Fieldset
Camp life in the time of COVID-19

Three years after his family fled Islamic State violence for the safety of a displacement camp, MSF health promoter Hameed shares how the arrival of COVID-19 in Iraq has forced many families to make more difficult choices

I live in Laylan Camp, in Kirkuk, in the north of Iraq.

Like many of the camp residents, I fled my hometown – Al-Rashad sub-district in Hawija District – three years ago when the area was under the control of the Islamic State group.

We made a long journey by foot before ending up in this camp, and we still aren’t able to return home yet.

Fleeing our hometown of Al-Rashad was not easy for us. All along the exit roads, Islamic State put in place checkpoints, traps and explosive devices to deter, catch or kill whoever attempted to flee.

Now, with the pandemic, living in the camp has become more stressful than before for most of the residents

The only way one could escape safely was to get help from smugglers, and so we did.

The smuggler we fled with charged us $200 USD per person for the journey, and we were around 50 families in total. He guided us out of the town close to a Kurdish Peshmerga checkpoint. After that we walked a long way on our own to get to safety.

At the last checkpoint, men and women were separated for screening. Soldiers took our IDs to check if anyone was listed on their intelligence database as having ties with Islamic State. When our security check was clear, they transferred us to this camp and returned our IDs. We were able to reunite with our families. Having had to leave our homes behind, now we were given tents to live in.

Since then, we have not been able to return back to our area of origin, to live in our homes in Al-Rashad.

The arrival of COVID-19 in the camp

Now, with the pandemic, living in the camp has become more stressful than before for most of us residents.

Living in a camp comes with a lot of difficulties, but because of COVID there are now more for people to deal with. The government has put in place frequent lockdowns and restrictions on where people can travel which are leaving people struggling to find regular jobs or even just daily work.

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MSF community health promoters holding a health education session with patients in the outside waiting area of the clinic at Laylan 1 camp
MSF community health promoters holding a health education session with patients in the outside waiting area of the clinic at Laylan 1 camp

Even as the lockdown is lifted, finding jobs is much more difficult than before as due to the economic crisis – business everywhere is much slower and labourers are in less demand.

Most of the residents depended on daily work to secure their basic needs – that's means they're paid by the day and have no guaranteed income. Now that things are getting tighter work and money-wise, people are having to prioritise working to feed their families instead of staying safe at home.

Left with no choice

Yesterday a woman told me:

"Before coronavirus, I used to go out for work every day, I would make 10,000-15,000 IQD ($8-12 USD) per day and we could secure a living.

“Now our income has dropped significantly because of the slow business and frequent lockdowns. I can't really care a lot about protecting myself from getting coronavirus. If I find work anywhere, I will go because I cannot protect myself but leave my family without the basic things they need."

[People] would not be able to easily sacrifice working for the sake of following social distancing and home quarantine guidance.

MSF health promoters like me regularly visit people in the camp to educate families about COVID-19. The majority of people here also have access to internet and TV, so they know what the symptoms are and understand the risks and how to protect themselves.

Essential needs

But, the problem is that people are not receiving an amount of support that makes it easy for them to stay home. With the limited amount of aid given, people have no choice but to go out and seek any work to support their families.

Indeed, the hygiene equipment supplies and the general hygiene conditions inside the camp are not sufficient. But because of the financial pressure, people can’t really think about hygiene that much and all the focus remains on how they would secure money for the next day, or who would provide them food and their essential needs in case they're not ablet to find any work. 

Until a few months ago, people used to receive food supplies on a regular basis, but now instead of food they receive money. Each person is given 17,000 IQD ($14 USD) per month, but sometimes there are delays in distributing the money of up to two months. In any case, 17,000 IQD per person would mean slightly more than 500 IQD ($0.40 USD) per day, which as an amount is impossible to live on.

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Living space for a family inside one of the camp tents
Living space for a family inside one of the camp tents

Most of the residents are already in debt to grocery shops, so when the money comes, they immediately hand it all to the shop owners. This is how difficult it's getting for some people: it means they cannot easily sacrifice working for the sake of following social distancing and home quarantine guidance.

Rising tensions

As someone who lives in the camp, I see and hear about family tensions here and there.

Because of the tight financial situation people are going through, stress levels are raising up, leading the camp to be a very tense place. Sometimes, people start a fight for the smallest reasons.

The unknown duration of this situation is only adding more stress and fear for the future. People think – and fail to find hope – about how long they would have to deal with these difficulties: lockdown and a lack of work on top of the hardships the have already faced.

Bringing the virus back

One of the fears some camp residents have (myself included) is about people exiting and coming back into the camp.

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Hameed Hilal works as an MSF health promoter in Laylan 1 camp, near Kirkuk
Hameed Hilal works as an MSF health promoter in Laylan 1 camp, near Kirkuk

We know that the virus can't reach the camp if someone doesn't get infected from outside, so the movement of people between other places has the most potential to introduce it here. We would feel more comfortable if anyone that leaves is then screened at the entrance before entering again.

We know that with any case in the camp, the possibility of a wide-spread infection is very high. My family and I have started considering renting a house in the city for my wife and children to live in. It would be safer than staying here with the high risk.

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Read more: Stories from Iraq

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Iraq: Life after the war