Thursday, September 4, 2008

Iraq/Iran Border

IRD has a number of programs throughout Iraq. In Kurdistan they are implementing the Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq (HAI) Program. Part of this program is funded by UNHCR and is working to support refugees within Iraq, from Turkey and Syria, as well as repatriating Iraqi refugees that have been living in Iran. In the past the program used to receive refugees from Iran on a regular basis and help support their re-settlement into Kurdistan. For the past couple of years, as relations between Iraq and Iran have worsened, the program has not been able to repatriate any refugees.

On Sunday, in coordination with UNHCR, and for the first time in over two years, the IRD HAI program received the first batch of Iraqi refugees at the Iraq/Iran border. I traveled with Emily (the HAI Program Director) to the border for this event. The road from Erbil to Haji Omran, the only legal border crossing within Kurdistan, is absolutely gorgeous. We climb from the valley of Erbil into the mountains, driving through canyons and following a twisting, running river – the first I’ve seen in this dry, hot region. As we leave the river below us, we drive up steeper roads, back into drier climates, as we near the Iranian border.

Throughout the drive we see numerous Kurdish Nomad settlements – which are black tents made of a natural fiber weave (hessian?) that is waterproof. These nomads are pastoralists with very large herds of sheep and goats that speckle the countryside. Sadly this area of Iraq, like many areas of Iraq, is heavily mined and I couldn’t help but think about the risks that the nomads take to live their lives in their traditional ways.

The Iraq – Iran border crossing is a pretty desolate place. Hot, windy and lots of razor wire. It was quite an experience though to stand at the border of these two countries and just think about the impact both of these countries have had, and continue to have, on the world. It was also pretty amazing to think that I was standing at one of the most volatile regions of the world and at least at that point in time, I was quite safe. We managed to sneak some pictures in before we got yelled at by the Iranian guards and had to hide the camera.

The Iraqi refugees, whose return were facilitated by UNHCR and the HAI program, have been living in Iran for many years – for some up to 20 years! This is a huge change for these families to come back to Iraq. They have to learn everything new as if they are visiting for the first time. UNHCR prepared booklets for each family describing simple items such as the different values of Iraqi Dinars (money), to more complicated issues such as pictures and descriptions of mines and active ordinance, and how to go about getting documentation to prove their Iraqi citizenship.

After the refugees crossed into Iraq they had a long wait while UNHCR and HAI worked with the authorities for the appropriate paper work. I had the opportunity to talk with one family who had been in Iran for over 10 years. The son had returned to Iraq 7 years earlier to attend medical school in Dohuk and he came to the border to meet his mother, grandmother, sisters, aunt and all the children. He and they were very happy to be reunited.

Although the families were being taken to Dohuk, it was not clear to me where these families would be staying, what type of shelter they would be provided, and what types of livelihoods they would have available to them back in Iraq. In asking UNHCR how long they were going to support these families I received a sad laugh as a response. Their job is to get them back home, not to make sure they can survive once they are back home. It is this aspect of my work that I find very frustrating and upsetting. But I can’t really go into that on here.

At the end of the day 79 refugees were brought back to Iraq from Iran, of which 37 were children and over 20 were women. This is hopefully just the start of the repatriation and UNHCR and HAI have plans to bring over 200 families back in the next few months.

For more pictures from this trip and my other trips throughout Northern Iraq visit my photo site.

No comments: