What can we do? (5/6), by Laurent Gaudé

Country : Irak

Tags : Refugees, Literature, Kurdistan

The fifth chapter of Laurent Gaudé’s travel journal from the Kawergosk refugee camp - in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kawergosk is a closed camp. In order to get in each day we have to go through three check points before we can park the car. On the other hand, the refugees cannot get out without obtaining authorisation. For now the Kurdistan authorities have decided to grant only one authorisation per family. So the father or the eldest son goes out every morning in search of work outside the camp. The women, though, are captives. It seems realistic to hope that eventually comings and goings will be easier. There are other camps in Kurdistan, such as Domiz which is further north; it is home to approximately 50,000 people and its refugees’ movement are not restricted. But Kawergosk Camp has only been in existence for three months, and the authorities want to set things up in an atmosphere of calm. All the same, this reality is terribly difficult to cope with for the Kawergosk refugees. In addition to their sense of rootlessness and their day-to-day anxieties, they feel like prisoners. No one knows how long this situation will last, how many weeks, months or years they will have to live here. For the women the days are long and all very much alike. Just a succession of basic, essential actions, as if that is all there is to life: getting up, waiting, eating, going to bed, getting up, waiting, eating, going to bed and so on... It is enough to drive them mad. “If I knew the way home, I’d leave immediately,” says one sad, exhausted looking young woman we meet. We look at her: she is wearing a t-shirt and flip-flops despite the cold, but we know she means what she says, and nothing would stop her leaving if only she could.

Everyone in the camp asks the same question: What can we do? How can we fill our days? Right from the start, man’s ingenuity went to work. One cold sunny day I see some bread left to dry on a sheet of canvas outside a tent. It rained the day before so I wonder whether this is some poor family trying to salvage its bread after the tent flooded.  But I find little piles of bread drying up down every alley. In the end I ask someone, and the refugees explain that they dry any surplus from the bread that is handed out, then they can sell it for a few dinars to the shepherd who lives in the middle of the camp and needs to feed his flock. A paltry little trade, but it makes you want to weep at man’s capacity to cling on, fight his way, come up with solutions, barter, earn a little something… his capacity to improve what is left of his life.

 "In this vast camp where everything is monotonous and the cold is overwhelming, Farhed’s humble little restaurant warms the heart because it is a demonstration of man’s ingenuity at work"


At first glance, all the refugees in Kawergosk appear to share the same sorry fate, but we quickly realise all things are not equal in this small town. The prospects are very different for those who can go out and those who cannot. For those who have family or other contacts in Irbil and those who do not. For those who have some savings and those who do not. And lastly, for those who are resourceful and those who are not. On the day we first arrived here we ate lunch at the camp. There is only one place to do this. It is not really a restaurant, just an adapted tent with three plastic tables and few chairs inside. The owner of this establishment is called Farhed. The food is good. Chawarma which warms up our fingers, and Kurdish tea served with a smile. Intrigued by the place, I ask Farhed to tell me his story. When he came to the camp he had just 100 dollars. He spent it all buying up cigarettes which he then sold at a profit. Afterwards he bought a stock of mobile phone batteries, and also sold them well. Then he was the first to open a little grocery in the camp. A few crates of tomatoes, some biscuits, onions... He staked everything an reinvested everything all over again every time. He succeeded in guessing and anticipating the camp’s needs every time. He is the only person running a restaurant in Kawergosk. There are bound to be others soon but by then he will already have moved on. The last we heard, he has apparently set up a shop for making ID photographs, an important service because refugees need photos for all the papers they keep having to produce… The only word I can think of to describe Farhed is resourceful but that could sound patronising. And is not right for him. He has a gift. A knack for business. Always adapting. With an inbuilt capacity not to admit defeat but to build things, small things at first, that grow progressively bigger. Farhed has a knack for life. I cannot help thinking that in the United States he would be one of those legendary figures who succeeds in building an empire in the space of lifetime when he started out selling ice-creams or picking up litter. In this vast camp where everything is monotonous and the cold is overwhelming, Farhed’s humble little restaurant warms the heart because it is a demonstration of man’s ingenuity at work. Even in hell you can buy and sell cigarettes… 


You can meet Farhed in our newsgame...

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Last modification the 31 December 2017