When we arrived in Erbil Iraq, the first place that we visited was a christian refugee camp that was located in an unfinished mall. When I say christian refugee camp, I don’t mean a camp that is run by a christian ministry but actual christian families that were driven from their homes and land by Isis. These two little punks below were the first boys to greet us. Now I’m a father of 4 and I’m really patient when it comes to being around rowdy children. But these unruly little guys would throw rocks, tap my camera, and just be pesty. The reason why I called them punks is because on more that one occasion while I would be photographing, these guys, from behind me, would put an arm between my legs and lifting the arm they would give me a good nut tap. I lost my patience completely with these guys after the 3rd nut tap. I’m glad I got this image of them though. I pray they don’t join isis.
These two boys lived inside the mall that you can see below. The inside of the mall was kind of set up like a rough apartment complex to accommodate these people. Most of the families lived in one room apartments that were about 10×12 and sometimes smaller. The rooms were divided in half with a curtain. The kitchen area being on the floor in the first half and the sleeping area in the other half with foam mats. The rooms pretty much just provided privacy and a place to eat. There was no plumbing in the rooms. Public bathrooms and laundry was all facilitated on one end of the building.
The next camp we visited was a muslim camp. So, not only does isis drive out christians but muslims as well. Everyone was very friendly at this camp and the children just loved having their pictures taken.
These girls below invited me into their camp. It was actually very difficult to get portraits of females in any of the camps. Once girls turn 13, they live a very secluded life and stay very hidden. As you can see in the image they were both very shy. I wish I knew more of their story but I was by myself without an interpreter at this point.
This handsome fellow below was running a small store that he set up in the camp. Eventually these refugee camps start turning into little cities and people will setup fruit stands or barber shops. Through rough signing motions this guy let me know that the bandage on his hand was covering a gunshot wound. A round fired from a helicopter had struck him.
Not all the kids were happy. This little girl below had a troubled heart. It was hard to not pick her up and just hold her tight.
This lady was preparing bread that would eventually be baked in a dirt oven.
To the kind hearted people that want to send relief to these people. Don’t send candy! Send tooth brushes.
After leaving Erbil we made our way to Soran. This mountain town is the Estes Park of Iraq. A delightful town surrounded by snow covered mountain tops. I saw some incredibly beautiful landscapes in norther Iraq. Everywhere you looked were snow capped mountains, gorges, and rivers. Sites that really would take your breath away. Having been a professional rock climber for 3.5 years, I’m convinced that if not for all the middle eastern turmoil that this country faces, Iraq could easily become the rock climbing capital of the world. Sooooooo many amazing rock faces.
The first refugees that we visited in Soran was a large Yazidis family. You can see the kids playing soccer below.
Peshmerga soldiers were standing watch over this family while we were there. Peshmerga literally means “One who confronts death.” The Peshmerga is the military force of Iraqi Kurdistan and they are responsible for defending the land, people and institutions of the Kurdistan region.
The person who owns this land has two unfinished building that he’s been allowing the Yazidis families to stay in. Upon are last day there we were told that the people could remain on the land but could not longer inhabit the houses. January nights in Soran can get in the low 30’s. We learned that while many of the peoples in refugee camps have been provided clothes, the greatest need is for kerosene to keep families warm at night. We came on the trip with clothes to donate but I wished we had the means to bring 1000 sleeping bags. I am relieved to know that winter is coming to an end there but that means summer is coming and the highs in this mountain area reach 120 and even 125 degrees. As you can imagine a whole other set of problems arrive with the summer season.
The next place we visited is called “The Refuge.” It’s a multi-purpose community center built by a ministry called World Orphans in an area serving a large concentration of windows, orphans and refugees in Iraq. It’s run by two families, one from America and one from Australia. I loved these families and was impressed with their dedication to this region and it’s people. They were our hosts and I was blessed to have time with them. Below are the refugee families that are in their care.
The little girls would paint the palms of their hands orange because they believe it makes them more pretty.
I asked 3 of the older men in the camp if I could take their portraits. With a little hesitation they did give me permission. I was trying to think of the inner struggle of anger, frustration, despair, or sadness that these men might have. They had homes and jobs at one time. A roof over their wives and children’s heads with food on the table. Now they have tents or make shift shelters and they completely rely on others for their needs. I wondered if they took any solace in the fact that the children were indifferent and mostly smiling. The older men smiled rarely.
I love this black and white portrait of the next generation of men.
On our way back to the Yazidis I yelled for the driver to stop once I saw this goat shepherd on the country side. Glad I did.
This man below was one of the tribal elders among the Yazidis. After I took this portrait of him he had me follow him into the room that he and his family lived in. He showed me a sign on the back of the door. It read in 3 different languages “All we want is to love and live in peace.” Although I really appreciated his invitation to read the sign, it was hard to reckon this with the story that he also told of how in their old village they stoned a teen girl to death for falling in love with an Arab. He felt shame in this story and was not boasting; but it’s hard to not wonder what kind of man he would become if he encountered the forgiveness of Jesus over his life. I loved his face and his eyes and well…you could clean a rusty grill with that stash.
The land of norther Iraq was beautiful. Below is the proof.