Iraq. We’re just a few kilometers away from the war. Those who’ve fled the fighting in Syria and the attacks of the self-styled “Islamic State” are gathering in the area between Sulaimaniya and Khanaqin. An all-out conflict that has turned Syria and Iraq into places where escape is the only choice left.
Thousands have sought refuge in an increasingly less hospitable Europe, while the truly poor and desperate have fled to the bordering countries, like this corner of Iraq.
The sight of the Arbat refugee camp is a shocking experience: it extends as far as the eye can see, in a quagmire of snow and mud. Far off, the snow-capped mountains stand out against a clear sky. Not a single tree can be seen on the horizon. It’s a hard, rugged and inhospitable area, but it’s also majestic and beautiful.
The refugees are worn out with the snow and the cold. They gather at the entrance to our clinic while their children play barefoot in the snow. Not far off, I can see the impelling need to find a refuge in the tents besieged by the dirty sludge: women cooking on makeshift stoves in the middle of the mud, and behind them just a glimpse of what little remains of lives crushed by the war – a black and white photo stuck to the tent, a muddy rug, a gilded ornament sitting on an old TV…
Amid this desolation, time is empty. It passes slowly, while waiting for some sort of change. The men wander listlessly around the camp. The women, on the other hand, are constantly busy with some task or other, ready for whatever may happen. They seem to be the only ones able to react to this tragedy.
I look at the faces, worn out by the cold. I see the same expressions I’ve already come across in Sicily, during the landings of immigrants. The same distant expressions, the same slow step.
But, as Primo Levi said, we can’t just put up with the “dumbfounded astonishment” of this sight. We have to act. And we’re doing it here in the only way we know how: building places to care for human beings, because it’s the only sensible way to respond to the senselessness of this war.
We’re working in two health clinics here in the Arbat camp, a few kilometers from Sulaimaniya. And alongside the medical aspects, we’re working on the structures themselves too: we want to make them more practical and welcoming, turning nondescript containers into buildings, abandoned areas into proper places, the stony land around us into gardens.
Because in this desert of stones, the first sign of rebirth comes in the form of trees. And one of the best guarantees of being on the right track comes from the Syrian lab worker who lives in the camp, offering to pay for one of the first trees we plant at the clinic.
— Raul, architect.
Arbat, northern Iraq
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