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In late September, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) invited me to document their work in Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Run by the UNHCR, Domiz is home to over 40,000 mostly Kurdish Syrian refugees. Over five days, I drew MSF’s maternity clinic, where they helped 660 mothers give birth in the first half of 2015, as well as their mental health groups and community outreach. As I worked, the Syrian refugee crisis dominated the news. Countless refugees would start their journeys in Domiz. In collaboration with MSF, I drew portraits of some of these families.
After a day in Domiz, its easy to see why most residents longed to leave. Refugees live mostly in tents or cinderblock shacks (though I saw one made solely of tin). Schools are overcrowded and limited. What few jobs exist pay little. Due to funding shortfalls, food rations given by NGOs have been slashed. Yet those who lived there did their best. Some grew gardens. One man I met ran a business faux-finishing the shacks to look like stone. In the dust, a wide variety of shops blossomed: wedding dress rentals, satellite dish repair shops, cafes offering massive portions of hummus. The woman running a tiny convenience shop refused to let me pay for a bottle of water. It was a hot day, she said. When power fails, as it does six hours a day, the heat can drive one to madness.
Those who live in Domiz may have been born in villages in the Kurdish parts of Syria, but many of them spent their adulthoods in the great cities of Aleppo and Damascus. I met an aeronautics engineer and the former owner of a chain of souvenir shops, a high-end waiter and a graphic designer who built a small studio in which he painted women representing Kurdish freedom. Countless doctors, nurses, and community health workers at MSF were themselves Syrian refugees.
I visited eight families who were planning to make the trip to Europe. Though each of their stories were different, each of these visits began the same. A young person would brew us coffee, served in frail, lovely cups. One of the parents would say they’d made the decision to leave. They knew the risks. They read the news of course —some had neighbors who had drowned in the Aegean. They’d tell stories of selling all their possessions to afford the smugglers fees, of following cousins across Europe via messages on WhatsApp, of asylum applications, of daughters who wanted to be doctors and sons who missed their soccer teams in Qamishlo.
For all its legal importance, refugee is a flattening word. It strips individuality away, bearing instead images of the huddled, weeping mass. Refugee evokes pity, and pity is a corrosive thing. In her essay, “We Refugees,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “We fight like madmen for private existences with individual destinies.” Arendt, a refugee from the Nazis, knew of what she spoke.
When these families decided to take the trip to Europe, they were choosing many things, but one was an individual destiny. They would not wait passively in a tent for geopolitics to decide their fate. They would take matters into their own hands. Theirs was a longing to live.
I asked one woman what she would bring with her to Europe. She looked at me, smirking slightly at my thickness.
“As a souvenir,” I asked. “To remember.”
“I left all my memories in Syria,” she answered.