Iraq has been blighted by ongoing conflict since the early 2000’s, however the rise of the Islamic State in the northwest of the country in 2014 has caused considerable chaos and loss of life. Since the group gained territory across large swathes of Iraq, more than 3 million people have become internally displaced (IDPs), or have fled to border countries such as Turkey and Jordan as refugees. Almost half of those fleeing have taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, including thousands of ethnic Kurds, Yazidis and Syrians escaping the Syrian civil war. The conflict has significantly weakened the health infrastructure in the country, and over 35% of Iraqi doctors have fled the country.
In 2014, Doctors of the World launched operations in Iraqi Kurdistan to provide access to healthcare for displaced people fleeing the Islamic State. Our teams work alongside the Iraqi government to provide medical and psychological assistance to refugees and IDP populations, such as those living in Chamisku camp on the border with Turkey.
We we run mobile health clinic projects in the newly liberated areas around Sinjar, such as Borek village and our teams are also active in the southern governorate of Kirkuk, where we operate 4 mobile clinics. In 2016 we expanded our operations in light of the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, which resulted in the forced movement of thousands of people trying to escape the fighting between the Iraqi government and IS. We currently operate in once-small towns such as Kalata Farhahn, 12 miles from Mosul, where many have taken refuge.
Several of the displaced Iraqis fled to Chamisku refugee camp – the largest IDP camp in northern Iraq. For the 26,000 residents of the camp, access to healthcare is extremely limited. Doctors of the World provides primary medical care, sexual and reproductive healthcare, psychosocial support and nutritional screening to identify cases of malnutrition in babies and children.
We provide 250 consultations a day in Chamisku camp, and many of our team are themselves refugees who live in Chamisku. Ghazwa Breassam, a mother of 2 children who fled Mosul with her family, provides consultations. “About one in ten women who come to visit us are pregnant and there are often complications with the pregnancies. Many have undergone tremendous stress due to trauma. Even though they are safe here, it’s difficult to carry a child and give birth in this environment. We provide advice on family planning and a lot of emotional support,” says Ghazwa.
Many of the people we treat have experienced significant trauma, and as a result require critical psychosocial support to help them cope. Most of our patients have witnessed shocking human rights abuses, such as acts of torture, executions and enslavement. In addition to providing individual counseling, our teams also provide group counseling sessions and psychosocial activities for children affected by the violence. We also conduct trainings for local medical and paramedical staff.
One of our psychologists working in Chamisku, Hairan Khalifa, fled with her Yazidi family to escape the Islamic State. Two of her cousins were killed, and the fate of her grandmother is still unknown. She currently lives in two neighboring tents with nine family members: her mother, her four sisters, her brother, his wife and her two nephews. Hairan believes that in her line of work, “The most essential thing is to listen to people. I often see patients three or four times and their story is usually similar to mine. I do not prescribe medication, but I try to give advice to reduce stress. I try to be positive, to say the right thing and to bring some comfort. If their condition worsens, then they see a doctor and sometimes go to the hospital.”
While the fighting in Mosul rages on, it is likely that more people will flee. Hairan tries not to dwell on the fate of her family too much. “I hope one day we can leave this country, we have no future here”. But for now, she concentrates on her work in Chamisku – helping those fleeing the Islamic State to put the horrors of war behind them.
Photography © Olivier Papegnies/Collectif Huma