Interview | Jeremy Barker, Director of RFI Middle East Action Team, interviews Nemam Ghafouri, Founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan

May 1, 2020

Jeremy Barker, Director of RFI Middle East Action Team, interviews Nemam Ghafouri, Founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan, about impacts of COVID-19 on their efforts.

This interview is part of a series of short interviews seeking to understand the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East, giving particular attention to vulnerable communities such as refugees, internally displaced persons, and religious minorities.

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri: is founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan, a non-profit organization formed in August 2014 to assist victims of ISIS genocide in Iraq. They have been working among displaced and refugee communities in Iraq and Syria. 

She joined Jeremy Barker, Director, Middle East Action Team to discuss the impact of COVID-19 in Iraq on April 23, 2020.

Related Resources:

Joint Help for Kurdistan:

Joint NGO Statement Highlights Health and Security Risks from COVID-19 Crisis for Vulnerable Iraqi Communities (Jeremy Barker, April 16, 2020), RFI Blog,

Syria’s Kurdish-led region decries lack of international support in COVID-19 fight (Amberin Zaman, April 20, 2020), Al-Monitor,

Guidance Note: Protecting Vulnerable Religious Minorities in Conflict and Crisis Settings, (RFI, 2020):


*Transcript has been auto-generated and lightly edited for clarity though errors may still be present.

Jeremy Barker: Hello I’m Jeremy Barker the director of the Middle East Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute. The mission of the Religious Freedom Institute is to achieve a broad acceptance of religious liberty as a fundamental human right, the cornerstone of a successful society, and a valuable contributor to national and international security. 

Today I have joining me from Erbil, Dr. Nemam Ghafouri, the founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan, a nonprofit organization working in Iraq and Syria with local doctors, nurses, as well as volunteers from all around the world. Joint Help was started in August 2014 in response to the genocide that had happened in Iraq and continues to work with refugees and internally displaced people in the region. So Dr. Ghafouri thank you so much for joining me today from Erbil. 

Nemam Ghafouri: Thank you for having me. 

Jeremy Barker: It’s our privilege. So in this series of interviews we’re just trying to understand better the impact of this COVID-19 crisis on different communities across the Middle East. 

So from your experience these last few weeks in the north of Iraq, how has the COVID-19 crisis impacted Iraq over these past few weeks? 

Nemam Ghafouri: Actually it’s like… Hmm, what can I say? It’s like a coin, it has got two sides. In one side when because of the lockdown and total curfew it made it possible to have greater control over COVID-19, and in the past seven days in the whole region there hasn’t been any new cases. And also in Erbil and Sulemani area in the past two-three days, there haven’t been any cases. In total in the Kurdistan region there have been 337, only four deaths and there are only 20-22 people who are still in the hospital and not recovered. So in that sense it has been really, really good. 

But at the same time for people it has been a disaster because, especially for those who are still living in the camps you know. In the whole region we have 21 camps; four are for refugees from Syria and the rest are for IDPs, internally displaced people, especially for Yazidis. Because still, till today, we have more than 300,000 Yazidis who are still living in the camps. These people, they don’t have any income. Most of them are very dependent on agriculture at this time of the year, to go and work as an employee for those who have big lands, or to rent a piece of land and start – you know – planting vegetables and whatever it’s the kind of seeds for the year. So they have an income, but this all has been stopped because of the Corona and at the same time, because of total lockdown between Kurdistan Region and South Iraq and also Shingal. So people have been separated from their families and even this has been really pressuring many people, because there have been families who left to Shingal for taking back their dead one – because they don’t want to have any graveyard in Kurdistan – they will take them back to Shingal, especially to Shafirdin area. And they have been stuck and their children are still in the cap so it has affected them in a very bad way. And on top of this, except for the lockdown and prohibition of coming out, there hasn’t been done anything for the camps, you know?

Jeremy Barker: Yeah.

Nemam Ghafouri: A couple of the examples: three four weeks ago, because of doli… doli – sorry doli is swedish. Because of bad cables and thunder and rain, so we had fires in 8 tents. Which, each tent is divided between two families. And they were totally, you know, burnt down to ashes. And it was really dangerous because many of these people- they are working either as Peshmerga or police or as a soldier in Iraqi army and they bring back with them their weapon to the tent. So that night it was really like a frontline. It was a miracle nobody… nobody was injured. 

Until today they haven’t repaired those tents and the families in those pants are living with other already overcrowded, you know, relatives in the camp. And when you say “COVID-19: you ha
ve to have the distance,” this does not exist in the camp.

Jeremy Barker: Yeah.

Nemam Ghafouri: So, there hasn’t been any planning or any prevention more than, you know, just the recommendation that is told. But it’s not implementable in the camp where you have a family of 10 or 15 under one tent which is only 3 by 4 meters. 

Jeremy Barker: Yeah. That’s a reality of just the really challenging situation these communities face. How has this impacted the behaviors or practices for these communities? For the Yazidi in particular this was the time of the New Year which is both a cultural and a religious festival. So how have behaviors or practices changed in these last few weeks? 

Nemam Ghafouri: I must say I was really impressed and surprised by, you know, the great response that these people did and really respected the danger of COVID-19. So they were really sad and also in general what I have seen: they are more depressed than before. And their hopelessness, it’s even worse now than before. It’s like, you know, that there is no way back, no way forward, you know? 

In March we had three suicides. One of them- a young 19 years old girl in my camp and the other two we knew them also, but it was in another camp. And already now, in April, we have had four suicides among these people. So it has affected mentally, in a really stressful situation. At the same time they have followed you know the instructions and despite the difficult situation under the tent, they have kept themselves actually under the tent. And in the new year, which was Charshamba Suri , last Wednesday, hardly anybody was out in the camps. 

Jeremy Barker: Yeah and I think you’ve done a good job of highlighting that this COVID-19 crisis it’s not just a public health issue but it’s had economic impacts, it’s had mental health impacts on these communities and so we have to look at all of those different dimensions as we consider how we respond to that. 

Nemam Ghafouri: I would like to add one more thing. Instead of, you know, thinking about the people, the Iraqi Migration and Displacement Ministry, for three times in a row they have sent, you know, poisonous food to the camp. I have filmed the food packages- there are rats in them or they are half eaten by rats. You know, so instead of being more taking care of people in that situation when they don’t have food to eat, when they don’t have money to buy, when they cannot go out anywhere, on the top of everything they have been given you know polluted food packages which was either half-eaten by rats or there was live rats in them. 

Jeremy Barker: Wow. Well, that brings me, I think in a really sad way to this last question. What are the things that local governments, NGOs, and international organizations can be doing to more effectively help these communities during the crisis?

Nemam Ghafouri: I think there is only one thing that could be, you know, effective and this is the donors. Donors who are giving support to Iraqi government to help these people or donors who are giving money to you UN and WHO to help these people, to make it conditional, you know? Because nobody knows where these money are going, you know. If you look in the past six years – what a huge amount of money have been sent to Iraq to help these IDPs and refugees – by this you would have rebuilt the entire Iraq by now.  Where did all the money went, you know?

For our organization, if people are giving me $1 or $10 or thousand dollars they always ask me for receipts, for documentation. And I don’t understand why for the big organizations it’s not the same. 

Jeremy Barker: Yeah, I think that leads to this important point of accountability and not measuring things only by the dollar amount spent, but on the outcomes for the people involved. And that’s what humanitarian assistance is really directed to, is people and improving their outcomes.  

Well thank you so much for joining me today from Erbil. Any last points that you would like to highlight? 

Nemam Ghafouri: Well, yes and it’s about the women, you know. I’m sure that you have read in developed countries and in Europe and North America. Due to COVID-19 we have seen more violence at home, you know, domestic violence. So imagine if in developed countries its like that, where people are living in normal houses, you know – or at least compared to the camp in a better situation – in the camps it’s even worse. On the top of this, for IDPs and for Yazidi women it’s double worse because they are survivors. They have very much difficulties in many ways mentally, psychologically, and physically and this COVID-19 has been much, much, much bigger burden on them because they haven’t been able even to make a phone call with some privacy. They are not even, you know, given this chance. So thinking about the women and their situation – in a closed in a situation as under the lockdown of COVID-19 –  it has been my priority number one all the time, during this time and this should be for any others also. 

Jeremy Barker: Absolutely, thank you so much. Thank you for the work that you’re doing there in the north of Iraq with these communities and please do stay safe. Thank you for joining us tonight to share more about this.

Nemam Ghafouri: Thank you so much. Stay safe and healthy. very much. 

Jeremy Barker: Thank you very much. To learn more about the Religious Freedom Institute visit us online at Thank you very much.