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'The Castle' -- Life With Syrian Refugees In Saddam's Former Prison

In the northern part of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region is the town of Akre. Here, a former prison once used by Saddam Hussein's regime to hold Iranian prisoners of war and political dissidents has been converted into a shelter for more than 1,000 Syrian refugees. A stronghold of Islamic State militants in Iraq is less than 50 kilometers away.


The entrance to the Akre camp, known locally as "The Castle."
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The entrance to the Akre camp, known locally as "The Castle."

Refugee children play in the courtyard of the camp.  
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Refugee children play in the courtyard of the camp.
 

The protracted conflicts in the region have led to massive waves of displacement -- especially across Iraq's border with Syria. In Iraq, there are an estimated 3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), including those from areas overtaken by Islamic State militants. About 250,000 refugees from Syria are estimated to be in Iraq.
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The protracted conflicts in the region have led to massive waves of displacement -- especially across Iraq's border with Syria. In Iraq, there are an estimated 3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), including those from areas overtaken by Islamic State militants. About 250,000 refugees from Syria are estimated to be in Iraq.

Some Syrian refugees have made the long journey through areas now controlled by Islamic State militants. The Syrian border is about 200 kilometers away. Mohammed Said Amin managed to escape with his wife and mother (seen in the photo). She died in the camp a few months after they arrived.
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Some Syrian refugees have made the long journey through areas now controlled by Islamic State militants. The Syrian border is about 200 kilometers away. Mohammed Said Amin managed to escape with his wife and mother (seen in the photo). She died in the camp a few months after they arrived.

"The Castle" was opened to refugees in 2013. These children are playing on the bars of the former prison cell windows.
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"The Castle" was opened to refugees in 2013. These children are playing on the bars of the former prison cell windows.

Cells have been converted into living quarters for the refugees. The accommodation is cramped, with little natural light. 
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Cells have been converted into living quarters for the refugees. The accommodation is cramped, with little natural light. 

Toilet and washroom facilities are shared among many families.
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Toilet and washroom facilities are shared among many families.

Local Kurdish police keep an eye on the camp. One of the cells has been converted into a police station.
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Local Kurdish police keep an eye on the camp. One of the cells has been converted into a police station.

U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and their local partner Caritas Iraq have joined the World Food Program to support the refugees and provide meals. Here a local CRS worker checks documents belonging to some Syrian refugees.
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U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and their local partner Caritas Iraq have joined the World Food Program to support the refugees and provide meals. Here a local CRS worker checks documents belonging to some Syrian refugees.

Two refugee boys play soccer in the camp’s courtyard. 
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Two refugee boys play soccer in the camp’s courtyard. 

About half of the refugees at the camp are women and children.
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About half of the refugees at the camp are women and children.

Work opportunities in Akre are very limited. To cater for the camp's needs, a Syrian refugee has set up a small shop within the fortress. A wide variety of basic goods are stocked in the tin shack, such as rice, cooking oil, cigarettes, and hygiene products.
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Work opportunities in Akre are very limited. To cater for the camp's needs, a Syrian refugee has set up a small shop within the fortress. A wide variety of basic goods are stocked in the tin shack, such as rice, cooking oil, cigarettes, and hygiene products.

While children play inside the camp, hundreds of Syrian refugees continue to enter Kurdistan on a daily basis. The region depends on oil for much of its income. But with the slump in oil prices in recent years, Kurdistan has been hit by an economic crisis. Authorities say the refugees are putting more strain on the local economy.
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While children play inside the camp, hundreds of Syrian refugees continue to enter Kurdistan on a daily basis. The region depends on oil for much of its income. But with the slump in oil prices in recent years, Kurdistan has been hit by an economic crisis. Authorities say the refugees are putting more strain on the local economy.

Syrian refugee children have painted the walls to brighten up the derelict camp. Work for adults outside the camp's walls is hard to come by. Lucky ones can get jobs as casual laborers for a day or two.
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Syrian refugee children have painted the walls to brighten up the derelict camp. Work for adults outside the camp's walls is hard to come by. Lucky ones can get jobs as casual laborers for a day or two.

The two-floor compound provides space for up to 270 families. Here, Syrian refugee women clean a carpet used in one of the cells.
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The two-floor compound provides space for up to 270 families. Here, Syrian refugee women clean a carpet used in one of the cells.

With little chance of returning home anytime soon, children do what they can to keep their spirits up.
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With little chance of returning home anytime soon, children do what they can to keep their spirits up.

Some play volleyball.
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Some play volleyball.

Some are best friends.
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Some are best friends.

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