When I look at this picture, it makes my stomach drop. It makes me hurt. This is a picture of the outside of a refugee camp in Iraq.
Leading up to this picture was a little bit of a roller coaster. My team got on a plane at two am in Cairo and flew to Erbil, Iraq, where we landed at four am, jumped on a bus to our hotel, slept for two and a half hours, and then ate some Iraqi cocoa puffs and got in a car to drive here. Right outside of the camp, there's a security checkpoint, and just to the left of that, is what appears to be a junkyard full of cars and stuff, burned, smashed, and looted and abandoned by Isis. The normal temperature in Iraq in August is around 110-125 degrees, so you have to down water every few minutes to avoid heat stroke. To say the environment was overwhelming would be an understatement, but the part that was truly overwhelming was driving down the road, past the checkpoint, into the gates, to see this image. The realization sets in very quickly that as disorienting as it is to fly all night and drive into a refugee camp, I would only be there for four or five hours. Thousands of people live here, day in and day out, this hot, desolate, empty desert is their home now because someone else took theirs away.
The majority of the people I met in this camp were women and children because ISIS and an Islamic military group called Daesh. Our team was made up of mostly doctors, so they set up in a traveling clinic bus to treat as many patients as they could before we had to leave the camp for the day. The only real, static medical attention available in the camp is an emergency room reserved for those who are literally dying. Because there are thousands of people in the camp in need of medical attention, they only let about thirty people inside a gated area, where the medical bus was, at a time to prevent mobs of people.
I thought that the second I drove into the camp I would be a disaster, crumpled in the corner, but it takes a while for the reality to set in. You see the tents that people live in, you hear the stories of their unbelievable losses, you feel the overwhelming, searing heat they live in 24/7, but as an American citizen, who lives in a home, who drinks cold water everyday, who has everything and more, it's difficult to grasp that they can't leave. These are their lives. Their food and water is rationed to them, the floor in their tent is hard, dusty, sand, everything they once had is forever gone.
For me, it really hit me while I was standing by the bus where people were in line to see the doctors. Those of us who weren't medical professionals were standing and talking with the people waiting in line. Since I don't speak Kurdish, big shocker there, the five words I learned on the ride over got old pretty quickly, so I started trying to play with the kids. There was a little boy waiting in line with his mom, holding her hand, waiting for their turn to sit for a few minutes in the tiny air-conditioned room inside the clinic bus. Here's the thing, anywhere you go in the world, kids are kids. They love laughing, getting free gum, and being asked what their favorite color is. Most of the kids in line started out a little bit shy, and after a few smiles were exchanged and we bribed them with a piece of gum, they would warm up and play a bilingual game of patty-cake. This particular little boy was not cracking his frown. His little brown eyes were deep and sad, and you could feel the heaviness around his heart. His mom smiled at us and tried to get him to play, but he wasn't about it. After a few minutes, he started to cry big tears down his sandy little face, and we soon realized it was because all he wanted was a drink of the cold water we were all casually sipping. The camp has a water tank, but it's a big metal tank that sits in the sun, so rarely ever do the people living there get a sip of cold water. I grabbed him a little, plastic, square cup of water, and walked to the other side of the bus to lose it.
Everytime I see this picture, my heart breaks. I still don't feel like I can truly grasp the lives these refugees live, day in and day out. They're people just like me, just like you. Moms with small kids, grandmas and grandpas, teenage girls, twelve year old boys who just want to play soccer, they're real people who are no different than us.
And this is their new reality for the indefinite future.