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In midst of fighting in Iraq and Syria, Baltimore aid groups provide humanitarian relief

The small concrete buildings that huddle in half-built villages across Kurdistan aren't much. Single-story, with no doors or windows to cover the holes in the walls. But for religious minorities fleeing Islamic State fighters, the buildings were better than a refugee camp, so they crammed in, an entire family to a room.

And with the help of workers from Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, some 50,000 people now have relatively safe shelter, according to Hani El-Mahdi, the organization's representative in Iraq.

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"They were lucky to have arrangements of this type," El-Mahdi said in an interview from the war-ravaged nation. "Those arrangements are more dignified than camps."

Conflict in Iraq and Syria has driven millions from their homes, and Baltimore's international aid community is doing what it can to help. Lutheran World Relief, which is based in Federal Hill, has sent supplies to Syria. The International Rescue Committee, with an office in Highlandtown, has settled refugees in Maryland.

"The crisis in Syria has created one of the most dire situations for the communities in the recent history of man-made disasters," said Umer Khan, Lutheran World Relief's director for emergency operations.

After the Arab Spring began in late 2010, Syrians followed their comrades across the Middle East and demonstrated against the authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad. Assad fired back at the protesters, and the struggle over democratic rights turned into a civil war.

As rival groups battled Assad and each other, the self-styled Islamic State established control over large stretches of Eastern Syria, declared a caliphate and began pressing outward.

Last summer, Islamic State fighters swept across the border in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, hoisting their black flags and imposing a strict form of Islamic law.

When they surrounded ethnic Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq in August, President Barack Obama ordered U.S. airstrikes, launching an attack of several Western and Middle Eastern nations against the group.

More than 14 million people — a quarter of the combined population of Iraq and Syria — have been uprooted by the fighting, according to the United Nations.

Lutheran World Relief has sent more than $6 million worth of quilts and personal items to almost 270,000 Syrians since 2012.

Catholic Relief Services has been working with partners in Iraq since soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but stepped up its efforts in the fall. El-Mahdi arrived in Duhok, a region north of Mosul controlled by Kurds, in October.

El-Mahdi, who is Egyptian, has worked with Catholic Relief Services for 23 years.

"I was surprised by the magnitude of the problem," he said.

Half a million people fled the fighting in Mosul, according to the United Nations, and many ended up in Duhok — where they nearly doubled its population.

When workers for Catholic Relief Services found the people living in the half-constructed homes, they sought a way to offer them some stability.

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El-Mahdi described the houses, many of which were built under the regime of Saddam Hussein. They're clustered in villages of 50 to 60 buildings on the outskirts of larger towns. The houses typically have four bedrooms — each now occupied by one family — and a common living room.

Temperatures in the mountainous region fall below freezing in the winter, so buildings that are not sealed against the elements were not safe to live in. El-Mahdi and his small band of foreign workers developed a package of doors and windows that the displaced people could install, and handed out kerosene for heat and cash so they could buy clothes.

Many of the buildings are owned privately. Catholic Relief Services workers struck deals with the owners to allow the new residents to stay for two winters in exchange for the improvements.

"It took some time to design the model," El-Mahdi said. But it has been working well, he said, and other organizations have been able to replicate it.

Many of the people Catholic Relief Services has been working with are Yazidis, a religious group the Islamic State has been targeted with particular ferocity.

"They don't tolerate the Yazidis at all," El-Mahdi said.

Military and militia groups are battling to regain control of areas now held by the Islamic State. U.S. warplanes and drones are conducting strikes in Iraq and across the border in Syria almost daily. Last week, they hit Islamic State positions in Mosul and Sinjar, not far from where El-Mahdi and his team are working.

El-Mahdi says his workers rely on the Kurdish Peshmerga for safety. Aid workers have been kidnapped and executed by the Islamic State; Catholic Relief Services has not lost anyone.

"We take no risks with staff safety," he said.

El-Mahdi expects humanitarian conditions to worsen amid the fighting. His team is looking for ways to get more people into shelters; Catholic Relief Services aims to fix up another 1,000 homes to accommodate 30,000 people.

"The displacement has not stopped," El-Mahdi said. He does not expect people to return home while the fighting continues.

The civil war in Syria shows no sign of abating. Refugees have flooded into neighboring countries; some 200,000 have ended up in Duhok, adding to the region's burden.

El-Mahdi is a veteran of some of the world's most difficult crises. But he called it a privilege to be working in Iraq.

"You have to believe in your work, you have to believe that despite all this dark picture there is still hope and you can make a difference to protect lives," he said. "It's very rewarding work, you see the people that you are helping."

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