Displaced Iraqis ride on a truck on a mountain road near the Turkish-Iraq border, outside of Dahuk, on August 9, 2014.

Displaced Iraqis ride on a truck on a mountain road near the Turkish-Iraq border, outside of Dahuk, on August 9, 2014. Khalid Mohammed/AP

How 500,000 Iraqi Refugees Are Surviving Under the Shadow of ISIS

How northern Iraqi Kurdistan's displaced people are coping with war and want. By Alice Su

DOHUK, Iraq — Meryem has renamed the third floor of Motel Kurdistan. “Welcome to Bayt al-Sinjar!” the 8-year-old shouted, flinging her arms wide as my elevator door opened. I followed her down a dim hallway to number 308, the 110-square-foot room where her family of six has lived since fleeing ISIS’s advance on their Yazidi village in August.

“You can come here, but not Daesh ,” Meryem said, using the Arabic name for ISIS as she opened the door. “No Daesh allowed.”

Meryem’s is one of 90,564 displaced families—543,384 individuals—seeking refuge in Dohuk, a small city in northern Iraqi Kurdistan that is roughly 105 miles from Sinjar and 50 miles from Mosul. (The motel name and the names of all displaced people in this article have been changed to protect their identities.) They are just six of some 1.8 million Iraqis displaced since January, half of whom are seeking refuge in the Kurdistan region. Most are Christians and Yazidis from the Sinjar area and Nineveh plains, where ISIS has massacred minorities in an ethnic-cleansing campaign throughout the summer. The extremist group threatens to kill those who don’t convert to its interpretation of Islam, and then goes through villages killing men, kidnapping women and children , selling its captives into slavery, and proclaiming an Islamic state.

Those who manage to flee have come to places like Dohuk, where displaced people live under trees and bridges, sleeping in churchyards, unfinished buildings, parks, and schools. Telltale plastic tarps with UNHCR insignia hang over balcony railings, struggling for space alongside clotheslines full of laundry. Children and WFP cardboard boxes crowd the windows. A total of 17,346 families are occupying the city’s elementary schools, which means 224,191 local students haven’t yet begun the semester. Another 47,831 displaced kids are living in classrooms. They don’t have enough food, toilets, or blankets , let alone opportunities to learn.

Motel Kurdistan is among the best of situations—a temporary home for Meryem’s family and 20 others, all displaced Iraqis with enough savings to afford a motel room for $700 a month. Displaced families occupy the entire third and fourth floors, with some living two to three families in one room. The motel had only been open for three months when ISIS began driving Iraqis into Kurdistan, said Jihad, the Kurdish motel owner’s son.

“It was like a new car that had only run 1 kilometer. Then we got flooded by naziheen [displaced people],” he told me. He pulled out a registration book in the hotel lobby, flipping through pages of names and figures. “We’re going crazy. Our whole hotel is naziheen. They come with money for one month, then run out [of money] and beg to stay.”

Upstairs, I found Meryem’s mother stirring a pot of bulgur on an electric cooking heater. She was soon joined by her neighbor Fatima, an unmarried Sunni Arab woman taking care of two nephews whose parents — Fatima’s brother and his wife — are trapped in Mosul. Half of Fatima’s family is living under ISIS control, too afraid to leave. “The women hide inside all day,” she said. “My sister is sick but they forbid male doctors to see women. You think this is Islam? Daesh are garbage. Dogs.”

Meryem’s mother stayed quiet. Earlier, she’d told me, “ Daesh is Islam. We cannot live with it. Muslims always kill Yazidis.” Muslims have been persecuting Yazidis for centuries for their alleged worship of the devil, she’d said.

But Fatima was her neighbor and guest, so she nodded as the Sunni woman cursed Daesh. As she spoke, Meryem and her brothers jumped on a bed with Fatima’s nephews, laughing and throwing pieces of bulgur at one another. “Who says Yazidis and Muslims cannot live together? What is wrong with these lunatics?” Fatima went on. “God damn them and damn their father’s souls.”

8-year-old Meryem looks out at Dohuk at night from the roof of a motel where her family has lived since fleeing ISIS in August. (Alice Su)

The motel women don’t go outside during the day, but they meet each other in the hallways. During my visit, we walked to the fourth floor to see another Yazidi family: Basima, Ali, and their five children, all from Sinjar, who are living in a motel room with Ali’s cousin and his family — 11 people in all. They walked through the mountains for eight days without food or water, Ali told me, eating leaves and watching the weakest starve. “I saw mothers crying and feeding the tears to their children,” Ali said, “so they wouldn’t die of thirst.”

Ali had Arab neighbors living 50 miles from his home, he told me. “We grew up like brothers, playing, eating, even sleeping together. Then Daesh came and they looted our homes.” What about Fatima? I asked. And the neighbors from Mosul all around them in the motel? “They can’t do anything to us here. We believe in the Kurds and they believe in two things,” Ali said, pointing upward. “First, God — and second, America.”

But no one in the motel believed in America’s airstrikes. “If they were serious, we would have Sinjar back in a day,” Jihad said. “The international community doesn’t care — look at Kobani!”

In Meryem’s room, we watched a TV broadcast about Shiite militias killing Sunni Turkmen and Arab civilians. “This is a Sunni channel. We can watch a Shiite channel and it’ll say the opposite,” Meryem’s father told me. We switched to another station, where a female academic and male parliamentarian were engaged in heated debate, slipping in and out of formal Arabic, and almost in tears. The words “Security Strategy” appeared at the bottom of the screen.

“I don’t want anyone coming into our country,” the woman said. “What do Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, America, all of them want? It’s politics, manipulation, we’ve seen this before” — she slipped into heavy Iraqi ammiyah , or colloquial Arabic —“ the whole world is coming for their own benefit. Who will protect Iraqi people? They are ripping us apart.”

* * *

Kurdistan’s naziheen ask me too many questions. “Why are all these foreigners joining Daesh ?” Fatima inquired.

“I saw a Facebook post saying the U.S. was dropping weapons to ISIS,” Meryem’s father said. “Is that where they get their arms from?”

“Do you know the NGOs here? Can you find me a job?” Ali asked.

“We’ll be out of money next month and the camps aren’t finished yet,” Basima said. “Where should we go?”

“Will you write down the names of my kidnapped relatives?”

The last question came from Layla, a Yazidi woman living in a half-finished building in Shariya, a town 20 minutes from Dohuk that I visited the day after my stop at Motel Kurdistan. I took out my pen, thinking I could at least fulfill this request. Layla started listing names, ages, and family relations, spelling each one, 22 in all. I wrote: Musou, 45, brother. Ammu, 43, brother. Falah, 25, nephew. Fahd, 20, nephew. Hafsa, 45, sister-in-law. Nisreen, 30, sister-in-law. Shereen, 30, sister-in-law. Fadia, 18, niece (sold). Vinal, 18, niece. Mouna, 18, niece. Ayman, 12, nephew. Anwar, 8, nephew. Elias and Hudr, 10, nephews (twins). Yazid, 4, nephew. Mirna, 3, niece. Rami, 4, nephew. Rania, 2, niece. Feryal, 25, niece. Asma, 3, niece’s daughter. Ashem, 1, niece’s son. Rena, infant, niece’s daughter.

Halfway through the list, my translator started to cry.

Layla, a displaced Yazidi woman, sits with her daughter in an unfinished building in Shariya, northern Iraq. (Alice Su)

“Fadia called me two weeks ago. Daesh sold her in Tal Afar,” Layla said. “She’s a slave but said the women and children are OK.” Layla hadn’t heard from the four men, she said, but they are also alive.

How do you know? I asked.

“They’re alive.”

But how do you know?

“They’re alive.”

But how do you —

“They’re alive.”

I stopped.

An informal camp has sprung up around the formal Khanke camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan. 70,000 displaced people have lived here since fleeing ISIS in August. (Alice Su)

“I swear this land is cursed,” my Kurdish translator fumed as we drove away. It was 5 p.m. and sunlight was spilling across open fields. The Kurds have seen it all before, he said:  chemical weapons, forced displacement, massacres, ethnic cleansing .  Kurdish history is soaked in blood. “I was born in a refugee camp,” he added. “My parents also walked 10 days in the mountains, fleeing to Turkey from [Saddam Hussein’s] Baathists.”

We reached Khanke, a sprawling camp that has taken in more than 70,000 displaced Yazidis since August. People were placing cement blocks around the perimeters of their tents, in an effort to build a blockade before winter rains flood their dirt floors. A distribution of toys was taking place, and fathers and brothers were crowding, pushing, and yelling at the volunteers as they tried to grab boxes of slinkies and stationery for their children. A policeman swatted them back with a stick, and I caught the eye of a small boy pressed between the shouting men. His mouth was moving. I nudged my translator. He bent down to listen.

“He’s saying, ‘Please take me with you.’”

* * *

How is Kurdistan surviving the refugee crisis? Haval Mohammed Amedy, head of the Dohuk Governorate’s Emergency Operations Committee, has an answer: It isn’t. The central government in Baghdad hasn’t sent funds to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for months, he told me. Government employees, including himself and Kurdistan’s Peshmerga fighters, are working without income. Meanwhile, the KRG splits what extra funds it does have between the anti-ISIS frontline, held mostly by Kurdish forces, and the naziheen .

“We had more than half a million people flee [to Dohuk] in 15 days,” Amedy said. “Our people are donating electricity, manpower, services, our own resources — Baghdad is not helping us.” The UN and NGOs are here, Amedy said, but money is not reaching those in need fast enough. After three months of emergency response, displaced people still don’t even have one blanket each, and winter is approaching.

“Tell the UN to push Baghdad seriously, not partially so the international agencies can prolong their stay,” Amedy pleaded. “Tell them people will die if they don’t get enough kerosene heaters by the end of the month. Just send us blankets! Don’t send money to the UN and have them slowly purchase things over two months. Send half a million blankets to the airport today.”

A displaced Yazidi child stands in Khanke, an area in Kurdistan that hosts 70,000 displaced Yazidis. (Alice Su)

Back in the motel, I joined the women and children as they headed to the roof, where clotheslines were strung from satellites to water tanks. It started raining. The women rushed to collect their clothes while their children shrieked, spinning in circles under the evening shower.

Meryem tiptoed to the edge of a wall, peering at Dohuk in the night, its neon lights a rainy blur. The city stretched across a valley, with dark mountains standing guard all around. From above, you couldn’t see the people crammed into classrooms and onto church floors, having nightmares about dying children, suffocating from the thought of their wives and daughters under other men’s fancy and force. “The children understand. They know what’s happening,” Meryem’s mother had said to me.

But Meryem pointed at a Ferris wheel glowing across the street, at a string of lights leading up the mountain highway, at the moon, the stars, at Mazi Mall and Dream City, the shopping center and amusement park downtown.

“Can you write about this?” she asked. “Write about the whole world! But not about Shingal,” she said, using the Kurdish name for Sinjar. “Just wait. You can write when we see Shingal. Maybe we’ll go there in the morning.”