Creating a home from home, far from home in Erbil

Sahla and her children move into a new camp in the Ainkawa district of northern Iraq's Erbil city. They are the first families to arrive, uncertain of the future.

Sahla and three of her boys in their UNHCR tent at the Ministry of Agriculture site in Erbil, northern Iraq.   © UNHCR/E.Colt

ERBIL, Iraq, September 24 (UNHCR) - What had been an empty lot in Erbil's Ainkawa district in early August is now a sea of white. Close to 300 UNHCR tents are laid out geometrically in an area the size of a city block in the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan region.

Electricity lines provide power to each tent, and latrines and showers dot the new roads. Excavating machines are digging trenches in which sewer pipes will be laid.

This is opening day at the "Ministry of Agriculture Site," which will provide essential housing for 1,800 of the estimated 1.8 million Iraqis displaced by conflict since January.

Sahla and her children are the first family to move in. She and her four young sons fled their neighbourhood in Mosul two months ago when armed groups took over the northern Iraqi city, which lies about 90 kilometres west of Erbil.

Like so many other Iraqis uprooted this year, Sahla has a harrowing tale. Her husband, a taxi driver in Mosul, stayed behind to protect their home, but she's heard nothing from him since she left. "I have no idea where he is, or how he is. I can only hope he's safe," she says.

Most of her belongings are also in Mosul, left behind in the rush to escape. Sahla and her children spent their first month in Erbil living in an unfinished shophouse. When the landlord asked for rent, they moved to the street outside a petrol station, where they at least had access to the lavatory.

On this day, their documents provide them with a cardboard box full of food as well as a tent, four mattresses and quilts, a fan, kitchen items, soap and more. "It's far from ideal, but it's a start," says Nasir Fernandes, who oversees UNHCR's operation in Erbil province. "We must remember that the scale and magnitude of this displacement is unprecedented," the veteran of emergency operations adds. "It's a good start, and conditions will improve."

To get to this point has been a massive undertaking. It has required exceptional coordination between the government, UN agencies, and their partners. The French aid agency, ACTED, will manage the camp, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has provided transportation and life-saving aid, while UNICEF is providing water and sanitation services.

But more remains to be done, not only at this camp, but for all those who've been displaced in Iraq. Given the continuing fighting, few of the forcibly displaced are likely to return to their homes in the coming weeks, and even months.

Some 26 camps are now open or being built across Iraq - they will house close to 225,000 people. Plans are under way to provide collective shelters for others, to create insulated apartments within unfinished buildings and to provide thousands more families with cash assistance, enabling many to pay for rental housing.

Sahla has not yet thought about long-term plans for her family. She's concerned above all about finding her husband, and setting up a semblance of home in her family's new tent. Her immediate plans include cleaning, sleeping and providing her children with a home-cooked meal.

By Ned Colt in Erbil, Iraq