Toughing it out in Iraq

Across Iraq, Oxfam estimates that more than three million people remain displaced following ISIS offensives in the summer of 2014. As the Iraqi-led security forces have started to move ahead with their plan to recapture Mosul, the number of families on the move is growing. Oxfam has been working with local organizations to prepare for that scenario while also helping families return to reclaimed communities so that they can begin the long, hard task of rebuilding their lives.

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Sitting in his taxi, Ghasan Ali talked about how life used to be in Saadiya, an Iraqi town about 100 miles north of Baghdad, before it fell under the control of ISIS more than two years ago. The occupation lasted about nine months—long enough for Saadiya to see most of its water system destroyed along with a host of its schools and homes. Many people fled, Ali among them, and when he returned, everything in his house had been stolen.

“Before ISIS, there were salaries, and people used to have jobs,” said Ali, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. He has been trying to eke out a living by ferrying an occasional rider in his taxi, and sometimes he goes for a week without work. “Right now, people are displaced and living in incomplete houses and buildings.”

For countless families in and around Mosul, the second most-populated city in Iraq, they too may soon be struggling to live in the wreckage left as ISIS retreats. In mid-October, Iraqi forces began an offensive to recapture the city and its surrounds from the militants. Already, tens of thousands of people have fled the new round of fighting, some under skies black with smoke from burning oil wells set ablaze by ISIS.

“We just came from the dead,” a 25-year-old woman said as she arrived, with her 10-day-old baby, at Hassansham camp about 31 miles east of Mosul. “It was like a hell. A lot of our neighbors have been killed. We can’t believe we are safe now.”

Another woman described how an ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up outside her home in the suburb of Hai Samar, killing her husband and badly burning her and her 9-year-old daughter.

Newly displaced, they join more than three million others in the country driven from their homes by conflict. And their ranks are expected to swell: Aid workers fear the fighting around Mosul could force nearly a million more people to seek safety elsewhere.

Since January, Oxfam has been preparing for that scenario. Key to the effort has been tapping the expertise of local partner groups—part of Oxfam’s new mission to shift the dynamics of humanitarian response and localize disaster aid, making it faster, more efficient, and sustainable.As the offensive unfolds, the work of local first responders—people from the community who know the place best—will be essential in meeting the emergency needs of countless families.

“It’s very important to build local capacity because these are the people who will be doing humanitarian response in the future,” said Tom Robinson, Oxfam’s Iraq-based emergency preparedness manager. “We bring technical expertise and materials, and they bring access to local authorities and exceptional knowledge of the area.”


One of the groups—RNVDO, with which Oxfam has an informal relationship—is the only organization, as of early November, to be working in Jeddah camp, where 1,000 families are now living. In Qayarrah, Oxfam has been working with RNDVO to truck in clean water and keep water pumping stations running.

A second group—Al Tahreer Association for Development—received an Oxfam grant to train its staff in similar skills, known as WASH, an acronym for water, sanitation, and hygiene. They will be among the first responders when people are driven from their homes.

“They’re part of the Mosul community,” said Robinson. “It’s important for them to bring skills back when they do go home.”

Despite all these preparations, the dread of military maneuvers has been paralyzing for many families, said Rachel Sider, a former Oxfam policy expert based in Iraq. “They’re pretty terrified. They don’t know what’s worse: living under ISIS or fleeing ISIS.”

Fighting has displaced millions of people in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, and many of them are seeking security in other Middle Eastern countries. Help us help them.

Staying in Saadiya

Ahmed Thamer Ali, Saadiya’s mayor, paints a clear picture of the consequences of deciding to stay in his community through all the turmoil.

“There are two ways to serve,” he said. “Either you join ISIS or you challenge them. I have chosen the challenge, and I stand against them.” For Ali, a former lawyer, the cost has been enormous.

“I have been attacked by ISIS and Al Qaeda 11 times,” he said, ticking off injuries that have left him with two broken discs in his back and have made it impossible for him to sit on the ground.

“I have lost my house and my health.” Nor have his children been spared.

“Once my son was with me when an explosive device attacked us in our car, and his legs were broken,” said the mayor. “Another time, my daughter was heading to Jalawla with her husband for shopping, and an explosive device was put in their car. My son-in-law is a young engineer, and he lost his hand and finger during one of the attacks.”

Saadiya, too, has suffered. Located just across the Kurdistan border in federal Iraq, the town is now controlled by multiple armed forces, and both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government of Iraq have claimed it as theirs. As a consequence, Saadiya received virtually no support from either side, leaving it vulnerable to ISIS and Al Qaeda.

“During the liberation of Saadiya, there were big clashes and battles between ISIS and the Iraqi security forces,” said the mayor. “The infrastructure of Saadiya was left completely destroyed in all sectors.”

Wrecked buildings line the town’s dusty streets, and once-lush fruit orchards are slowly dying without the water they need. After ISIS swept in, most residents abandoned Saadiya, and many still have not returned. Today, there are about 2,200 families living there.

“The major reason for not returning is that 60 percent of the people in Saadiya strongly depend on having a daily income and agriculture,” said the mayor. “People coming back are returning without a source of income. On top of that, their houses have been destroyed or burgled.”

Ah, water—and some work

Knowing that there were urgent needs in Saadiya and other communities in the contested regions of Kirkuk and Diyala governorates, Oxfam launched a response that aims to help 250,000 people. And working with local authorities to get the water flowing again in Saadiya has been part of the mission.

Among the first to return to Saadiya were Rafd Esmail and Muhamed Hamoud, staffers at the town’s water plant. (Their names have been changed to protect their identities.) Working with Oxfam, they repaired the damaged plant and a network of pipes so that water is now flowing to the homes of families who have decided to come back. The smiles on the faces of Esmail and Hamoud tell you all you need to know about the relief people feel to have water again.

In addition to that essential service, people also need work. Oxfam stepped in with small cash grants to help families in Saadiya and in other communities rebuild their businesses. So far in Saadiya we have helped five families recover their small businesses, and we’ve helped another 14 with income-generating projects.

Zahia Hassan was among those to dive back into work with the help of one of the grants. A divorced mother whose name has been changed to protect her identity, she lives in the village of Husseini with her young son.

“I was a dressmaker before and had a good job,” she said, describing her life before ISIS seized control of her community and destroyed half of her house. “But when I returned, I lost my job. I lost everything because my sewing machine had been burned along with the house, and so I lost all my customers. The only thing left from my sewing materials was the iron.”

But with Oxfam’s help, Hassan got a new sewing machine and has been striving to rebuild her business.

“It was hard at the beginning,” she said. “I was working and making dresses at 500 QD—cheaper than other dressmakers so that I could have more customers.” But since connecting with a friend who got a grant to sell fabric, the two are helping each other’s businesses grow.

“When she sells someone fabric, she tells them about me and that I can sew for them,” said Hassan. “And I in turn tell my customers about her.”

For Qassim Daoud, whose name has also been changed to protect his identity, starting his barbershop back up in Husseini has brought him a measure of joy—much needed after returning to find his house completely burned and his shop looted.

“Oxfam provided me with money in installments. They helped me buy everything in my shop,” he said. “My barbershop is a small shop, but I like it. I like everything in my shop. It’s my shop—the thing that provides me an income so I love everything about it.”

Additional credits: The opening photo, taken by Tommy Trenchard for Oxfam, shows an Iraqi man and his family, displaced for two years. All the houses in their Iraqi village have been destroyed, but this father, a carpenter by trade, managed to build his family a new home in a different village.

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