Iraqi businessman draws on experience of displacement to help others

Businessman Farhad Sinjari has been forcibly displaced three times since 1974. That's why he decided to help Iraqis seeking shelter in Duhok city.

Farhad Sinjari with Iraqi displaced in Duhok, Iraq.  © UNHCR Photo

DUHOK, Iraq, September 17 (UNHCR) - Farhad Sinjari knows how it feels to have to flee from his home. Now a successful middle-aged businessman wearing a crisp shirt and a Rolex watch, he was just a boy when fighting forced him and his family to flee to the mountains of northern Iraq's Kurdistan region in 1974.

He was uprooted for a second time in 1991, and again in 2003. It was these experiences, he says, that led him to act when hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by recent fighting sought sanctuary in Duhok city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where he now lives.

"People were living on the streets, sleeping under trees or by the side of the road," he says. "I decided to help them because I have been in this situation myself, and I know what they are going through."

An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since the beginning of the year. UNHCR is mobilizing its biggest aid distribution in a decade to provide people with tents, mattresses and other essentials. But the scale of the emergency has also prompted countless individual Iraqis such as Farhad to offer what help they can.

As families began pouring into Duhok, Farhad built his own camp equipped with tents, water, sanitation and electricity. It is perched on a hilltop overlooking the city, on a patch of ground behind an exclusive multi-million dollar housing development in which he is the main investor.

The camp initially hosted around 300 people. Many of the first arrivals were men who had once worked for Farhad on construction projects in and around his native Sinjar, and had fled that area with their families when armed groups occupied the city last month.

Four years ago, Abbas, 37, worked as a labourer on one of Farhad's projects. After fleeing his home in early August, he and his wife and 10 children spent nine terrifying days trapped on Mount Sinjar, surrounded by armed insurgents.

"On the mountain there was nothing to eat or drink, my children were starving," Abbas says. After the siege was broken, they walked across the border into Syria together with thousands of other families from the Yazidi ethnic minority.

Once there, Abbas was surprised to get a call from his old boss. "He told us that if we crossed the border and came to Duhok, we would be looked after. I couldn't believe it; I did not expect him to remember me." Sitting at the entrance to his family's tent surrounded by his children, Abbas says he feels lucky when he sees other families in the city living in unfinished buildings.

As word of the camp spread, more displaced families began to arrive. Farhad now estimates that there are up to 1,000 people living in the camp, which was boosted by the delivery of 40 family-sized tents from UNHCR.

Farhad has equipped each tent with electricity and its own air-cooler, as well as providing clothes for the children and arranging visits by local doctors to treat those with medical conditions.

He says his own experience of displacement taught him that providing people with food, water and shelter was only part of the challenge. "When they first arrived, the problem was not only that they were hungry and thirsty, they also could not forget what had happened to them."

The camp has its own kitchens and bakery, and residents take turns to prepare bread and food for the three meals served each day. They also help with much of the construction and maintenance of the camp itself. "When you work and occupy your time, it helps to take your mind off what you have been through," Farhad explains.

The approach appears to be paying off. One group of children plays soccer, while younger ones chase each other between the tents, and men hold animated conversations over a lunch of stewed lamb and rice in the communal dining room.

Abbas says he is grateful to Farhad for what he has done. "Of course I don't want this to be our future. I want this to be finished, so that we can go home and my kids can go back to school. But for now life is comfortable here. We need more people like Farhad in this world."

By Charlie Dunmore in Duhok, Iraq

Iraq: The Generous Giver