The Number of Families Fleeing War in Iraq Is ‘Staggering.’ But That’s Not the Whole Story.

A staggering 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced by war, according to the latest UN figures. To put that in perspective, that’s almost 10 percent of the entire country. It’s more than the entire population of Chicago or Paris. And that’s not counting the quarter million Syrian refugees who have fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq.

But here’s the thing you really need to know: 2.5 million of these people do NOT live in the sprawling tent cities you see on the news, with UN logos emblazoned everywhere.

Three out of every four displaced Iraqis live outside these formal refugee camps.

Many squeeze in with relatives in already crowded homes. Others drain their savings or fall into debt so they can rent whatever housing they can find—often at inflated prices.

Others take shelter in abandoned or unfinished buildings. Some live in disused shipping containers. They rely on the hospitality of strangers, hoping they’ll be allowed to stay on land that isn’t theirs, or at least that people will look the other way. But this kind of hospitality has a way of wearing thin over time—and when it does, there is little to protect displaced families from being displaced all over again.

Life in a formal refugee camp can be difficult and demoralizing, but it provides some semblance of a safety net. Most displaced Iraqis live without that safety net, without an army of NGOs to at least cushion the blow of losing everything you have.

Those who live outside the formal UN camps are no less deserving of our love than those who live in them. They deserve to be seen and remembered and loved.

Photo: @oxcreates / Jesse Oxford

These forgotten spaces that are so easy to overlook… this is where you are showing up.

It’s in war-torn Mosul, where many families were displaced from one neighborhood to the next one over as the fight pressed inward—still in a war zone, still no closer to food or clean water or medical care than they were before… this is where you’ve provided 12 million liters of water, food packs for nearly 31,000 families, and tens of thousands of consultations at eight frontline medical clinics.

It’s in an informal camp in a remote, mountainous corner of Iraq—built and maintained by the people who live here, and visited by very few NGOs… this is where you delivered truckloads of water and egg-laying chickens, so families could spend less of their time worrying about what they will eat or drink, and more of their time building new lives in the aftermath of war.

It’s in a collection of shipping containers in an open field… this is where you’re helping families who fled ISIS be more than refugees. Today they are soapmakers and shepherds, holding their heads up high. “Now we are amazing people,” one of them beamed to us during a recent visit.

This is what “going where no one else will go” is all about. It’s not a contest. It’s a commitment. When people fall through the cracks, and when those cracks turn into canyons, that is where you show up.

Show up for displaced families in overlooked places.