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[IRQ Monitoring Trip Report] A Popular Project in the Refugee Camps (Feb 24-27, 2019)

2019.4.22

It is expected that most of Iraq’s 250,000 Syrian refugees will remain in Iraq for an extended period due to the protracted nature of the Syria crisis. Since the refugees have been living in camps for more than five years and return is not foreseen in the near future, a “tent-free camp” initiative was launched in late 2015 by UNHCR in order to ensure that refugees live in more durable, semi-permanent shelters. With the funding from US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), in addition to generous contributions from our supporters, Peace Winds is enhancing the living conditions of Syrian refugee families through the provision of more durable shelter in all four refugee camps in Erbil governorate within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

I made my first trip to Iraq in August 2018 where I saw first-hand the living conditions of Syrian refugee camps in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The people there seemed to generally be in good spirits with children playing along the narrow streets and businesses receiving customers. People smiled and waved at our group as we walked by. But while the refugees’ attitudes were pleasant, many of their shelters were not.

Tent shelter

Tent shelter

Numerous refugee families had been living in tents – the faded “UNHCR” lettering and tears in the vinyl covers revealed the rough conditions to which they were subjected. The weather in northern Iraq includes high winds, rain, snow, and temperatures that range from below freezing to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (<40 degrees Celsius). It was self-evident that the provision of more durable shelter was a top priority.

Peace Winds has implemented shelter projects in different Syrian refugee camps and IDP camps in Northern Iraq and has been one of the leading organizations in this sector. Peace Winds received a cooperative agreement with the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and the project kicked off on September 1, 2018 to upgrade the remaining tented and semi-upgraded shelters in all four Syrian refugee camps in Erbil Governorate. Now, with the implementation phase of the project finally underway, I was eager to see the progress our team was making.

Our first stop was in Darashakran Camp where 120 shelters are scheduled to be upgraded in the project’s first year. At the field office, Jaseem, the senior engineer, showed us the technical plans of the shelter upgrades along with the implementation strategy for Darashakran Camp. All the charts and lists on the walls looked great, but I wondered how the actual implementation was being executed.

Jaseem explaining the construction phases

Jaseem explaining the construction phases

Jaseem then led us to where several shelters were undergoing improvement. The site was bustling with activity – laborers working, trucks delivering building materials, and Peace Winds staff supervising the construction and paying laborers.

Block delivery

Block delivery

Refugee laborers receiving pay

Refugee laborers receiving pay

I witnessed the three essential activities of this project – delivery of materials, construction (upgrading works), and paying laborers – being performed efficiently and on schedule. I initially had concerns about the Cash for Work (CfW) component. CfW is a tool to promote income generation and we encourage refugee residents in the camp to participate in this opportunity in our project. I imagined precisely tracking cash distribution to be an administrative nightmare. However, seeing the field team operating according to proper procedure – inspecting the work performed, verifying laborer ID, and getting signatures as payment receipt – assured me of success.

As we walked through the camp, a shelter owner invited us in for a cup of tea. He had just finished clearing his plot in preparation for construction so he pulled out several chairs and we sat in the middle of the plot. As we sipped our tea, we looked around and asked about his plans for the new shelter – shelter owners are allowed some flexibility in the design. As he explained, our engineers immediately engaged the owner with technical questions. The flurry of Arabic, which I could not understand, continued back and forth with the owner and engineers walking and pointing at several points. It ended with our engineers saying “okay” and the owner smiling – the owner’s plan was sound. The budget per household for upgrading their shelter is equally set but refugee residents are able to have flexibility in design as long as it’s relevant technically and financially. The Peace Winds field team communicates with beneficiaries and tries to adjust the position of windows, doors, and layout for their daily comfort. Engineers play a very important role here to consider and plan the upgrading schedule in addition to technical verification. We thanked him for the tea and left to rendezvous with our other team members.

That afternoon, we visited Kawergosk Camp, the largest of the Syrian refugee camps in Erbil Governorate and where Peace Winds will upgrade 348 shelters, to meet with the UNHCR coordinator and camp manager there. We discussed the overall condition of the camp, the situation around the region, and challenges the camp faces. I was pleased to hear that shelter projects are generally the most popular type of assistance among the refugees. Of course, other projects such as WaSH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), education, and health are equally important, but shelters are extremely personal and tangible – the effects are immediate. The beneficiaries and camp stakeholders welcomed this project and thanked Peace Winds and PRM for tackling this need.

The next day, we went to Basirma Camp, where 10 shelters are to be upgraded, and visited one of the shelters under construction. The excitement was palpable as the family members watched the shelter owner and laborers install the roof frame. The owner’s wife asked me to take a picture with her baby daughter and placed her in front of me as I crouched. The girl turned and looked at me and burst into tears. We all laughed as the mother came back for her and just took a picture of me. I asked if I could snap a picture of her and her daughter but she smiled and declined.

テントを取り除き、コンクリートブロックで家の壁が完成した後、 屋根のフレーム部分を設置中。
setting roof frame 2_original

After removing tent, building the wall with blocks and installing the roof frame

Shortly after, the PRM Coordinator based in Erbil came by to review project progress. We explained our activities thus far and implementation procedures. She asked the wife how she liked the project so far and she responded, “very satisfied.”

Erbil PRM Coordinator with beneficiary

Erbil PRM Coordinator with beneficiary

Like the wife, I was also encouraged by the progress our field team has made. At the offices, project management was competent and well organized. In the field, our staff efficiently carried out their responsibilities and worked with the beneficiaries through each construction phase. Moreover, I was most encouraged by the stakeholders’ and beneficiaries’ positive response to our project and I observed first-hand why it was so well received:

1.Ownership over the project – The shelter owners themselves are ultimately responsible for their shelter upgrade. It is up to them to hire the skilled and unskilled laborers required to perform the work. Also, they are allowed some flexibility in the shelter design. The owners are guided by Peace Winds staff through the building of their homes. This process increases the beneficiary’s ownership and responsibility over the project.
2.Supporting livelihoods – The CfW component provides jobs, however temporary, to the refugees in the camps. They are paid promptly and directly by Peace Winds when tasks are completed.

In addition, this project is popular because it is more than providing durable shelter, it also helps restore a right we are all inherently entitled to as human beings – dignity. Being able to make choices in one’s life contributes to a dignified existence and this project supports beneficiaries in regaining greater authority in their lives. Through the efforts of their own hands and sweat, they are building a brighter future for their families – one block at a time.

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