Iraqi IDP family: an uncertain life in an unfinished building

Telling the Human Story, 14 July 2014

© UNHCR/C.Robinson
Najaf and his extended family inside the unfinished building that is their temporary home. They have been displaced multiple times this year by fighting in Iraq.

CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq, 14 July (UNHCR) Under a scorching sun, small girls and boys run barefoot through the dusty streets of an unfinished subdivision in the northern Iraqi town of Chamchamal. Colorful carpets cover the windows to block out the heat and laundry swings on ropes strung between cement blocks.

Over the past two weeks an extended family of 80 from the central Iraq city of Fallujah have made these unfinished houses their temporary homes. They've been on the run from a wave of violence that has spread across their country since the beginning of the year.

40-year old Nafa Jihad, his two wives and 11 children, along with four brothers and their families, fled their hometown on January 1. Military confrontations in the area forced them to pack into their cars and head north to Tikrit.

"We lived close to Baghdad and there was a lot of bombing. We had a good life in Fallujah living as farmers," says Nafa. "But we had no choice other than to leave because it was not safe for our children. We left everything, our clothes, our furniture, even our food."

Nafa and his family are among more than half a million people who have been displaced from central Iraq's Anbar governorate since the beginning of the year.

And it's not the first time this large family has had to re-locate. In mid-June, after opposition groups seized Tikrit, the family decided to pack up again. This time they headed east, to the safe haven of Chamchamal in Iraq's northeast. There, they have joined 1,200 other internally displaced (IDP) families who are occupying mosques, schools and unfinished buildings.

UNHCR and its partners have fanned out across the city registering the displaced and providing then with emergency items. Najaf and his family have received plastic sheeting, mattresses and blankets. They buy their food at local markets.

He and his brothers have tried to find jobs as day laborers, but there is little work. Of his family's plight, Najaf says, "We don't want to ask for help, but we are tired and have lost our spirit. We have had to keep moving and it has been difficult and expensive."

"We are seeing more internally displaced people today and it is a tragedy for these families. They may have settled into a community and now they're being uprooted again, losing all their possessions, their livelihoods and children losing out on schooling as well," says UNHCR Jacqueline Parlevliet who heads up protection efforts in northern Iraq. "This could have a long-term effect on the futures of these families."

UNHCR is working to help the displaced like Najaf and his family, who now number more than a million across Iraq. To date, the UN refugee agency has provided close to 3,000 tents, 30,000 mattresses and other essentials like quilts, water containers, soap, toothpaste and brushes.

For now, Najaf and his family are happy living in their unfinished accommodation. The government has announced plans to set up two camps in Sulaymaniyah so it can provide shelter and assistance to the displaced in an organized manner.

But Najaf has no plans to move his family into a camp. "We would prefer to stay together and receive cash assistance instead," he argues. "We want to stay together here, so we can continue to help and support each other until we can return to Fallujah. Our only hope now is to go home."

By Catherine Robinson in Chamchamal