Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq

By Joan Torres 47 Comments Last updated on April 13, 2023

Visiting a Syrian refugee camp

Wanna travel to Iraq with Against the Compass?

Join a group of likeminded travelers and visit the wonders of Baghdad, Babylon, Karbala, Mosul, and more

Oct 29th to Nov 5th, 2023

One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done while traveling was visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq and being able to help improve (even if it was just by a small amount) the situation of those suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in our history.

The camp I went to is called Darashakran and it’s about 40km north of the Kurdish capital, Erbil. There are several refugee camps around Erbil.

All of them have been going since pretty much of the beginning of the Syrian War.

Over 50,000 Syrian refugees (a mix of Sunnis and Kurds) live in Darashakran camp and its population has been increasing constantly since it was set up four years ago. Yeah, it is fucking crazy. The camp is like a small city.

Darashakran, a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq

Bringing toys for the Syrian children

Read about my experience visiting Mosul

The objective of going to a refugee camp was not only to find out how refugees do actually live, but I also wanted to provide them with any kind of food or supplies which might be useful to them.

Unfortunately, a refugee camp in Iraq does not receive a lot of attention. War and misery happen all across Iraq, therefore local Iraqis have too many things to worry about…

According to a local Kurd I met, most of the help they receive comes from the Kurdish Government and it is mainly to satisfy primary needs: pasta, rice or milk. Bringing them food would be very helpful indeed!

But I talked to several locals and they told me that, if I wanted to do something different, I could buy toys for the children. Why? Because they barely have any and for sure that would make them feel very happy. I found it to be an awesome idea!

Therefore, before heading to the camp, I stopped at Erbil’s main bazaar and bought two bags full of 30 different toys.

Read: Places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan: a 2-week itinerary 

Buying toys for the children at Erbil’s main bazaar

The way to the camp and my new Syrian friend

The only way to get to the refugee camp is by car. Shafia, who was the receptionist of the hotel I stayed at, introduced me to a friend of hers who could actually take me to the camp by car.

His name was Blend and he was a young guy who turned out to be Syrian as well.

On our way to the camp, I got to know many interesting things about Blend. He told me that he moved from Syria to Iraq with his family about 10 years ago in order to find better opportunities.

Nowadays, his father is the Minister of Agriculture in Kurdistan. This is what he claims at least.

One interesting thing I learnt from my trip to Iraq is that the massive Syrian influx is not something new which began with the current war, but it has been happening for over a decade.

All because of the dictatorial regime lead by Bashar Al Assad.

Accompanying this interesting conversation was the Iraqi Kurdistan road to the camp which was beautiful. It was a pleasant one hour drive. The sun was shining over green fields and plantations of wheat and young shepherds were wandering around them with their sheep.

A young Iraqi shepherd
A young Iraqi shepherd

Getting inside the Syrian refugee camp

The camp was huge. Much bigger than I could ever expect and it was fully militarized by local peshmergas (Kurdish soldiers) who were preserving the Syrians’ safety.

At the camp entrance there was a checkpoint but, thanks to Blend, I didn’t experience any sort of trouble. He basically said that I came to bring toys for the children so I was more than welcome.

Once inside the camp, we just pulled over the car, got down, went on the side of the street with all the toys and offered a toy to a Syrian girl who was passing by. Shyly, she took it and went quickly to her mom.

Consequently, a few other kids also slowly approached me and shyly picked up a toy.

Everything was going very smoothly but in a matter of 30 seconds everybody started to realize what was happening and a massive bunch of people came to me asking desperately for a toy.

In the first instance, they were just asking me if I could please give them a toy but in the end they just grabbed all of them out of my hands. I ran out of everything in less than a minute and many people were still asking me for more.

‘’Shit… I should have bought more’’. That’s what I thought, but anyways, I think it would have been the same.

Visiting a Syrian refugee camp
Stage 1: Some kids approaching me shyly
Stage 2: More and more people approach me
Stage 3: Things are getting slightly crazy
Stage 4: Nothing left…

But anyhow… It was great and when everyone left, a couple of moms came to me and showed me their gratitude with a very honest smile.

Truly, I can’t describe how I felt at this precise moment but, without any doubt, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

They also wanted to invite us for food but I don’t know… I felt sorry about it. Kindly, I refused the invitation but I did accept some tea in exchange.

Me & Blend

Life in a Syrian refugee camp

It was time now to walk around the camp and to check how life is over there. As I mentioned before, the camp is huge. It is like a small city, but not only in terms of size but also from a social point of view.

Since the camp has been set up for over 4 years, refugees have already built shops, a school, a mosque and other services. They no longer live in tents but they have built their own solid houses with materials provided by the Kurdish government.

Refugees building their new houses
Refugees building their new houses
Syrian refugees doing their daily tasks
Syrian refugees doing their daily tasks

Yeah, it seems that Syrians have started a new life over there. But, honestly speaking, the camp conditions were as bad as I could had imagined. It was really sad. Dirty streets, dust everywhere, poor hygiene…

Not much more to say about it. Fortunately, I wanted to highlight that Unicef Iraq is involved in providing a water supply and medical services to the camp.

A Syrian refugee camp
The streets of Darashakran

Lots of children and lots of men in suits

There were two things which I didn’t expect and surprised me so much. One of them was the huge number children that were living in the camp and who were the largest part of the population. Seriously, there were children everywhere.

The second and even more surprising one was to see all these men dressed in suits. Then I recalled that many of these refugees are people with a high level of education, from engineers to lawyers, who belonged to the middle class in Syria.

These people had jobs in their home country and of course wore suits occasionally, which they brought to Iraq along with all their other clothes.

Some refugee kids
Some refugee kids

The true story about a Syrian refugee

It was already time to leave. We had spent the whole afternoon and part of the evening walking around.

Once we had said goodbye to everyone, Blend took me to another refugee camp which had one peculiarity versus the rest of the camps: it was a camp for rich Syrian refugees only.

Can you believe it?

Syrian refugees in Iraq
Blend and his Syrian refugee friends

It was a totally different concept of a refugee camp, as they were all living in relatively nice villas and had kind of good cars. Blend took me there because his first cousin was living there as a refugee, together with his family.

We went to his house and they invited me to have shisha and drink tea. I really wanted to ask his cousin how did everything start and how did he end up in Iraq. He explained to me that he was from a beautiful village in the eastern part of Syria. One day, the Islamic State took over the village.

They had two choices. Either submitting to their rules or leaving. That was the only story…

Read More Travel Stories

Also check our travel guides to Iraq.

Syrian refugee camp Iraq


Wow~ What a story! It’s interesting that two refugee camps can be so opposite. It looks like you brightened the spirit of the people you visited. It’s reassuring that Unicef is present with drinking water and other supplies. It’s also nice to know there are people like you out there making a difference. Kudos to you for stepping out and bringing a smile or two to some faces that needed one.

Hi Sara, thank you so much for your comment. In fact, there are not only 2 types of camps but there are many. Around the capital of Erbil, in addition to these two camps, there was also one camp for Christians and one for Shia Muslims. There are so many refugees that they can actually make one camp for each kind of religion and social level. It’s really hard to see…

Thankyou for sharing your experiences here. I think the problem with our world is that we’re too easily distracted from remembering about crisis’ like these if they don’t directly affect us. Which is sad because the refugee crisis is such a huge humanitarian issue, and I feel that if people could actually put a face to a refugee, see just how many children are running around in the dirt streets, and see that these refugees are just everyday people like you and me, we would do more in the fight to help them. So thankyou for helping to spread awareness and keep the cause alive worldwide.

Hi Megan, thank you for your kind comment. Yes, and when people (both politicians and civilians) start claiming and saying comments like: ”Refugees go home”, it drives me f*** sick. Plus, they are ignorants because during the 2WW, the number of European refugees asking for asylum was even higher. Either they are selfish or ignorant

Absolutely beautiful story. It must have been such a sweet and sour experience giving those toys out – juts wishing you had more to give. But you really did a commendable thing by asking what they needed before just giving whatever. It’s so interesting to think that the children are the majority, living here. Keep on helping out and posting these awesome articles.

It’s known that in most of the third world countries families tend to have several children. Besides, these people don’t believe in condoms or anything like that, so women get pregnant all the time. That also makes us come to the conclusion that children are the most affected by the Syrian war

So much more to know but thank you for venturing into the camps and illuminating some of the conditions. I hope that the people find work and freedom soon.

First of all kudos to you for even planning such a courageous feat. It is important to be there and bring their story forward for all the world. With changing world order, such refugee camps will be a frequent affair and we need to address the real issues which can only be done if independent ppl like you visit such camps. Thanks.

Hello Himanshu, thank you for your kind reply! You are absolutely right! in fact, I have a friend from back home who runs an NGO. She basically tries to raise funds for the Syrian refugees who are living in different camps in Europe. When I came back from Iraq, I told her is she could send all the aid to this camp. We tried to do it so, but it was impossible. Sending anything to Iraq requires a lot of paperwork as well as paying loads of fees. Unfortunately, the camps of Iraq can’t receive as much help as the ones in Europe 🙁

Wow–what an experience. I can’t believe the camp has been there for over four years already and how many people live there, especially children. It is sad how bad the conditions are and how easily places like this can be to forget about. It’s great that you were able to give toys to the children and spread a bit of joy! Thank you for sharing and raising awareness.

I would love to visit Darashakran as well and spend the time with the refugees. This experience of yours is for sure one of the most memorable one. Continue to inspire others! cheers! xx

Hi, well done for all the things you did. xxx i would like to go and i dont know where to start from. Do i need any permission from anywhere? Please give me some information…

All the best for doing a great kindness to them.on behalf as a muslim,Alhamdulila..thank you for your great adventures..take care.Enjoying reading your experiences.

What a great things is done by you in the form of providing supports to the refugees who belong to siria and settled in #Iraq. Keep doing such a nice work.

Travel seems like going to glamorous places and eating great food. Here you show that travel can mean learning about poverty and helping out. I’m sure the kids loved their new toys!

Wow~ What a story! It’s intriguing that two displaced person camps can be so inverse. It would appear that you lit up the soul of the general population you went to. It’s consoling that UNICEF is available with drinking water and different supplies. It’s likewise pleasant to know there are individuals like you out there having any kind of effect. Praise to you for venturing out and conveying a grin or two to a few faces that required one.
nice work…..

Thank you for writing about this! I am interested in the different NGO’s working within these camps and if they are looking for volunteers. I would like to volunteer. Thank you in advance for any information!

Hi Alissa, I visited the camp as a random traveler, independently, with a local who I met and also was his first time to enter the camp. I don’t know about any NGO, so I can’t help you with that. I suggest you contact Unicef Iraq, as they are the ones managing the camp. Thanks,

Hi Joan !
What an amazing story ! We want to promote you in our first post at “Best of travel blogs”
I’ll get in touch via email 😉

Hey, this is an old post, but I just found this site.

Visiting a Syrian refugee is exactly what I was looking to do sometime this summer…. I want to get connected with blend. I have friends that’s done this with groups, but I’m more so a solo traveler, that’s how I stumbled across this post.

Please connect with me via email

Hi, what a wonderful and interesting blog post you have written! Could you please get me in touch with Blend? I would be very interested in volunteering summer 2019!

Wow, this story really really moved me. Thanks so much for sharing it.
I’m actually considering going to Kurdistan myself, and I would love to visit a refugee camp. Could you please put me in touch with Blend? I would greatly appreciate it!

Hi Anna, sorry but when I went back to Kurdistan this last spring, Blend had a full-time job now, he is very busy and I kinda lost his contact anyways. Actually, I just removed the last sentence from the article. If you really wanna go there, I recommend you contact people on Couchsurfing, a local guide or the hotel you stay at. Good luck!

Nice article and action! Do they speak arabic in those camps? Also, I’m going to Kurdistan next month and would love to visit it or even volunteering there for a few weeks with an NGO or something. Any idea how I could do it? Thanks!

I am guessing you will not publish this comment but leaving it at least for you… A refugee camp is not a zoo. Have you ever tried to imagine yourself in the position of the people living there, witnessing a tourist coming to take pictures and pretending s/he is helping because s/he brings bags of toys? I would feel offended.
They are plenty of other ways to make yourself helpful, in more efficient, ethical and long-term solutions oriented than imagining you are helpful when you are just helping yourself and growing your ego by publishing such stories that advocate for tourism of the suffering.
Let’s please think and behave ethically with a real goal of caring and acting sustainably.

That’s the dumbest thing I have ever read about visiting Darashakran Refugee Camp. First of all, you don’t just walk in; you have to have all sorts of letters and permissions and even then, you are monitored at all times. Secondly, giving cheap plastic toys to kids that need structure, hygiene, clothes, games and mental stimulation? Bring footballs, tennis balls, sewing kits, crafts, anything but more things that turn to garbage. Thirdly, how can you endorse any NGO receiving millions of dollars to fund these camps after seeing the conditions in which people live. All the money flowing through these camps gets caught up in some pockets that don’t need it. Refugee camps are not made for “beautiful” disaster tourism. They are abhorrent and a waste of time, money and potential. What’s needed is amnesty, work programs, integration into host countries and real housing.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *