Publisher: Telegraph Magazine
Author: Sally Williams
Story date: 09/12/2012
On a grey, cold morning in late November, 300 or so new arrivals are waiting to register at the UN refugee agency office at Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq, some 37 miles from the border with Syria and part of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Children fidget, men cough, women dressed in shalwar kameez pull blankets around their shoulders. Yesterday the temperature was in the 20s; today it has dropped to 10C. By January it could be deep in snow. It rained in the night and it is bad going underfoot thick mud and muck. All around is cold, noise and confusion.
Domiz is trying to prepare for winter by handing out kerosene heaters, blankets, quilts and plastic sheeting. The aim is to build one–room concrete homes in which families can keep warm. Diggers and labourers are at work throughout the camp. But refugees are arriving faster than aid agencies can respond. 'We have been overwhelmed,' Fatima Eldiasty, the UN officer overseeing the camp, says.
On March 15 2011 protesters rose up in Syria and demanded the resignation of President Bashar al–Assad. The Syrian Army was deployed. A civil war had begun. President al–Assad has since killed as many as 30,000 of his citizens. At first fighting was confined to the main cities of Homs and Aleppo, and then in July the violence escalated after rebels took control of districts in the capital, Damascus.
This triggered a panicked exodus to the neighbouring countries Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. More than 50,000 Syrian refugees (mostly from Kurdish north–eastern Syria or Kurdish areas of Aleppo and Damascus) have arrived in the Kurdistan region so far. Domiz camp opened in April and by August about 50 people a day were crossing the border. Then it jumped to 700. For the two weeks before I arrived it had stabilised at 500 a day. But then it soared to the highest numbers yet: well over 1,000 people a day. Domiz, a camp built for 7,000, has nearly tripled in size.
'We've been trying to get aid to the Syrians for over a year but couldn't find a way in,' says David Webber, who is a response team member and trustee of ShelterBox, the international disaster relief charity. Lebanon was too much of a security risk. Turkey closed its borders in August; they had hopes for Jordan but this stalled because of tensions within the country. Then through a chance conversation with a contact in Beirut, they heard about the Barzani Charity Foundation, a Kurdish charity based in Erbil, northern Iraq.
'We met them a month ago. It was a clear opportunity,' Webber says. ShelterBox has a very simple and robust tool: ShelterBoxes, which contain a tent and other essential equipment (for example a stove, a solar light, a water purifier) to help a family survive. A ShelterBox tent can be adapted for any environment heat, cold, high winds, heavy rainfall. It can even be pitched near a flood. It connects aid with need as quickly as possible. 'ShelterBox is an easy sell,' Webber says. 'In a lot of places we go to it's shelter and water that keep people alive.' Within four days of arriving in Iraq, ShelterBox had housed families in 200 tents; 300 more went up the following week.
The ShelterBox operations team monitors disasters constantly through global contacts and news channels from the charity's HQ in Helston, Cornwall. It works both independently, deploying itself to disaster zones, and alongside other aid agencies or government authorities in response to requests for help. ShelterBox response teams are then sent to the crisis. Once they are there (and getting there can be a challenge in itself), they weigh up the need. From this point onwards speed is key. The charity has 1,700 boxes packed and ready to be dispatched at a moment's notice at Newquay airport (there are also stores in 27 strategic locations across the globe including Accra, Dubai, Colombia and Houston).
ShelterBox logistics teams work out the quickest route for getting the boxes to the country. 'Because we are an emergency shelter charity most of our aid goes out, at least part of the way, by air,' Webber says. Once the aid arrives the response teams, working in teams of two or four, have the challenge of getting it to the recipients, however remote and inaccessible they may be. Boxes have been delivered by helicopters, tuk–tuks, donkeys and on the backs of camels. ShelterBox had aid flying into Haiti only six hours after the 2010 earthquake.
The charity was founded 12 years ago by Tom Henderson, a former Royal Navy search–and–rescue diver based in Cornwall. His aim was to provide shelter, warmth, comfort and dignity to those in crisis. The success of ShelterBox is down to his pragmatism he focused on shelter because it is so fundamental and because emergency distributions tend to be based around food and medicine. In April 2000 the Rotary Club of Helston–Lizard in Cornwall adopted the idea as its millennium project. Nine months later 143 boxes were sent to earthquake victims in the Indian state of Gujarat.
But ShelterBox really made its name at the end of 2004 with the Asian tsunami. Donations and volunteers poured in and the charity expanded its operation to dispatch 22,000 boxes a tenfold increase on the total number sent over the previous three years. It has been on an upward trajectory ever since. 'We've got two big warehouses in Helston stocked with about 20,000 tents double the number we had when Haiti kicked off,' Webber says. 'Nobody in the world would have that number of tents. Not the UN, not anyone.'
A week after the meeting with the Barzani Charity Foundation, Webber, 64, was back in Kurdistan with a second response team member, Rebecca Novell, meeting the consignment of boxes that had been flown into Erbil airport from Newquay via Dubai. The boxes were transported by truck to Domiz, where the tents were put up by a contractor and his team of 20 or so workers recruited by the UN from the camp. Rows of putty–coloured domes lined with Nasa–style thermal protection and warm blankets overlook the plains and mountains of Kurdistan.
ShelterBox response team members are on the front line of disaster relief, unpaid volunteers who have to be available to travel whenever and wherever at short notice. They undergo a rigorous four–day training course and then, if successful, graduate to a nine–day course, a mixture of classroom learning, fitness tests and practical exercises (the precise nature of which Webber says are 'top secret'). Response team members come from all walks of life teachers, managers, firefighters, photographers. They are not required to have any specialism.
The charity has a worldwide network of about 220, all committing to be available for a minimum of two weeks a year. 'We also have an army of unsung heroes who raise money, pack boxes, answer the phone and all sorts of things; they get no recog nition,' Webber says. ShelterBox is not a 'first responder', pulling bodies out of the rubble, nor in it for the long haul, setting up hospitals and schools. But it pleases Webber that it is usually one of the first organisations on the ground, and that the charity has only three tenets: keep safe; get the job done; don't bring ShelterBox into disrepute. 'They [big organisations] have a book of protocol like the Yellow Pages,' he says.
Webber and his colleagues see themselves as outsiders in the aid world. 'All the big boys are sitting at the top table and we're peering over the table edge,' he says. Even ShelterBox's HQ on an industrial estate in Helston underlines its marginal position. But since its launch the charity has responded to more than 200 disasters, helped more than 1.2 million people in about 90 countries, raising and distributing more than £55 million in aid worldwide. With a staff of 55, hundreds of volunteers and 20 affiliates around the world, it has expanded to the point where it can fight off accusations of amateurism.
Its pragmatism resonates with Fatima Eldiasty at UNHCR. 'We are at the stage where basic needs are the main needs: a place with a ceiling to protect you and your family, so being given a tent means a lot,' she says. She is grateful for ShelterBox's 500 tents, but cannot give the all–clear for 1,000 more before consulting the Kurdistan government. At Domiz, she is coordinating UN agencies (UNHCR, Unicef, WFP, UNFPA), international aid organisations (such as Médecins Sans Frontières) and the local Kurdistan government. She explains that the process of working through the mechanisms of relief is slow and costly. 'There is a big challenge in responding to their daily needs,' she points out. But to those on the ground, yet again, it can feel as though established aid organisations have reacted too late.
ShelterBox's method is to work with partners who know local airfields and roads and can get access to crisis zones quickly and effectively. The charity often finds contacts through Rotary International. Under the motto 'Service above self' the Rotary Club brings together business and professional leaders. Members are expected to help communities in need, whether local or distant. Rotary is at the core of ShelterBox, raising a significant percentage of funds. There is a belief that Rotary is parochial, Webber says, but there are 33,000 Rotary Clubs throughout the world. The only country without one is North Korea. 'We have a similar ethic to get the job done, do the most for the most.'
'ShelterBox does exactly what it says. I like this very much,' Nashwar Ali, the project coordinator for the Barzani Charity Foundation, says. 'I have never seen another organisation do a job like this so fast.' Webber, in turn, highlights Barzani's influence. 'Sometimes it can take us weeks to get tents through the airport, but because of their government connections they got them through in an hour and they were in the camp four or five hours later.'
The tents have already been personalised. A cobblestone path leads up to the entrance of one; there's a shop outside another selling potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, spring onions, honey and olives. While refugees in camps in Turkey complain that effectively they are kept prisoners, Domiz is open. This allows people to work in the towns or to buy supplies and set up businesses in the camp. There are stalls selling perfume and doughnuts, even a cafe serving sweet tea and coffee. I saw 'dividers' (sent out with tents going to Muslim countries to allow men and women to live in separate areas) used as windbreaks; criss–crossed strings of fresh washing.
One owner, an assured woman in her 30s, had largely filled her tent with a cooker. The woman sold her wedding ring and earrings for $300 back home and bought the industrial–size cooker and a satellite television (each tent is wired for electricity) at the bazaar in Domiz. She didn't want to put her new cooker outside for fear it would be stolen. 'We must show her how to open the ventilation flaps while she's cooking,' Novell says, looking worried.
Suhilla Jamil Hasso is here with her husband, Shalal, a labourer, and her four sons (aged 20 to six). Their neighbour's home in Damascus was hit by mortar fire a few months ago and a party wall collapsed on their daughter Karwin, 20. Her broken leg was fixed with a metal pin at the national hospital. Then the family made the 370–mile, 48–hour journey to the border town of Qamishli in a hired truck, with Karwin on a stretcher in the back. They stayed in Qamishli with Suhilla's sister for about a month and then came here, leaving behind Karwin and another daughter, Aitya, who is 12 years old.
'A sister should take care of her sister,' Suhilla says. They left the daughters partly because they couldn't afford to bring them in. 'There are many waiting who don't have money to pay PKK [the Kurdistan Workers' Party, gatekeepers charging refugees $100 each to cross the border],' she says. But also because Karwin is immobile. The only way across the border is on foot and the journey takes about four hours.
Doctors have told Karwin that she can't walk on her leg for 20 months. The thought of her girls pains the woman. 'I feel mother hurt,' she says, and her eyes fill with tears.
With rising steel and material prices, the construction industry in Damascus has ground to a halt and many, such as Suhilla's husband, were out of work. 'It was miserable, but what could we do?' Suhilla tells me. Her 19–year–old son Mohammed says the future looks better in Kurdistan, so he plans to stay. 'But if Assad goes down, I will return. There will be a lot of work rebuilding, a lot of job opportunities.' In the meantime the family feels in limbo. 'We don't do anything,' Suhilla says when I ask how she spends her day. 'We just make breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our psyche is so crushed because we are only thinking about how we can help our daughters.'
A few minutes later we are in the packed tent of a neighbour, Ibrahim, a labourer in his early 60s, who has 14 children (three are still in Syria). Ibrahim explains that their home of 40 years was destroyed by a bomb only five days before. The family still looks deeply shaken. His daughter Hatla, 14, has broken her hand, and keeps rubbing a bump on her head. But talk of injuries prompts revelations of something more disturbing.
Ibrahim's son Kawa, 24, shows me his scarred wrists. He says he was arrested for being a member of the Free Syrian Army and put in jail for 20 days, where he was hung from a rafter and beaten. The charge was contrived. 'I am just a taxi driver,' he says. Friends listen as we speak, interrupting every few minutes with tuts of outrage. Another rushes back to her tent to charge her mobile phone. She wants to show me a photo of her baby who was killed when the Syrian Air Force dropped a cluster bomb on her village.
The refugees have found a real welcome in Kurdistan. They are certainly given more respect than they had at home. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria (nine per cent of the population) but they are treated as second–class citizens. They are paid less for doing the same job, and banned from holding passports, speaking Kurdish, registering children with Kurdish names or starting businesses that do not have Arabic names.
The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq 'is very receptive and doesn't see them as refugees, it sees them as cousins,' Eldiasty says. The government provided the land for the camp (newly cleared of landmines a legacy of Saddam Hussein), has wired up electricity and is sharing the cost of building the concrete shelters. The other unique feature is a government ID card that qualifies refugees to get jobs outside the camp (although the local community can't hope to provide work for all those arriving) and use medical services and schools the camp has one school for 1,200 children and is building two more.
So conditions aim to be infinitely superior to many other camps, which don't even include such basics as sanitation. But the influx is such that there can be a two–month wait for a UNHCR tent. New arrivals have to rely on friends or the kindness of strangers. I meet one young man, Abdu Al Kareem, 26, and his family who had spent the previous night with 25 people in a tent. 'I am sleeping with the shoes,' he says.
The next day, Webber has a problem. Ten tents leaked in the night. A contracted worker who put up the tents missed out the arching poles that keep the roof taut. Rain pooled in the baggy canvas and dripped in. 'It's not a complicated tent but it does need to be put up correctly and you have to train people to do it,' Webber says. (Tents are typically allocated by UNHCR but it could not keep up with demand, so some families just moved themselves in.)
He had the same problem last summer at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where ShelterBox donated 7,000 tents following the drought. 'You need to be quite tall to put the top poles in and because the Somali refugees were all short they thought, "Oh, well, we won't bother." Also the dust of the camp was so fine it got through the mesh of the ventilation system. Everything inside became coated with red dust. They couldn't open the vents. I was concerned, but they are used to living in 40–degree heat, so they didn't seem to mind,' Webber says.
Webber, who lives in Cornwall and is married with two sons in their 30s, joined ShelterBox in 2009 after retiring from a career in house building and running, among other things, a plumbers' merchant with 20 outlets in the south of England. Although the decision to join ShelterBox vexed his wife 'She is more quiet, stay–athome' he says his business background is, in large part, behind his pragmatic, orderly approach. 'Whether you're supplying showers or tents, you need to find the most efficient way to get it done.' It is a response that filters out emotions. 'It's easy to be driven by your heart, but you've got to do a practical job, working long hours in difficult conditions.'
It's an almost superhuman job he does for no money (his pension and savings enable him to do so). His first deployment was to Sri Lanka in 2009, just as the war between militant Tamil separatists and the country's armed forces was coming to an end. 'Two million people were trapped in what was effectively a concentration camp. We were there three or four weeks and then we had to pull out.'
This year alone Webber has been to Madagascar (cyclone), Uganda (mud slide; refugees from Congo), Jordan (Syrian refugees). He's trying to get into North Korea (flooding). 'We've put in for visas. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't.' Nor has ShelterBox ever been allowed back into India. 'They feel they can deal with their own problems.' He goes on, 'Some countries we go back to far too often, for example the Philippines, which annoys me. I don't like the mayor of a province sitting in an £80,000 truck saying, "What can you do for my people?"'
Webber has travelled from one crisis to another, and yet is 'not an adventurous eater, even at home'. He laughs, acknowledging that he has eaten chicken escalopes at the hotel every night for two weeks. 'I've only ever had one pizza in my life.'
It is early evening now and Webber is surveying the new arrivals gathering on the flat fields at the edge of the camp. He still hasn't had a confirmed order for more tents from the UN. 'We won't wait,' he says. 'The need is clearly here and if all else fails, we'll have the boxes stored here for when Syria opens up and we start helping in that country.'
ShelterBox is one of three organisations supported by this year's Telegraph charity appeal. To donate, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity or send cheques/postal orders to Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal, Charities Trust, Suite 20–22, Century Building, Tower Street, Liverpool L3 4BJ (0151–284 2145). Tomorrow Telegraph staff will take donations over the phone: call 0800–117118 between 10am and 6pm
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