ERBIL, IRAQ — Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, mostly Kurds, have fled into northern Iraq, many living in abandoned houses in the region’s capital. They are now facing the prospect of battling harsh winter conditions.
It’s morning on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Aisha, a refugee from Syria, is cooking food for the four families that are squatting together in a half-built house. The house has no kitchen, so she cooks in a neighboring construction site, burning discarded wood to make bread.
Because the families don’t live in a refugee camp, they survive by eating food handed out by their neighbors.
While Aisha cooks, another woman sews scraps of fabric together to make children’s clothes.
"People don’t bring us food everyday. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When they do, they bring us bread and sometimes vegetables. We don’t have any money, just a few clothes," she said.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates that in the past two months, about 63,000 Syrians have entered the Kurdish region of Iraq, bringing the total number of refugees there to at least 220,000. Most of them are ethnic Kurds.
William Tall, the chief UNHCR representative here, is worried that winter conditions in the coming months will be very difficult for the large number of refugees to endure.
"Mud will be a reality. I think we should accept that. It’s gonna be muddy. It’s gonna be dirty. It’s gonna be unpleasant. When you have cold weather with some nutritional issues, maybe with poor sanitation, this can lead to a serious situation," said Tall.
Down the road from Aisha, Ahmed lives with his family in an abandoned house. His family is one of three who have turned the concrete shell into a home.
Thanks to an economic boom in Erbil, he is able to provide for his family by working as an unskilled laborer on a construction site. Before the war, he worked in a restaurant in Aleppo. He fled to Iraq after one of his daughters died.
“My daughter got sick during a bomb attack while I was out buying bread. She went pale, so I rushed her to the hospital, but when we arrived there wasn't anyone to help her, so she died,” said Ahmed.
He said he wants to return home, but not until it is safe for his family.
For Ahmed and Aisha, fleeing to northern Iraq has kept their families safe from weapons of war. As winter approaches, though, they face being left in the cold.