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Poorest in Iraq Unable to Seek Refuge


And now let's consider the extraordinary crisis of Iraqis forced from their homes. More than two million of them have fled to countries like Syria and Jordan, but many can not cross the border. They can't leave their country, but cannot safely return home. And these internally displaced Iraqis are the poorest of the poor.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro reports from Baghdad.


LOURDES GARCIA NAVARRO: The bricks are made of crumbling clay. The cement is mud smeared in between the layers like gritty ice. The wind is gusting and husband Hussein and wife Yasa are quickly trying to build something that will keep them out of the rain and cold. Yasa says they've been squatting in this vast former army barracks in Baghdad since last summer when they were chased out of their village in Diyala province. There's been fierce fighting there between the U.S. military and Sunni insurgent groups including al-Qaida in Iraq.

YASA: (Through Translator) The whole village was displaced, all of us, about 20 or 30 families were there. We don't know who issued the threats, but we fled the shooting, rockets, and other things. I came here because I have no other place to go. We had other relatives who had been displaced and were here so we joined them.

GARCIA NAVARRO: They are filthy and tired, but still they're dwelling, it's too mean to be called a house, is barely there yet.

YASA: (Through Translator) What kind of life do we have here? A hard life. There's no money, no place to live, not even water to clean ourselves.

GARCIA NAVARRO: They were poor when they left Diyala, but now they are destitute. Still Yasa says, she will not go back.


YASA: (Through Translator) We're scared. They took over our street. The terrorists took control of most of the houses.

GARCIA NAVARRO: The bombing of a sacred Shiite mosque in Samara in February of 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian blood letting, among the many repercussions, a mass movement of people inside the country fleeing one region for the perceived safety of another. According to a recent report by the International Organization for Migration, 1.2 million people, half of all those internally displaced in Iraq, relocated due to sectarian violence in the last two years alone. While monitoring groups say the rate of internal displacement slowed in 2007, conditions for those already displaced have been deteriorating.

Ms. MEDEHA HASSAN OMASAWY(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA NAVARRO: Medeha Hassan Omasawy(ph) is immediately mobbed when she arrives at the Baghdad camp. She works for the local counsel and has organized aid for 6,000 families, about 30,000 people in several districts of the capital. She says the Iraqi government and the international community have failed to tackle the overwhelming problems the people here face.

Ms. OMASAWY: (Through Translator) First of all, the government has not given any support to them. Secondly, the displacement ministry, which is supposed to handle this issue is totally disengaged. International organizations because of the security situation can't come here. We have a huge number of families. It is difficult to provide them support. And the families are causing an extra burden to services in the area, like water and electricity.

GARCIA NAVARRO: On this day Medeha and her team have come to hand out much needed aid from a large truck. She asks for help from whomever is willing, the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. military, international aid groups, the Iraqi Red Crescent, to get what she needs. It's never enough.

(Soundbite of people chattering)

Ms. OMASAWY (Through translator) It's reached an absolute cacophony here. The entire community has come out to receive this aid. They're getting two blankets each and two bags of food that consists of rice and some canned goods and clearly the people here really do need it. Everyone's complaining of the bitter cold here at night and many of the structures that they're inhabiting are extremely flimsy.

(Soundbite of chattering)

GARCIA NAVARRO: Medeha says that she considers the displacement issue as the most urgent facing Iraq right now. There is no clear policy she says on what to do with all these people. Eventually she says the displaced who live in this area will have to leave. There is no infrastructure to support them and this land is government property. But the problem is many have settled in and are looking to make life here.

(Soundbite of chattering)

GARCIA NAVARRO: Nearby Shahif Abu Saharashafin(ph) watches the food being handed out. He's been living in the camp since just after the invasion when he left the marsh lands in southern Iraq because of fighting. When he arrived, there were ten families. Now there are 300.

Mr. SHAHIF ABU SAHARASHAFIN: (Through Translator) What we want is for each family here to get a plot of land so they can support themselves. The families that live here now feel unstable and confused.

GARCIA NAVARRO: He says the camp is secure even if life is hard and that makes people want to stay.

(Soundbite of water running)

GARCIA NAVARRO: An old woman fills up a bucket of water from a dripping tap to give to her cow. Oma Mohamed(ph) lives with it and seven members of her family in a mud hut. It's been a long road to get here. She was displaced twice by fighting and ended up here in Zafaraniyah in southern Baghdad. She came from a rural community. Like many of the people here, she is among the poorest of the poor. Most of those who have left Iraq for other countries come from the better educated and the better able professional class. It is the most vulnerable members of society who end up internally displaced.

Ms. OMA MOHAMED: (Through Translator) Exhausted, people are exhausted from everything that has happened. Those people that have got some money can manage, not like me and others who cannot bring home even bread to eat.

GARCIA NAVARRO: Oma Mohamed says she sends the youngest members of her family to collect cans to recycle. They make about one dollar a day. She says she doesn't think about the future.

Ms. MOHAMED: (Through Translator) Life is difficult she says, but with the mercy of God we are patient. We ask God she says for even more patience. We ask God for help to improve our condition.

GARCIA NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.