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Winter coming, displaced families fleeing Islamic State must improvise basic shelter

In cities across the north of Iraq, thousands of displaced families who have fled the Islamic State don't have even the walls of a tent. Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports from Iraq, where the approaching winter could be as deadly as the fighting, and aid agencies aren’t able to help.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now to Northern Iraq and a growing humanitarian crisis as winter approaches.

    Aid agencies there are struggling to help thousands of families who were driven from their homes over the summer as new waves of Syrian Kurd refugees arrive daily.

    Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    There is a steady stream of traffic across this border from Turkey to the Kurdish region of Iraq, freight trucks and tankers picking up oil, and in the last few days, the latest wave of refugees, Syrian Kurds from the besieged city of Kobani.

    Juma Mohammad and his family crossed through Turkey to get here. Now they finally feel safe.

  • JUMA MOHAMMAD, Syrian Kurd Refugee (through interpreter):

    We have escaped from the battle, from the hunger, everything.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Some waited for weeks for Iraq's Kurdish government to open its borders. They're not sure what's ahead. "We're going to Kurdistan. That's all I know," says Juma's son Khalil.

    The men say they will make sure their families are safe and then they will go back to Kobani to fight. But, for now, they are refugees, most with a burning hatred of the Islamic State group.

  • SABAH ABDUL RAZAK, Syrian Kurd Refugee (through interpreter):

    We left because of the women and children, to save them from those unbelievers. They act as if they are Muslim, but they are not. If Islam were like that, we would want to become Christian, I swear.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Most of them left with only what they would need for the journey or what they couldn't live without.

    For Zakur, it was his pigeons. He insisted on taking them when his family fled Kobani almost a month ago. Ali tells us his brother, who is 3, was afraid the fighters would kill the birds.

  • BOY (through interpreter):

    He kept crying. Our mother said, "Just bring them with you."

  • JANE ARRAF:

    For his parents, it hasn't been easy escaping with four children and three birds in a box.

  • KHALIL ABDUL KHADER, Syrian Kurd Refugee (through interpreter):

    I threw them away on the road from Kobani, but he went back to get them. He kept crying. I tried to leave them again and he went back to get them again. These are animals, after all, and these animals have a soul.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    The families are sent initially to overcrowded camps. There are more than 12,000 refugees from Kobani and more arriving every day. Displaced Iraqis have it even worse.

    In cities across the north of Iraq, thousands of displaced families, many from ancient religious minorities, don't have even the walls of a tent. Three months ago, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis escaped from Sinjar Mountain. They walked down into Syria and then back into Northern Iraq. Some were the only surviving members of their families. And when they got here, this construction site was the only places they found to stay.

    With winter coming, most of them are still here; 32 people live in this room. There's no heat or even mattresses, just a hard concrete floor.

  • GOZAY PISO KHALAF, Displaced Yazidi (through interpreter):

    The roof is leaking from the rain. Our kids are getting sick. We have no cooking gas or heat, nothing.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    On the higher floors, sometimes, children fall from the windows. For these kids, so recently living normal lives, school is a dream. Now they long for windows and doors that keep out the cold and for running water.

    U.N. aid agencies don't have the funding to solve this problem. The Kurdish government is in an ongoing dispute with the Iraqi government. It is struggling to pay its own bills and to buy fuel. Northwest of Mosul, residents of some villages are trying to return.

    This is near Zumar, an area captured by I.S. fighters, retaken by Iraqi Peshmerga forces, and then lost again. A lot of the villagers here have come back to find their houses looted and their livestock gone. People have come here to get bottled water and other items from aid agencies.

    Caroline Gluck is with the European Commission.

    CAROLINE GLUCK, European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection: Up until now, a lot of the attention has focused on the camps and Kurdistan region of Iraq. There are substantial unmet needs. Many communities who fled are trapped in between different zones of the conflict.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    There's still no electricity here and no clean water. But a lot of the people who fled these surrounding villages to live in schools and overcrowded shelters in the city were desperate to return.

    Just a few weeks ago, this was the front line. More and more people are coming back now. They say they don't feel entirely safe and there's not much here. But the main thing is, they're back on their land. People in the village say they're grateful for the water, but what they really need is kerosene. They're now cut off from their supply from Mosul.

    A lot of Iraq is too dangerous for even Iraqi aid agencies to operate in and much too dangerous to transport fuel.

    Badal Humda, a Syrian Kurd married to an Iraqi, has named her eldest daughter Yasmin al-Shami, Syrian Jasmine. She says she wants to thank President Obama for the airstrikes she believes have helped save their home. But many worry that this coming winter could be almost as deadly as the fighting.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tonight's "Frontline," airing on most PBS stations, focuses on the group causing the displacement we just reported on, the Islamic State.

Listen to this Segment

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