by Nikki Gamer, communications officer for Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
Wesal Badel’s home used to feel more like a cave than a house. It was made of clay and there were no windows for light or ventilation and the lack of a front door meant snakes and scorpions often found their way in.
The house is in Rekava, about 25 miles south of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Wesal and her family fled there in 2014, escaping from Sinjar, about 100 miles west of Mosul, just as ISIS closed in.
With its rough grey walls, cement floor and high ceilings, the house is anything but cozy. A handful of thin mats, which the family sleeps on, are stacked against a wall during the day so they have space to move about.
Wesal, along with her three-year-old son Mazen and her husband, sought refuge in one of the myriad unfinished concrete houses that dot the Iraqi landscape. Construction of the government-subsidised homes began during an economic growth spurt, but they were left unfinished when the economy dipped. The houses, averaging four rooms each, are mere skeletons that lack even the most basic components: windows, doors and running water.
But since winter 2014, Caritas and CRS (a US member of Caritas) have upgraded more than 1,000 unfinished houses with doors and windows, allowing air to circulate in the boiling heat and keep animals out. When necessary, teams install partitions inside to provide more privacy.
“When the doors and windows were installed we felt safe to live here,” Wesal says. “Before there was nothing. It was like a ghost house.”
“Most people prefer the unfinished houses to the conditions in the camps,” explains Adel Khudhur, a CRS Iraq project manager and civil engineer who works on the shelter project.
Caritas/CRS has also facilitated agreements between local governments and homeowners to allow displaced families to live rent free for at least 2 years in exchange for the upgrades.
In addition to making the shelter improvements, Caritas/CRS are installing water spouts, toilets, septic tanks and showers in the homes.
More than 80% of displaced Iraqis are believed to be living outside of organized camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. The unfinished buildings house tens of thousands of people, with up to 35 people living in one single-family dwelling. In fact, multiple families occupy each of the 1,000 houses that CRS has upgraded. Each family occupies one room.