By Sofia Barbarani
KAWERGOSK, Iraq, March 15 – Women nudge their way through a throng of customers to buy freshly baked bread as children laden with books scurry to school. Down the road a man sits in a barber’s shop, waiting for a shave.
Life appears to be almost normal in Kawergosk camp, home to some 10,000 Syrians who have escaped unrelenting conflict across the border. But behind the facade, frustration runs high as hope and money dry up, and a sense of inertia sets in.
Originally from Syria’s capital Damascus, Anwar Hassan, 34, is waiting for the rough winter seas to die down so that he and his family can try to reach Europe.
Like many Syrian Kurds, Hassan crossed into Iraq three years ago before settling in Kawergosk camp. Set up in August 2013, it was intended to be a transit camp but now permanent structures are replacing the white tents of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
As the unemployed head of his household, Hassan grows weary of being unable to provide for his family.
“The only way is Europe. I’m scared but that road is better than being here,” he said, leaning against his neighbour’s wooden fence. Only then would his children have a chance at success, he added.
If Hassan makes it, he will become one of more than 897,000 Syrians who, UNHCR says, have applied for asylum in Europe since the Syrian conflict started five years ago.
War in Syria has killed more than 250,000 people and caused the world’s worst refugee crisis. Since March 2011, more than 240,000 Syrians have sought refuge in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, UNHCR says.
A cessation of hostilities agreement accepted by President Bashar al-Assad’s government and most of his enemies, has reduced violence in Syria since it took effect on Feb. 27.
U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday he hoped President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria would help the peace process.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad’s favour after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.
Western diplomats speculated that Putin might be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war as U.N.-mediated peace talks resumed in Geneva this week.
NO JOBS, NO OPPORTUNITIES
But many of those in Kawergosk camp are focusing on survival rather than peace talks thousands of miles away.
Aid organisations offer vocational training in the camp in sewing, computer services and other subjects to try to increase the chances of refugees being hired.
But the empty job centre is a telling sign of the difficult times that have gripped Kurdistan, which is grappling with an economic crisis brought to a head by plummeting oil prices.
Syrians like Hassan must also compete for jobs with more than one million internally displaced Iraqis (IDPs) who have fled areas seized by Islamic State and resettled in Kurdistan.
“In 2014 the IDP crisis started, and of course you can imagine the impact that had on the refugees regarding assistance, job opportunities, livelihoods and even living conditions,” said Tanya Kareem, head of UNHCR in Duhok, Kurdistan.
Some refugees who used to live in rented homes are moving to camps because they can no longer afford to pay the rent. Others can barely pay for the basics.
Hasakah-born shop owner Alan Hussein, who sells snacks and drinks in the camp, often lets his customers shop on credit even though he is struggling to survive on the 12,000 dinars worth of ($10) cash vouchers he receives from the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) each month.
“People tell me they will pay me later,” he said. “There is just no work, people are waiting for the weather to get better so they can go to Europe.”
Hussein believes most people are considering the perilous journey to Europe but the majority will be unable to fund the expensive journey, which can sometimes cost $1,500 per person.
Hussein’s sons are four, three and two years old. All were born during the conflict and even for the eldest, memories of Syria are long gone.
“We talk to them about Syria, but I’m not worried they will forget because we will go back. Our future is in Syria,” he said.
“MUST WE STAY HERE?”
Volunteering at his friend’s bakery and unemployed for seven months, 45-year-old Mohammad Yacob is pessimistic about ever making it to Europe.
“If there were options we’d leave, but I barely have $200,” he explained.
According to UNHCR up to 25,000 Syrians left Kurdistan last year. While most returned home despite the risks, there is no data on whether they have gone on to Europe or stayed in Syria.
Aziza Ali, 75, checks on her neighbour Waalid Ramo, who has been unwell and unemployed for some time. He sits on a makeshift porch that wraps around the front of his tent with his daughter, Hevi, whose name is Kurdish for “hope”.
“We can’t stop the hope, there will always be hope,” he smiles.
Ali is less optimistic. “My generation never saw a situation quite like this, they’re kidnapping and killing,” she said of the parties to the conflict.
For Ali, as for most elderly Syrians, Europe is not an option. “Must we stay here all our lives?” she asked.
The European Union estimates the number of refugees seeking shelter in Europe will reach 1.5 million this year, and believes Syrians will again be the most numerous.
More than 300 people left Kawergosk camp over the past year and Abdulkader Haji, an elegant man in his mid-fifties, was one of them. He and his wife tried to reach Europe but failed, and now he is back in the camp, where he helps his friend bake bread to pass the time.
“All of those people killed at sea, they went because they had nothing here,” he said.