Story by Patricia Billinger, Communications Director, Denver, CO
One morning during the height of international sanctions against Iraq in the ‘90s, Enas Alsharea overheard her father lamenting to her mother: “I am suffering that I can’t get oranges for my children. I am suffering because I want to be able to give my children everything.”
Alsharea, who was a young girl at the time, said her family was relatively well-off for ordinary Iraqi citizens during that time period – and very comfortable when compared to the conditions endured by Iraqis who are currently living in camps after fleeing violence and persecution by ISIS forces.
For many of us Americans born after World War II, such scarcity is unimaginable: scarcity applies to things like Apple Watches rather than access to fresh fruit and basic needs.
“Life in the camps is really difficult. It’s more difficult than anyone can imagine,” Alsharea told an audience gathered at the Red Cross Mile High Chapter for the monthly International Services Lunch and Learn. As a former Business Development Advisor for Relief International who helped Iraqi camp residents launch small businesses, Dr. Enas Alsharea presented on the topic of Internally Displaced Persons and the challenges they face.
Internally Displaced Persons are defined as people who are rendered homeless by humanitarian crises – such as disasters, violence or persecution – who have fled but have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary. Essentially, they are refugees within their own borders. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates there are more than 26 million internally displaced persons around the world – including more than 3 million Iraqis who have fled within Iraq to escape the violence in their home towns.
Because they are still living within their national borders, these individuals legally fall under the protection and care of their governments – but, recognizing that they are facing a humanitarian crisis nonetheless, aid agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Relief International do provide humanitarian aid when possible.
Since the beginning of 2015, the ICRC has provided one-month food rations and other essential relief items to more than half a million people in Iraq. Vital medical supplies have also been distributed to 45 health facilities across the country. More than 400,000 people have benefited from ICRC's efforts to improve water provision. At the same time, ICRC staff continued to visit places where people have been detained. The aim is to ensure that those held are treated in a humane way. In May, the ICRC made a call for donations to increase and sustain aid.
Dr. Alsharea worked with Relief International, which, among other forms of aid, launched a project in April 2014 to help vulnerable Iraqi populations launch small businesses. Funded by a USAID grant, the program provided 30 hours of business development training, monthly mentorship by an advisor and small grants to participants who completed the training and proposed a business plan.
When ISIS attacks forced millions of Iraqis to flee to camps, Relief International brought the small business development program to some of the camps. Residents of one camp that Dr. Alsharea visited launched small businesses such as a barbershop, grocer, falafel restaurant and tailoring business.
These entrepreneurs face many challenges, including the harsh reality that many of their fellow camp residents fled with little to no belongings or cash and thus have little to no spare income to spend. The entrepreneurs themselves often fled with few possessions, leaving them without the tools of their trade or the capital to buy the resources they need to run a small business. Meanwhile, limited or costly transportation means that it is difficult for most to sell their products or services outside the camp.
Is there hope in the face of such daunting challenges? Dr. Alsharea shared photos depicting some slices of normal life: men getting their hair cut, young lovers getting married in suits and white dresses. But, she said, violence is still a threat; militants attacked one of the camps close to Mosul, forcing residents to flee and aid agencies to temporarily suspend operations.
Dr. Alsharea herself was threatened due to her brother’s work as an interpreter for coalition forces in 2011. Her links with an American organization also posed a potential risk. Unfortunately, local workers supporting international aid efforts do get targeted as “enemies” despite their humanitarian work – Dr. Alsharea had a friend whose mother was assassinated in Baghdad 2006 because she was volunteering with a foreign-based humanitarian organization. In fear for her safety, Dr. Alsharea sought refuge and resettled in Denver in December 2014.
It is too soon to know when those forced to flee to camps can begin to look homeward.
“It’s early to talk about how they will return home, because the situation is still unstable,” Dr. Alsharea said.
As recently as June 9, thousands more Iraqis fled violence in Ramadi. If you would like to read more about the crisis and how the Red Cross is helping, click here. The Red Cross also helps reconnect families separated while fleeing violence, whether they are internally displaced or cross international borders. To learn more about the American Red Cross’ work to help reconnect separated families, visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.
For more stories from the Colorado Region of the American Red Cross, please click here.