NOWHERE TO GO

Photos: An abandoned school in Iraq has become a city of refugees

Displaced by war and unable to find room in overcrowded refugee camps, Iraq’s Yazidis are increasingly taking shelter in abandoned buildings. Living in the concrete skeletons of unfinished structures and shielded from the rain by little more than a patchwork of tarps, countless families from this embattled ethnic minority struggle daily for access to clean water and basic services.

In Sharya, Iraq, where a refugee camp of 17,000 is filled to capacity, displaced Yazidi families can be found living throughout the ruined town, occupying everything from handmade structures to a large school building that was never completed. At least 500 people now live in the school, whose owner is rumored to have fled to Europe.

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One of many ad-hoc homes inside the abandoned school. (Diego Cupolo)

These scenes of despair are a result of the 2014 ISIL occupation of Iraq’s Sinjar area, the ancestral homeland of Yazidis. Overnight, nearly 200,000 members of this religious minority fled as the Islamic State conducted mass executions. Thousands of hostage young women have been forced into sexual slavery.

Though ISIL has since been pushed out of much of the area, heavy bombing rendered most towns and cities uninhabitable. Now, faced with closing migration routes to Europe and no place to go, the Middle East’s most vulnerable people have turned to squatting as a means for survival in a country where many feel they can no longer trust their neighbors.

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Abas Sarnan and Sevy Khider, take care of three-year old Shanas, after her parents were killed during the ISIL occupation of Sinjar. “Her parents were our neighbors,” Abas Sarnan (right) said. “We try to help, but we don’t have any clothes for her and don’t know if can afford sending her to school.” (Diego Cupolo)
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Hussin Namat, a 70-year-old man (with and without his family), who has been living in a hand-built structure outside the Sharya Refugee Camp for more than one year. “Every day we sit here and do nothing,” he said. “We think about our relatives who are still in ISIL captivity and nothing else.” (Diego Cupolo)
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Outside the unfinished school, where at least 500 Yazidis have taken shelter in a raw, concrete structure. (Diego Cupolo)
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Often denied access to schools, Yazidi children pass the days playing near an abandoned house their families have occupied. (Diego Cupolo)
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Children play with metal beams of reinforced concrete on an unfinished rooftop. (Diego Cupolo)
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“We will only go back to Sinjar if the Iraqi government reclaims Mosul and destroys ISIL. Until that happens, we will stay here,” said Khuder Kanan, the 54-year-old father of Rosa. (Diego Cupolo)
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The unfinished school where at least 500 Yazidis have taken shelter. (Diego Cupolo)
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Rosa Kanan, a 19-year-old medical student, studies in the hallways of the unfinished school. “The children are always making noise and it’s hard to concentrate on my homework, but what else can I do?” asked Kanan. (Diego Cupolo)
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Children walk in front of a cluster of tents inhabited by Yazidis. In the background, the school building is visible. (Diego Cupolo)
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A family poses in front of tents they pitched inside an unfinished structure. They said they tried to bribe officials to get into the refugee camp, but were denied entry. (Diego Cupolo)
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