In one of the newer refugee camps in the Kurdish region of Iraq, a little-known organisation has been working steadily to bring a sense of calm to the dire situation.
On a warm autumn’s evening, the members of Refugee Integration, Support and Education (Rise) prepared for their weekly movie night in the Qushtapa Syrian refugee camp, near Erbil.
The young members of the volunteer organisation spend their Saturday nights with some of the many Syrian families who have been displaced by the civil war.
Helped by enthusiastic children, organisation members set up an open-air cinema in the camp and films are played each week for the swarms of children that gather around the rustic screen. An immense red carpet is placed on the floor for them to sit on.
“Movie night is one of our most important projects. We want to reduce the boredom of the refugee kids, when they have nothing to do after sunset,” explains Amer Harky, a young Kurdish doctor who is the co-founder and president of the organisation.
Mr Harky was a refugee himself, when in 1991 his family fled from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran.
“When I was a refugee I was bored. I would have done anything to watch a cartoon. This motivated me to help the children have more fun than just walk around a dusty camp,” says Mr Harky.
In the half-lit camp, an Arabic-dubbed version of Disney’s Robin Hood begins to play. The younger children sit cross-legged, entranced by the singing fox dancing across the screen, as parents and older siblings stand to the side.
Ronak is from Qamishlo, a Kurdish city in northern Syria. She said that the refugees were thankful for the help that Rise and other organisations had given them, and that movie night, in particular, was great for the children and entertaining for the adults.
Two young women who stood on either side of Ronak explained that they were forced to leave school and university and flee Syria. This is a recurring theme among young refugees.
“We had to quit school because of the bombings,” they said.
“When the Arab Spring began we couldn’t step out of our house because it wasn’t safe outside, so coming here was the best choice. We left everything behind,” Ronak explained.
While most of the children appear to find solace in games and their imaginations, the women I spoke to said their morale was often low, because they were not allowed to leave the camp.
“We would love to go outside and work, but we can’t because of camp regulations.
“I want to work and save money, so I can have something when I go back to Syria,” Ronak explained.
Narmin, 18, lost one of her brothers to the war. She and her family arrived in Qushtapa two months ago.
“I only had five months left before I finished high school.
“I studied until the very last minute before we were forced to leave,” she said.
We talked about the war and the hardship that her family was forced to go through.
“Once you’ve been suffocated, you can only look forward to freedom,” Narmin explained.
She had a determined sparkle in her eye, and a contagious laughter; a common trait among many of the younger refugees in the camp.
“I want to continue studying, and if I can be helpful in the future to anyone who is put in this situation, I’d love to. It’s our hope to return to Syria,” she said.
The children became increasingly restless as the film drew to a close, caught in their squabbles and games, they begun to wander up to the volunteers, sparking conversation and practising their English.
An open-air cinema in an unexpected setting gives the camp’s adults a couple of hours of solace, and children a momentary distraction from the dusty roads that have become their playground.
Today there are approximately 235,000 refugees in this region, displaced by the on-going civil war that is being waged in Syria.
Sofia Barbarani is a journalist working for Bas News in Iraqi Kurdistan
On Twitter: @SofiaBarbarani