Turning houses into homes for conflict-affected Iraqis in TikritBack in his hometown of Shirqat, Saleh used to spend care-free evenings laughing and joking in his garden surrounded by his family and relatives.
He describes those days as happy and relaxing, and while he and his family of 10 lived in a simple home in a small town, it was theirs and it was peaceful. For many Iraqi families, quality time with both immediate and extended family members plays a major role in everyday life and strong familial ties make up an important part of the country’s social fabric.
Things changed drastically when Islamic State (IS) took over Shirqat along with large swaths of Iraq and neighboring Syria in 2014, setting off a large-scale humanitarian and displacement crisis, and disrupting Saleh’s idyllic life.
“Daesh threatened my family, and kidnapped both me and my son because we refused to obey their rules and join their fight,” he said, using a common Arabic term to describe the armed group. “They tortured me for three days but they eventually let us go because my son suffers from kidney disease.”
Once they were freed, Saleh and his family decided they had to leave Shirqat immediately. It was a natural choice for them to seek safety with relatives in Tikrit who they knew would be welcoming. Saleh admitted he felt luckier than other IDPs with nowhere to go, but after a while, he and his family felt embarrassed to stay for an extended period of time as they sensed the additional 10 people were becoming a burden on their relatives whose own resources were stretched thin.
Saleh eventually found a building nearby where he and his family could stay for three months rent-free, after which they would have to pay 100,000 Iraqi dinar (€75) per month. With no job or source of income, Saleh decided it was the only option they had. While the new apartment provided shelter for the family, it was in desperate need of repairs and upgrades. The rudimentary apartment units lacked a kitchen area to cook food and toilet facilities were in poor condition, representing potential health hazards. Furthermore, structural problems such as unstable staircases posed a serious threat to tenants’ safety.
More than three million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes across the country since 2014 as a result of ongoing conflict. Families have sought safety and shelter mostly in emergency camps, with host families, in rental properties, and in unfinished buildings. In Salah-al-Din Governorate where Tikrit is located, more than 83,000 people are currently living in unfinished buildings, much like Saleh and his family.
With support from EU humanitarian aid, DRC’s Shelter team in Tikrit was able to work with Saleh’s landlord and agree on a plan to rehabilitate the building in exchange for allowing vulnerable displaced Iraqis to stay in apartment units for up to 12 months for free. Upgrades ensured families would have sanitary toilet and kitchen facilities as well as safer living conditions. Saleh was even able to participate directly in the building’s rehabilitation given his previous work experience as a construction worker.
“This was good for us for two reasons,” he said. “First, we were able to earn an income and second, it motivated us and raised morale because we were working on the same building that we live in. We hope we’ll use these skills when we go back to our homes that have been damaged in the fighting.”
With the stress of finding a home over for the time being, Saleh said he now looks forward to focusing on finding work and registering his children in a local school, although nothing will replace his home back in Shirqat.
“We have received help from many organizations and each day we feel more comfortable and safe, but nothing will take the place of our old home,” he said. “When Shirqat is finally liberated, I want to return to my own home and go back to living a normal, simple life again.”