Nearly 240,000 Syrian refugees live in Iraq, having fled the crisis in Syria. Although Iraq is experiencing mass displacement created by its own deadly conflict, life there is becoming more and more permanent for displaced Syrians, as they see sieges and death enduring in their country.
In 2016, five years into the conflict, a group of female Syrian refugees came together and set up the Jeenda Sweet Factory in Domiz Camp, Iraq.
Most of the women involved are the heads of their households and can now provide for their young families for the first time since fleeing Syria.
Domiz camp, in Dohuk governorate, is the biggest refugee camp for Syrians in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It was established in 2012 to accommodate the influx of Syrian refugees. The camp has 5165 shelters, which are occupied by 5,477 families (13,383 men, 12,848 women, 4,415 children of which 173 are orphans). There are 535 female-headed households in the camp.
Hazni is from Derke, a Syrian town located near the border with Iraq. At the age of 16, she married Abdulhamid and moved to Damascus. Now a 27-year-old mother of two, Hazni lives in Domiz Camp, where she and her two children share a room built of aluminum with only a sheet of iron as a roof.
While pregnant with her second son, Ayas, the increasingly dangerous situation in Damascus forced Hanzi and her family to move back to her hometown of Derke. Soon after they arrived, the situation there quickly deteriorated.
In September 2012, Hazni and Abdulhamid with their young family fled to the Kurdistan region of Iraq seeking safety for their children. They were followed by nearly every member of their extended family, as their lives too were under grave threat had they stayed.
In Syria, Hazni had been finishing her high school education and her husband had been running a small grocery store. When they had first crossed the border they had thought the asylum that they were seeking in Iraq would be temporary. But as the conflict drags on in Syria, so does the stay of Hazni and her family and that of many others in Iraq.
“I was crying day and night; not knowing what I was going to do and how long I would stay here. It was so hard for me to accept living in the camp inside a tent”
To cope with life in the camp, Hazni threw all her energy into taking care of her family. Despite having skills in finance and trading, Abdulhamid started working as a day labourer on construction sites. His daily wages were not enough to support the family.
Hazni's stepparents had given her some gold as a wedding gift. She sold the gold, her only remaining material wealth, to be able to afford to move her family from a tent offering little shelter to their current accommodation.
In 2016, as part of livelihood and women's empowerment programmes in the camp, Hazni, along with other female Syrian refugees, started learning catering and baking skills. Hazni's motivation and commitment made her a perfect candidate for the programme.
"I am not sure that we have a future left in Syria so we have had to establish our lives here."
Asmar and her seven children live together in small room put together with aluminum and plastic in Domiz Camp. Asmar's husband is completely paralyzed and is still in Syria, where he is receiving medical treatment.
Having no income, 37-year-old Asmar, was struggling to support her family. There was a time when she was selling her furniture piece by piece in order to feed her children.
Asmar's eldest son, 15-year-old Kamil, has medical problems related to his growth. His body size and strength is more like that of a ten-year-old. Asmar had been told that Kamil needs extensive long-term treatment, which it very expensive. As much as she wanted and tried, this was not something she would be able to provide.
Last year, Asmar started building up her baking and business skills, and became a part of the all female team setting up the Jeena Sweet Factory. For the first time since she left Syria, she is able to maintain a stable income for her children and has high hopes for their future.
Displacement in Domiz camp is not Zirga’s biggest problem, seeing her son suffer every day from the extensive injuries he sustained when kidnapped by ISIL, is. He cannot move his lower body and so cannot walk.
The 37-year-old mother of five's dream is to make life easier for her children. With big hopes, Zirga starting making Kurdish and Arabic sweets loved by Syrian, Iraqis and Turks. She is now one of the women running the Jeena Sweet Factory and her cement brick dream is becoming closer to reality.
"I have started having hopes again. Hopes of repairing the damage and starting again."
Like Hazni, Jiyan was born in Derke and moved to Damacus when she got married ten years ago. War was one of the 28-year-old and mother of two's biggest fears.
When the conflict broke out, Jiyan saw young girls being forced to go and fight, with no parental consent and no age limit. She was scared that she or her daughters might be forced against their will to align with a political group and fight.
After a year of war, Jiyan fled Syria with her family. Her husband became very ill and was diagnosed with cancer around the time of their one year anniversary of living in Domiz camp. Since they could not afford treatment in Iraq, they had no choice but to return to Syria.
Jiyan's husband died in March 2014. Dictated by a traditional view of preserving a widow's reputation, Jiyan's in-laws forced her to stay in Syria with her two children. With the enduring conflict, life was extremely difficult. Jiyan could not stop thinking about her own parents, who were living back in Domiz camp. Wanting to be close to her parents increased the tension between Jiyan and her husband's family.
Jiyan's father-in-law forced her to leave but without her children. Jiyan's daughter was unable to cope with the arrangement and was eventually sent to be with her mother in Iraq. The 6-year-old girl is still dealing with severe depression induced by her father's death and separation from her mother.
“My daughter doesn't let anybody take pictures of her. She has no friends at school, always quiet and sad. This makes me feel worse day after day. I took her to a psychiatrist but we haven’t seen any improvement in her condition.
Everyday, I also think about my son, who is far away from me, and it weakens my soul."
“The sweet factory is opening a new door for me. I have beliefs in it hoping that I can manage a business that would ensure my children's future.”
Jiyan is hoping she will have custody of all her five children and be able to support them soon.
The Jeenda Sweet Factory was renovated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to support the Syrian community in northern Iraq.
The sweet factory is one of six business associations that have been established under the Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan funded by the Government of Japan.
As a part of this project, ten female Syrian refugees (mostly heads of households) were trained in sweet and pastry making and baking, as well as in business, arming them with the skills to run the Jenna Sweet Factory.