To compare the pristine beauty of Peachtree City with a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan requires a leap of imagination few can make, but one that is prompting Joel Cowan, the Fayette County city’s founder, and a few colleagues to take seriously.
On the one hand you have tree lined roadways, more than 100 miles of paved cart paths, homes with values in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, near to lakes and nature trails and a population of more than 30,000 residents who live with access to a wide variety of amenities providing a good life.
On the other hand, you have what Daniel P. Puls, one of Mr. Cowan’s colleagues, describes as its antithesis in refugee camps around the world and more specifically in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), not a recognized country but an autonomous region where Kurdish people are the majority and have a unified cultural identity.
According to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center (JCC) approximately 1.5 million displaced people including internally displaced Iraqi citizens (IDPs) and about 400,000 Syrian refugees are now being provided refuge in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a population of roughly 5 million with the additional 1.5 million, equivalent to 30 percent of its population of internally displaced people (IDPs) or refugees having settled within its borders for a total of 6.5 million. The region, although not a separate country, is a comparatively safe haven and has its own prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and its own government.
It also is in the news frequently these days as the U.S. administration wrestles with the number of American troops that should remain in neighboring Syria.
Declaring victory over ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), President Donald Trump ordered in December all of the more than 2,000 American troops out of Syria. The Trump administration recently said that roughly 400 troops — about 200 on a peacekeeping mission and about 200 in the northeast region of Iraq — will remain there after the U.S. withdraws its troops.
The KRG army, the Peshmerga, have fought side-by-side with U.S. coalition forces against ISIS fighters. The caliphate has been almost wiped out, but a remnant is holding about 2,500 civilians, including women and children, as human shields, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The United Nations estimates that roughly 40 percent of Syria’s pre-war population of approximately 9 million people have been displaced by the violence in Syria.
Global Atlanta met Mr. Puls at the Carter Center‘s councilor’s breakfast and briefing on Feb. 15, which Mr. Puls attended as a guest of Mr. Cowan, who is a member of the center’s board of councilors.
In addition to teaching at Georgia Tech’s Scheller School of Business, Mr. Cowan is active in a variety of international development organizations including PASS-USA‘s advisory board, a Washington-area consultancy where Mr. Puls is the president and CEO.
PASS-USA partners with an array of nonprofit and non-governmental organizations and philanthropists that share a commitment “to achieve shared social good at this uncertain time in human history — with the aim of passing into a better future.”
Inspired by President Carter’s comments at the councilor briefing that the U.S. “should wage peace” and not just war, Mr. Puls told Global Atlanta that he and his colleagues are partnering with the Kurdistan Regional Government to support its interest in improving the quality of life for the millions of displaced people not only in the KRI but around the world. According to the United Nations, there are an unprecedented 68.5 million people displaced people worldwide.
He travels frequently, often monthly, to Iraqi Kurdistan in support of PASS’s efforts to help build sustainable communities for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs living in makeshift camps.
He outlined PASS’s model of a “healthy communities framework” to create community engagement and facilities enabling their residents to live in what he went so far as to call “cozy environments” that are “orderly, neat and tidy” where “people care about their families” and can retain their traditions of hospitality.
This model obviously counters the current environments of many of the refugees where women and children constantly fear abuse and where their makeshift tents can be washed away in flooding resulting from the ubiquitous storms.
A Georgia Tech white paper providing an overview of the crisis and the efforts to establish better living conditions for the inhabitants of these camps says that the current lodgings are primarily substandard tents and worn out, broken down prefabricated shelters covered with layers of plastic and tarpaulins.
“In many of the camps today, children are playing in sewage, there is unsafe drinking water and fires break out,” Mr. Puls said. “We need to redouble our efforts to provide more effective, efficient and sustainable support to host communities like KRI that are shouldering the greatest waves of displaced people. The people of KRI and the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government have been refugees for years pushed out of their homes and persecuted.”
He also said that many of the current refugee facilities are built under the impression that their occupants would live there only for a short, transitional time until they could return to their homelands. In truth, many never return to the ancestral homes and are forced to remain in the so-called transition camps for years if not decades.
Gracious in his willingness to be interviewed, Mr. Puls nevertheless underscored that PASS goes beyond merely addressing these issues with words and is focused on addressing the region’s needs by drawing on the expertise of his network including Mr. Cowan, who also has visited Kurdistan and has been motivated to bring the engineering resources of Georgia Tech to provide structures that will help accomplish the goals of PASS’s “healthy communities framework.”
He credited Mr. Cowan’s leadership with applying the community development skills that created Peachtree City, and the political adroitness, including a positive relationship with the prime minister, to put in place the local support for these initiatives.
“Mr. Cowan and our PASS team have developed a new engineering solution for housing displaced people,” Mr. Puls added. “The model is to build a new town that will house over 2,000 families, a medium-sized town, with structures that can be set up by three or four unskilled laborers. If the occupants leave to go home safely, these structures can be folded up and sent with them or be stored for future disasters.”
But these efforts go beyond just creating a housing solution, Mr. Puls added. “We would like to hear from Atlanta companies that can help such as real estate developers providing schools, roads, solid waste management and even street lights.”
An integral part of their plan is to train the camps’ inhabitants to build the shelters locally and develop the skills necessary for creating sustainable communities that utilize green technologies to provide the necessary energy resources.
Annie Yu Meng, a Georgia Tech student pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering, met Mr. Cowan at an infrastructure conference at the university. He quickly enlisted her in the Kurdistan project because of her academic background in civil engineering and her willingness to help design applicable structures to improve the lives of the refugees through community development. She now has joined the PASS team and is playing a role in designing the model community envisioned by Mr. Cowan and the PASS team.
During the interview, Mr. Puls said that “with the pullout of U.S. troops in Syria, the Kurdistan Regional Government and many experts fear a new wave of thousands of refugees may seek refuge in the KRI.”
“Al Quaeda in Iraq was the predecessor of ISIS,” Mr. Puls said. “It was able to recover from defeats by successfully lying low between 2007 and 2012, when it reemerged as circumstances changed in its favor. ISIS will try to do the same, but cannot succeed if its networks of militants are exposed and eliminated.”
“ISIS is like a crystal vase that has been shattered into a million pieces, scattered throughout the region. It’s like we’re walking in a darkened room,” he added. “You never know when you are going to step on a large shard or a small shard…There is no clear answer to what the way forward will be. We have to wage peace and not war as President Carter said today.”
For those interested in participating with PASS’s humanitarian initiative may contact Mr. Puls by email at firstname.lastname@example.org