Calm under pressure

Not many people can imagine making a 12-hour journey on foot through a heavily mined mountain range, but that’s just one of several harrowing experiences in recent years that have shaped 21-year-old Hussam and developed in him an ability to take action while remaining calm under pressure.


In 2014, Islamic State (IS) took over the quiet hamlet where Hussam lived with his nine family members in Hawiga District in northern Iraq. Despite fierce armed resistance by local villagers, IS took control of the area along with vast swaths of the country and neighboring Syria.

Accounts of life under IS control in Hawiga invariably mention severe shortages of basic supplies and increasing exposure to violence. Those who attempt to flee the district face extreme risk from IS snipers and improvised mines. Despite the lack of safe routes out of Hawiga, however, many people continue to attempt the dangerous journey towards safety. Sadly, there are numerous reports of civilians losing their lives and families becoming separated on the treacherous mountains that are littered with military ordnance.

In 2016, Hussam and his family decided it was time to leave. They followed the path of thousands before them, out of Hawiga and over the Hamrin Mountains, gingerly navigating the dangerous paths. It was a painstakingly slow journey, but there was only one way forward.

Together, though, the family made it safely across and continued southwards to the city of Tikrit, which itself was held by IS until government forces retook the area in 2015, and which now hosts a growing number of internally displaced Iraqis seeking safety and shelter. 

Hussam and his family headed for the Al-Alam Camp north of the city, as they did not have the means to rent a home in town. “We couldn’t afford to live anywhere else, and the heavy security situation would have made it even more difficult for us to stay outside the camp,” Hussam explained.

Camp life has presented a new set of opportunities and challenges for Hussam, who now works nights as an electricity generator operator. On one recent evening while walking through the camp, something caught his eye, and he sprang into action:

“I was walking home and saw there was a fire in one of the tents,” he said. In crowded settlements like Al-Alam, fires can spread quickly across the tents and pose a serious threat to families who are often caught by surprise and have mere seconds to react. “I found the nearest extinguisher and I was able to put the fire out quickly and no one was hurt,” he added.

With support from EU Humanitarian Aid, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has distributed fire extinguishers across Al-Alam Camp and has facilitated a community safety awareness campaign to ensure that greater precautions against fire are taken and that camp residents know both how to prevent and respond to fires.

Simple preventive measures and maintenance, such as spot checks to electrical wiring and cables, can greatly improve safety conditions and help keep displaced communities living in both formal and informal shelters safer.

The safety campaign and training on how to use the many extinguishers placed around the camp have helped to reduce the number of incidents and boosted residents’ confidence in knowing how to handle different situations they many encounter, just like Hussam did.

“Thanks to the trainings, I knew what to do and how to use the extinguisher,” Hussam said.