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Making a New Life

“Today Our People Live in Despair” Previous Life in the Camps Next

A young Yezidi girl looks on as group of boys play a board game in a displaced persons camp. —Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

How do you rebuild your life when you’ve been uprooted and forced from your home, from a town where your family may have lived for centuries?

Driven out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), hundreds of thousands of people who lived in northern Iraq have scattered, generally to Kurdistan. Those people who weren’t killed or kidnapped by IS now are living elsewhere or, in some cases, are crowded into displaced-person camps. Many of the displaced Iraqis were not reunited with family members and friends until they reached the camps or other safe places; many more still wonder what happened to the missing, and they fear the worst.

Children in particular have suffered during the crisis, often losing months or years of schooling at critical ages because of instability and lack of resources. The elderly and handicapped are similarly hard hit.

Most of the displaced Iraqis now live in poverty, but that was not their life before IS. Many of them were quite well off, or at least middle class—farmers, shopkeepers, professionals. Forced to flee with what they could carry—and often having valuables confiscated by IS along the way—they’re now adjusting to significantly reduced living standards, sometimes crowded several people to a room. “Now we live with no dignity,” one Christian man said.

Some displaced people moved in with friends or relatives elsewhere or had enough money to rent apartments in safe areas. But many of the displaced have been forced to stay in unfinished buildings without water or electricity. And others—about 10 percent of the total—are living in displaced-person camps—crude encampments that often are little more than collections of tents and container boxes, or “caravans,” as the residents call them.

These camps, generally overseen by international and Kurdish aid agencies or religious groups, run on shoestring budgets. The huge influx of displaced persons has strained the aid system, and there is a crying need for more assistance for those displaced by IS.

Within the camps, the displaced Iraqis are attempting to rebuild their lives. Some have opened stores to serve other residents. Children go to school; regular religious services have resumed. Efforts are made to decorate and brighten up the makeshift living quarters and to cook daily meals. But it’s no comparison to the life lived before the IS attacks.