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Iranian Kurdish Refugees Find Shelter in Northern Iraq


International refugee agencies say nearly one million Iraqis have fled their country since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in March 2003. But Iraq is also host to a small and long-standing refugee population of several thousand Turkish and Iranian Kurds. On World Refugee Day, VOA's Margaret Besheer visited the Kawa Refugee Camp in the northern Iraqi town of Qushtapa, and brings us this report.

In a hot, dusty camp on the outskirts of Irbil city stands a small town of tents, tarps, and cinder blocks. For the past eight months it has been home to more than 200 families of Iranian Kurds.

The Kawa Transit Camp was established last October by the U.N. Refugee Agency to house refugees who had been living in another camp in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi for more than 20 years. Those refugees initially fled their homes in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war that raged during the 1980s and killed an estimated one million people.

But the refugees had to be moved from Ramadi last year after insurgent-inspired violence made the city too dangerous for both aid workers and refugees. The Kurdish regional government provided the land for the Kawa Camp.

Chinour, 18, and her seven brothers and sisters were born in the camp at Ramadi. Now they live at Kawa with their parents.

Chinour says, "We came here because the security situation in Ramadi was bad and because the terrorists were killing people and the families were all afraid."

Although there is a secondary school at Kawa, Chinour, like many other girls, does not attend because she must help her father in his small grocery store. But camp officials say the attendance rate is better among younger children and that the primary school has about 400 students.

Chinour's family home consists of one bare room built from cinder blocks where the family eats, socializes and sleeps. Outside is a small courtyard draped with plastic sheeting for privacy.

But the family has electricity to run a fan in the intense heat and they also have a color television. In fact, many of their neighbors even have satellite dishes outside their tents.

Camp Kawa's daily operations are handled by a small Swedish-based non-governmental organization called Qandil. Joann Kingsley is the field coordinator for the camp. She says water and electricity are better at Kawa than in some other parts of Iraq.

"Are they getting more power than everyone else? Yes they are," she said. "Do they need it? Absolutely. They are not living in the same conditions."

The families also receive 95 liters of water each day for cooking, drinking and bathing.

The camp has a healthcare center and a library. There are sports and other activities for the children, who make up about half the camp's population of nearly 1,300 people.

Along the camp's main road are several small shops run by residents.

Kingsley says the camp has programs to help the refugees get off assistance and become self-sufficient.

"It is a bit more difficult for the women," she added. "The traditional cultural values here are extremely conservative, so women are often not permitted to do anything outside their tents. So we have to find things that are culturally appropriate."

She says they are offering sewing, which women can do at home, and are considering offering training in bee keeping and computers. For the men, there is training in carpentry, welding and electrical work, as well as English classes.

Although they are better off than refugees in some other countries, life at Kawa is not easy. But hopefully it will improve soon, as permanent homes are being built nearby for the Kawa families.

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