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No country, no identity – the story of the Makhmour refugees


Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 3, July 2009 -

by Derya Cewlik


The Makhmour Refugee Camp is one of approximately seven camps in Iraq providing shelter for Kurds outside of the country. While its very existence is the focus of intense Turkish opposition, the existence and condition of the camp is hardly known by the international community.

The brutal war between the Turkish military and rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has displaced tens of thousands of Kurds from their ancestral homes in southeastern Turkey. Migration from this region to other areas, both forced and unforced, continues to this very day. Since 1994, there was an influx of Kurdish refugees from southeastern Turkey into Iraq. Initially, these refugees settled areas around the city of Atroush in the Duhok governorate. In 1998, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) opened the Makhmour Refugee Camp in the district of Makhmour, located in the Musil governorate but only about a one hour driving distance from the Kurdistan region’s capital of Erbil.


Makhmour Camp - Photo Courtesy Derya Cewlik © Kurdish Herald 2009


Makhmour's inhabitants - Kurds from Turkey and their children - are officially registered as refugees. Their numbers grow every year, having risen from about 10,000 people two years ago to an estimated 12,000 at present. The refugees have a very uncertain future due to Turkish pressure to close the camp, which they label a "PKK camp". Day-to-day life in the camp is very difficult, as electricity averages an estimated eight hours a day, although it is anything but consistent. Clean water is limited as well, and according to one camp resident, the intense heat in summer spoils food very quickly.

Despite constant external disturbances and uncertainties, the strong spirit of solidarity among camp residents in the Makhmour is rather impressive. The camp itself is organized like a small town, with yearly elections for municipality mayor and the municipality assembly (where 40% of representatives are women) and a special women's assembly. Approximately 3,500 of the camp's 12,000 residents of them are between the ages of 7 and 25 years. There are many children born each year in the camp and, while their parents may officially have Turkish citizenship, the children are born as refugees with no citizenship whatsoever. There are three elementary schools and one middle school to accommodate students. Kurdish in the Kurmanji dialect is almost exclusively spoken by camp residents, and the camps education committee publishes textbooks in Kurmanji every year for their students. General curricula also include two hours of Turkish and English language courses per week, and the camp's library is stocked with books written in Kurdish (Kurmanji and Sorani dialects), Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi.


Theatre at Makhmour Camp - Photo Courtesy Derya Cewlik © Kurdish Herald 2009



Other community organizers also spoke about the importance of promoting gender equality in the camp, consistent with the ideology of many who address the Kurdish question in Turkey. A leader of the camp's Women's Center explained that they seek to address all facets of the “Women’s Question,” by not only promoting women’s rights but also focusing on changing the psychological approach to the rigid stereotypes and cultural framework about what women should be.

Despite the uncertainty of the future, the camp's leaders continue to work to increase quality of life in the camp and promote education and culture among camp residents. They have recently built an outdoor entertainment area that resembles a miniature Roman coliseum where music, dancing, and theater are performed. Weekly newsletters and special student monthly publications are also printed.


According to community leaders, quality of life increased noticeably after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In their words, under Saddam’s regime, the Makhmour Refugee Camp was "like a prison". Residents were not allowed to go outside of the Camp except for medical emergencies. Communication was very limited for camp residents, as it was for all living under Saddam's control. Now, however, a handful of modest, new internet cafes link the camp to the outside world, and refugees are allowed to go to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s administered region to work. Nevertheless, it does not mean that such opportunities are abundant to all refugees. To do so, one needs to arrange transportation and travel miles through military checkpoints to reach nearby cities.

According to the head of Youth Organization in the Camp, approximately 300 students have attended universities in Erbil, building a profound connection between students in Erbil and youths in the Makhmour Refugee Camp. A bridge between the Camp and the world may be now slowly possible.




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