Watch The Barbers of Baghdad

Life in a refugee camp in Baghdad

The Virgin Mary Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Baghdad is a strange place. From above, the portacabins look like shipping containers. But up close, you immediately see that people live here. In one portacabin we meet a boy practising his violin. In another is a shop selling food and drink. Despite the evident hardships, the people here smile and have not lost their faith. We see icons, statues of saints, and graffiti on the walls proclaiming God’s love. The 130 Christian families who live here are Catholics of the Chaldean and Syriac Rite. They have been driven from their homes in the north of Iraq by ISIS and other extremist groups. 

The camp has been built by Yonadam Kanna, a longstanding Iraqi Christian MP. There are in fact five allocated seats for Christian MPs in the Iraqi Parliament. However, last year two of these seats were taken by The Babylon Brigade. Although nominally Christian, this group has strong ties to The Popular Mobilization Forces, a conglomerate of Shia militias. Some attribute The Babylon Brigade’s success at the polls to the increasing number of Shia who have moved into Christian areas since the defeat of ISIS. Indeed, it is this changing demographic that keeps many Christians in The Virgin Mary Refugee Camp from returning to their homes. 

What size is the solution?

While Christians and Shia in the north of the country are vying for land, The Virgin Mary Refugee Camp follows a different path. The camp itself is located in the predominantly Shia neighbourhood of Zayounah. The Christians are effectively surrounded by Shia and yet there is no violence. Often these camps are deliberately built in the middle of nowhere to minimise ethno-religious tensions. To see Christian and Shia in such close proximity is uncommon in these partisan times.

As we walk around the camp, to our amazement we see a group of Muslim barbers giving free haircuts to Christian men and boys. They are joking and chatting with their clients as they would in their own shops. It is bizarre and wonderfully refreshing. We also hear that Christians in the camp recently made an Iftar (Eid meal) for their Muslim neighbours. This kind of compassionate reaching out to “the other” is heartening to see. 

Iraq is a country of big problems. Because of this, some people say that only big solutions will make a difference. Western governments talk a lot about this, focusing on the macro, rarely the micro. Lofty solutions to poverty and sectarianism will be discussed at global summits. There will be lots of glossy brochures about tackling important issues. Noble statements about peace and getting along will adorn ministerial speeches. There will be a lot of strategizing in the corridors of power. But sometimes the best solutions come from below, from ordinary decent people on the ground.

A simple act of kindness

The Barbers of Baghdad (as we call them) are one such example. They are reaching out to the Christians with a simple act of kindness. Life in refugee camps is tough. People feel like second class citizens. Often their only interaction is with each other, or with aid agencies. But in The Virgin Mary Refugee Camp, would-be enemies are building peace. We pray that others will follow this extraordinary example. In the north of Iraq we are developing plans for a mini-conference designed to facilitate such peace-building there. It will focus on young people and how Government, NGOs and Religious Communities can enable a ‘generation of hope’ in this region after the trauma of ISIS. Provisionally we are calling this ‘The Hope Generation Conference’. 

How you can help 

We support effective peacebuilding in Iraq. Please make a donation, you can do so via our donate page (there are numerous options for how to donate). Alternatively, you can send us a cheque made out to ‘FRRME’ to: FRRME, PO Box 229, Petersfield, Hants, GU32 9DL, United Kingdom. 

American supporters wishing to make a donation can do so here.