The article below was originally written by Natasha Gillezeau and published in GQ Australia on February 11, 2016.
Two years ago, Tim Buxton, a 33-year-old Queenslander university dropout with no idea how to build refugee camps, decided to relocate his family to Iraq, he now finds himself setting up his own refugee camps for those fleeing ISIS.
Together with wife Sarah and their three small children, Buxton moved to the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 and set up micro-refugee camps. He saw a need and decided to answer it through action. GQ Australia conducted the interview below.
GQ: Do you think what you’re doing with these micro-camps is a viable alternative to coordinated government action?
TB: Definitely. I think it can be complementary. By keeping our camps small in the range of 100-250 people, we maintain the normal village social structure that most refugees come from, reducing the difficulties of transition and giving them the strong sense of community that is lost in larger camps.
Why can’t the government financially support these kind of models? I would like to see the UN, they’ve come and visited the camps, they haven’t offered us a dime of help financially in terms of directly to us – they’ll just hand out a few blankets to those in our care.
We’ll keep doing what we’re doing, wherever the funding comes from, but if we can see a sea change in the way governments look at working things, in the way NGO’s look at working things, I believe we have the key ingredient in restoring dignity to these people.
GQ: What you’ve set up is quite a contrast to somewhere like the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan which houses something like 80,000 people.
TB: Yeah. They’re cities. The UN builds a camp for $10 million, costs $200–$300,000 a month to maintain. Granted, we don’t house 2000 families. But for our small camps, it costs $5000 per family to build a living room, kitchen, bathroom with electricity and water. And nothing to maintain.
Would you encourage more Australians to do the sort of thing you’re doing?
Definitely. There’s plenty organizations if they wanted to go the more official route. I mean, you just gotta do it. Book a ticket. Spend two weeks there. You don’t need a visa if you’re Australian.*
One of the issues when writing an article like this is that you as a white, Australian male become the face of it. So, I’m not hearing the voices of the people in your life that you see day to day. Can you tell me some of the people that you interact with in Iraq and what they would say to me if I could talk to them right now?
The mayor of our town, Kurmanj Dargali. He’s critical in what we do. We don’t go there as the white Americans or Australians saying we’re going to solve your problems, we go there and we say, how can we serve you. He would throw open his arms around anyone from Australia. Christian, Yazidi, none of that matters. They’re begging for help. They are caring for and taking in literally millions of refugees.
When Australia wants to accept 12,000 – they have 2 million on their doorstep. They would lay down their lives for me. They are the ones making it possible to do what I am doing. The mayor of our town is a huge party of this story. He risks his reputation with white Christian people.
And then there’s our translator Hersh [pronounced Hedesh], the only one employed by The Refuge Initiative. He’s like our armour-bearer. He builds the gap between people who might be suspicious of us. He has to shield us from threats.
GQ: What do you think is the most common misconception Australians have about refugees?
TB: At least specifically dealing with the Syrian and Iraqi crisis, the most common misconception is that they’re Muslims that basically want to destroy Australian lives. And bring in another agenda. 99.9 per cent of them just want to live a life free of persecution. Now, I believe we can provide that in the region they are from.
If there were more Australians and the Australian government were more willing to do humanitarian stuff in the region they wouldn’t have to be dealing with half the issues of “how do we manage boat people” or “illegal immigrants” or whatever names they want to throw out.
GQ: What have you learnt about Kurdistan and Iraq at large since being there?
TB: I’ve learnt, and this comes back to how we view people from the region, that people in Kurdistan especially, put us to shame in hospitality. My family, we love nothing more than to go out with our friends and hang out at their houses, spend three or four hours our kids hanging out with their kids having amazing food. They have such a rich culture of family life.
GQ: How does the DonorPerfect Fundraising Software that you use to crowdsource donations work?
TB: I only found out when I first moved there that it’s illegal, it’s impossible, to transfer money from my Australian bank account to my personal bank account in Iraq. Which is okay because I’m an independent contractor, and I try and get all my funds to go through World Orphans, which is a US charity based out of Colorado. Funds go to World Orphans, then they send funds directly to our bank account, whether it’s personal funds for our own work, or if it’s World Orphans, they have an NGO account, it goes to that. But 100% of the money that comes in goes directly to the work on the ground.
GQ: What’s the hardest thing that you’ve witnessed since moving to the region in 2014?
TB: I’ll never forget the night that we opened our first camp. The tribal leader was sitting outside of his tent. And all the families are moving in and they’re so happy. But he’s on the side. We’d only been there a few months so I couldn’t really console him with language, so I just put my arm around him, and he’s sobbing.
His family got tipped off by their neighbours who were Sunni that they were Shia. He said, we had an hour to put everything in the car, because ISIS was out for them. They said: “they’re Shia, go get them”. They knew they had to run.
GQ: Wow, okay.
And then, I had a man come up to me and say: “I got a phone call from ISIS saying your two daughters have been kidnapped, we have them, give us $12,000 and we’ll set them free for you. Can you help me? What can you do?”
I ended up writing a blog about it that got picked up by a guy from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), who rescued the daughters. They’re now in Germany in a trauma program. This was 7 months ago. But they’re being cared for. But these are the stories day in and day out.
GQ: What’s your wife Sarah’s role in all of this?
TB: She makes the greatest sacrifice of our whole family, just because of the restrictions on women generally. She doesn’t have to wear burkas, but obviously she dresses very modestly. We have hosted over 130 guests in our house in one year. From people shooting videos to medical teams to groups of friends.
A group from a whole church that have come to help us. Sometimes there’s only half a dozen hours of power and she has to cook meals, wash, host people. She’s amazing. She’s my hero. She could easily do what I do, but I could never do what she does.
GQ: What would you say to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull?
TB: Let’s get involved and help people on the ground. If I as one little family can figure out how to do this, then why can’t the Australian government get involved to help refugees in their region providing care? I mean, if you want to “stop the boats”, you know, if people are afraid of them coming then why don’t we do more to help them where they’re at? I think that’s one of the greatest things we can do.
As well as open our arms when they do come. I would love to get young people, why not start your own organization that greets refugees at the airport? That teaches them how to drive, that shows them how to open a bank account. Get yourself sorted out in Australia, “the Australian way” if that’s your big deal, but why can’t you do something to make those coming here feel welcome?
GQ: I bet you they weren’t turn around to bite you in the back. You’ll win them over by your service and love.
TB: I want to get ex-serviceman who have fought in Iraq who are struggling with PTSD to come to our camps, to volunteer. Maybe that will bring incredible healing and wholeness to their lives. To say, it wasn’t all in vain and there was something good out of all this, I’ve provided a place for refugees to come to because we got rid of Saddam Hussain.
There’s so many things we can do. I mean literally. You just got to do it. It’s not impossible to go to Iraq. It’s not impossible to make a difference.