As Iraqis flee violence, leaving homes and lives they have worked for years to build, MCC is responding alongside the generosity of neighbours and local communities.
In an unfinished home shared by 10 families, the damp and chill of rain seeps through concrete blocks as 46-year-old Khider * sits cross-legged, recalling the dividing line that runs through his life — the early morning hours in August 2014 when the Islamic State group came into his village in Iraq’s Sinjar region and began killing.
“We left everything,” he says, describing how his family and others fled in the dark. Thinking they’d be gone at most a day or two, they took little, just themselves and the clothes they were wearing.
"This is the 21st century. And see how we are living."
Over a year later, still in an unfinished shell of a building that looks more like the construction sites Khider used to work on than a home, a story from Khider’s family history seems close at hand. In 1915 his family and other Yazidis, a religious minority, fled from persecution in what is now Turkey, saving their lives by putting “house and home on one donkey.”
But from the time Khider finished electrical studies in Mosul in his 20s, his life was shaped by a different narrative — a growing career and hard work, graduating from small electrical jobs to larger and larger commercial work, stocking a shop with increasingly complex equipment to sell or rent. “My job became better and better by the day,” he recalls.
He could provide his wife and six children with whatever meat they wanted to eat — tender lamb, not bargain chicken. When his daughter started a sewing business, he bought the first machine; soon she had earnings for a more professional one.
On a chilly morning in November 2015, Khider points to the damp floor, the makeshift kitchen shared by several families.
“Look at this building,” he implores. “This is the 21st century. And see how we’re living.”
Like others from his village, he’s haunted by thoughts of the young Yazidi women who were captured and likely abused or sold in marketplaces, and of the older people who decided to stay behind and haven’t been heard from since. He’s haunted by the uncertainty of the future.
“Now, everything is lamentable,” he says. “We were living an abundant life. We didn’t need anything. But now we need everything.”
More than three million Iraqis have fled their homes since 2014. Many like Khider’s family are finding shelter in unfinished buildings and trying to figure how to meet their most urgent needs. They come alongside thousands of others who fled earlier waves of violence — from Mosul in 2004, Baghdad in 2006 or other areas throughout the 2000s.
MCC is responding — providing humanitarian assistance for food and shelter; supplying urgently needed winter items such as kerosene heaters, fuel, blankets and winter clothing; meeting other needs through MCC hygiene kits, infant care kits and cash; and strengthening communities by training and empowering youth to share and document the stories of trauma and resilience that are part of being displaced.
Khider’s is one of more than 750 families in northern Ninewa governorate receiving monthly food assistance through MCC partner Zakho Small Villages Project (ZSVP), an effort funded through MCC’s account at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
Each month, families receive rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur wheat, oil, tomato paste, sugar, salt and hygiene items. “The rice is the most important thing. We use it daily,” says Hamo, another recipient. “If it was not for your ration, believe me, we would suffer a lot,” adds Khudeda, Hamo’s neighbour.
And the food helps slow the downward spiral of loss that happens as families leave home.
After Khider fled, for instance, he sold the only asset he could bring with him, a car. Food support helps him preserve what little savings he has left, knowing he’ll need it for other urgent needs.
Work has been scarce, so earnings only gradually catch up to meet the family’s basic needs. It’s hard for Khider to contemplate that, knowing he now has only a small percentage of what he used to earn and own. “How do we compensate for what we lost?” he asks.
It’s not only money or things. Sometimes the ties of family can fray under the strain.
Two years after her husband died in a car accident, Fatima, a mother of six, watched violence begin to overtake her city, Fallujah, in December 2013. Her plan was to remain with her nearby in-laws. By Iraqi custom Fatima would rely on them after her husband’s death.
But then her in-laws did not have enough room in their car to evacuate her and her children. They told her to go back to her family in Baghdad.
Fatima moved the family into her widowed sister’s small home. That didn’t work out. Neither did living with her mother. “I have six children, and it’s not easy for me to leave a house,” she says. “Whenever we go to a new place, it’s a new feeling and a new fear. Maybe we can’t stay.”
It was time for her to be on her own. “I thought, if my mother can’t tolerate me, nobody will tolerate me,” she recalls. She left her two oldest children to study in Baghdad and came to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with her other four, ages 5, 8, 14 and 15. (Read more about Fatima’s eight-year-old daughter Shams)
The family moved into a tent in a building with no walls, just concrete floors, roofs and pillars. Water was scarce. There was no electricity, and her children with asthma struggled under the harsh conditions.
In 2015, a project of MCC and Iraqi organization Rehabilitation, Education and Community Health (REACH), funded through a grant from the Canadian government, provided six months of rent assistance for an apartment for the family. “You can’t imagine how big a thing it is for us to have this apartment,” shares Fatima during an interview in November 2015.
When they moved in, she recalls, her 15-year-old son celebrated the plentiful water in the bathroom with a long, hot shower, free of the insects that had plagued their other place.
Six months of assistance helps give families some respite and opportunity to plan for the future without incurring debt. Fatima works some, cleaning house for a friend. Though she wasn’t sure what she’d do when the assistance ends, she receives help from relatives and others.
“Before this, we were in a wrecked building. Now, I’m very comfortable. I have my own independent home. This is very good,” she says.
As MCC’s work helps build a safety net, it comes alongside the generosity of Iraqis reaching out to newcomers in their communities. Khider tells of a local rug merchant in Ninewa governorate who donated his entire inventory to displaced families.
In another village, Zena was chosen to participate in an MCC-supported livelihoods project because she is among the most vulnerable and impoverished in her community. Yet she divides the harvest from her new kitchen garden into three shares — one to sell, one for her family to eat and one to give for charity, often to the six displaced families living in a nearby home.
“I can only support them by vegetables,” says Zena, who is raising five children, ages 6 months to 15 years, as her husband works as a day labourer in a city more than two hours away by car.
“I was poor. I am poor now also. If somebody gives me something, I feel happy,” she says. “I want to give the same happiness to people.”
Another participant in the livelihoods project, Fawzia (read more about her life), took two displaced families — a total of 25 people — into her house.
Asked why she was willing to set aside so much of her home, her answer is simple.
“Where would they go if I don’t accept them?”
MCC’s Syria and Iraq crisis response
- More than US$34.6 million programmed in MCC’s Syria and Iraq crisis response
- 140,014 hygiene kits and 30,345 relief kits shipped by MCC
- 126,207 people received emergency food assistance (including food baskets, cash and vouchers)
- 24,490 people received financial support (cash transfers, rent assistance)
- 6,737 households received a heater and/or heating fuel
- 507 individuals attended peacebuilding or conflict resolution training
- 290 individuals attended trauma awareness and healing training
(These figures, compiled in February 2016, reflect MCC’s response in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan since 2012 and Iraq since 2014.)
* Because of security concerns, no last names are used.