy the luxury of space heaters and steamy showers.
But life in the city is barely a glimpse into the struggles that exist for the over 1.9 million people who have been displaced by war and living in refugee camps in Kurdistan, Iraq.
The hardships of winter are compounded by a lack of resources and the reality of their trauma and uncertain future ahead.
When war comes, there is no time to pack up your home, to gather clothes, to collect food. When war comes, you run, praying to make it out alive. There is no extra thought about what warm clothes you might want in 6 months. All that can exist is a will to survive.
Things don’t get easier when you reach a camp. The new hurdle is to reestablish your entire life while battling the memories of everything you faced. An uncertain future, source of food, water, and clothing - there are many challenges that don’t get easier with time.
In the winter months, harsh wind, cold rain, snow, and freezing temperatures don’t just make life in the camp difficult but dangerous as well. Warnings of winter rains flooding the valley regions is a regular threat to families’ homes and lives. It is not uncommon to read about flooding washing away tents in a camp. Take a short drive to a higher elevation, and the rain can turn to snow which presents a very real danger to anyone on the roads where maintenance, street salt, plows, and streetlights are non-existent.
The heavy, cold rains turn the camp streets into mud. Because going out is not only difficult but stressful on the body, many stay home to guard their health in a season where sickness spreads.
To stay warm, you can’t rely on the structure of your tent. Concrete and canvas don’t act as a barrier from freezing temperatures. Kerosene heaters are distributed, but fuel is not readily available, and toxic fumes and the risk of fire make its use dangerous. Tents can burn down from the very thing that was supposed to make it a safer place to live.
It’s cold. It’s damp. Dark and quiet. The mood is heavy; the burden is great.
On this day, as I shared coffee with this mother, she was in a newly rented, shared home on the outskirts of Khanke after spending 4 years inside the refugee camp. This meant they had more electricity, access to warm, running water and some comfort and relief for their children.
How long can they afford living there? Not being in the official camp boundaries, their large family no longer qualifies for distributions and services. But for now, they are enjoying some relief from the cold.
She pulled out of her pocket a small neon square. A post-it note that was worn from being folded and unfolded many times. In Arabic text were several hand-written lines. They were goals her daughter had jotted down to accomplish someday. ‘To learn English’, ‘To travel to Paris’, ‘To travel to America’. This little note was a declaration of hope for her future.
She was so proud, I could see it in the glow of her eyes as she refolded that piece of pink paper and slipped it back in her pocket.
This little square - it represented her own hopes and goals too. Her desire is for the dreams of her children to become a reality.
Despite the odds, she holds onto this hope, this drive to press on for a future that is attainable because of her undeniable love for her children.
Sitting in my home I think of this family, and the thousands of others, who don’t have what I have. I am sitting on my couch, in front of my electric heater, wearing 4 layers of clothing that I am thankful to own. I know I will stay warm. I know I will have food to eat. I know won’t wake up with night terrors because of my past.
I look forward to a hot shower with mixed feelings. There’s privilege and there’s guilt. Some would call my life a struggle compared to what it was like in the U.S.A., but this is luxury compared to the lives of so many here.
I am inspired by the strength and courageous love of that mother. Despite everything she faces, in the winter and year-round, she carries that small pink square in her pocket, daring for a future that her children deserve.