AMAR: providing support to Iraq’s displaced Yazidis
- AMAR provides health, education and emergency relief to populations living under stress in the Middle East
- The charity was set up to help the Marsh Arabs persecuted by Saddam Hussein in 1991
- Since 2014, it has supported Iraq’s displaced Yazidis and also operates elsewhere in the Middle East and Romania
Living conditions are far from ideal in Northern Iraq’s Essian and Khanke camps for internally displaced people.
“In the winter, it gets cold. It snows,” Chris Frost, treasurer of the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, explains.
“There is a photo of a snowman in one of the camps and a child next to it crying, which sticks in the mind.
“But in the summer temperatures reach 40 degrees centigrade, and these people have to deal with the heat while living in what are very basic tents. The tents are flammable and burn easily. A baby was recently killed in such a fire.”
The two camps each house about 15,000 people. A similar number live in unofficial settlements in the surrounding areas. Members of the Yazidi community, all victims of brutality by militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS), make up the bulk of the inhabitants.
The Yazidis are a religious minority primarily based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. They have long faced religious persecution, but in 2014 this became extreme when IS took control of the Sinjar district. IS committed genocide, killing 5,000 Yazidis, forcing up to 10,800 women and girls into sexual slavery, and displacing more than 400,000 people from their homes.
Many of those who escaped now live in the camps and suffer from loss, depression and trauma.
London-based AMAR initially stepped in and quickly established six primary healthcare clinics and training centres. It still provides training, including computer skills and English lessons. But, over time, it handed its medical clinics to local government health directorates.
AMAR also continues to provide psychological and psychiatric services. To do this, it has hired Iraqi doctors and nurses.
They are more familiar with the Yazidi and other displaced people’s cultures than foreign medics would be. A further benefit is less need for security guards, which leaves more money for treatment and services.
“We couldn’t run the units providing mental health care to people in the camps were it not for donations from companies, including Baillie Gifford,” says Frost.
Fear of return
Only a minority of the displaced people can return to their farms because mines, booby traps, and unexploded ordnance remain in their fields.
Turkey’s bombing of Kurdish rebels and continued fighting between Iraqi militias and the remnants of IS pose additional threats. As a further deterrent, some of the displaced people’s old neighbours killed on IS’s behalf to show loyalty and avoid being targeted themselves.
“IS still poses a threat to Yazidis and the camp inhabitants face the prospect of returning to live among people who shot their relatives,” says Frost.
People do occasionally leave. But the minute they go, their place is taken up by somebody else who had been living nearby in an unofficial camp.
With no prospect of Essian or Khanke being dismantled soon, AMAR has also taken steps to improve hygiene to keep diseases such as cholera at bay.
“One way we keep the camps healthy is by making sure they’re very clean,” Frost says, giving the example of setting up a rubbish bin scheme.
AMAR has been active in Iraq for more than 30 years. It was founded by the former MP Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne in 1991. She created it to help the Marsh Arabs in the south of the country.
Military dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime had blocked rivers to drain the wetlands the mostly tribal people lived in and forced them from their homes after a failed uprising following the Gulf War.
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About 95,000 Marsh Arabs and Shi’a Muslims subsequently crossed the border to Iran where they were placed in refugee camps. The charity supported them there and continued to provide aid when they later returned to southern Iraq.
“One problem is that many of the Marsh Arabs were poorly educated, particularly about health, hygiene, and sanitation,” Frost says.
“So, we first set up a network of women health volunteers in camps in Iran, and they become the first line of defence against disease. We eventually established Women Health Volunteer networks in Iraq.”
Doctors taught the women about sanitation, hygiene and contraception. And the women then explained the benefits of using boiling water, washing hands and first aid, among other matters, to others living in their villages.
One challenge the charity had to address was that many of these volunteers were illiterate.
“The training materials are designed to be used by people who cannot read,” says Frost. “Everything is done with pictures, and it is very effective.”
Roads and schools
AMAR’s work in southern Iraq continues. It is building roads to connect clinics and schools to national travel routes, making it easier and safer for people to access health and education. It is also constructing new schools and adding toilets to existing ones.
“We focus on the lavatories because if they are in a poor state, the girls won’t go to school,” Frost explains. “And we’ve seen the number of girls attending class increase as a result of the bathrooms being improved.”
AMAR has also been active elsewhere in Iraq, including its capital.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it used funding from international institutions to rebuild health clinics in Baghdad and continued to run them for about a decade. At one point, Frost says the facilities provided essential healthcare to about 5 per cent of the city’s population.
Beyond Iraq, the charity has also provided emergency support to Afghan refugees from the Taliban, and helped tackle drug abuse in Lebanon, among other initiatives.
Looking ahead, the charity is funding research to check its efforts have as much benefit as intended.
That includes its music and dance classes in the Essian and Khanke camps. There it teaches women in their late teens and early-20s to sing Yazidi folk and religious songs to strengthen their sense of identity and provide an emotional outlet.
A preliminary study indicated those involved have enjoyed mental health benefits. But the charity wants to carry out similar assessments at other projects it is involved in, including some in Romania, to be comfortable about claiming there’s a causal link.
And if funds permit, Frost says there’s even an ambition to bring some of the participants together for a concert.
Find out more about AMAR’s work at www.amarfoundation.org
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