As hundreds of thousands of Syrians travel the so-called refugee highway en route to a safer climate in Europe, at least 10,000 of their counterparts are turning a temporary Iraqi refugee camp into a permanent home.

CBC's Bob McKeown got an in-depth look at the Kawergosk refugee camp north of Erbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where families first arrived two years ago, a surge prompted by the escalation of the Syrian conflict.

About half of those living in the camp are children. The haunted appearance of those kids arriving from war-torn homes gets reflected in violent behaviour and artwork, McKeown reported. Small hands sketch images of blood and bombings, UNICEF representative Colin Michaels told the fifth estate team.

But extensive psychological services are available. The symptoms of trauma usually begin to abate as children settle in to a new life, McKeown said in a telephone interview from the ground.  

Iraq's refugee issue1:59

McKeown himself experienced the danger of the conflict with the militant group ISIS, as a mortar strike occurred metres away from him, killing one soldier from the Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, and injuring three others. The following is an edited transcript.

On the ground

Q: I heard that you encountered some trouble the other day. What happened?

A: We were moving toward the Islamic State territory, looking at (what) had been an [ISIS] village that had been bombed and effectively destroyed. We were pretty close to the front, and an Allied air attack took place over a buffer zone where the safe territory ends before Islamic State territory begins.

We were between two Kurdish Peshmerga gun towers …. The one we were closer to suffered a direct strike by a mortar. Now, mortars are supposed to throw shrapnel 200 or 300 metres in either direction …. We were standing about 20 metres away from where this hit.

Bob McKeown and Colin Michaels

UNICEF representative Colin Michaels, right, speaks with Bob McKeown of CBC's the fifth estate. Families first arrived at the Kawergosk refugee camp north of Erbil, Iraq, two years ago, a surge prompted by the escalation of the conflict in Syria. (John Badcock/CBC)

It hit right on the gun tower, about 15 feet [four metres] above us, but there was a concrete bunker there and it hit right inside.

Had it been even inches closer to us … we would have been seriously injured, if not worse. In fact, one of the soldiers who was looking down on us when this happened was killed and three others were badly injured.

Battlefield first aid is one of the things the Canadians help the Peshmerga with; they tried to save the soldier who died and they tried to stabilize the others. So we watched that happen.

It was a reminder that this is very definitely a war zone.  We're told that these attacks happen every day. 

Q: Tell me more about what you've seen in the past day.

A: We spent the day at one of a number of refugee camps. We're in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish region, and there are several refugee camps here. One of the biggest is at Kawergosk, north of Erbil, and it's a camp for Syrian refugees.

Kawergosk refugee camp school children

About half of those living in the Kawergosk refugee camp are children who have arrived from war-torn areas. (John Badcock/CBC)

There are more than 10,000 of them there, and they've all come over the last two years, really since the civil war in Syria began to get much worse. Many of them have been there for the full two years; that's about as long as a lot of the refugees in Iraq have been in the same place.

Q: What kind of medical support is available in the camp?

A: What we saw in particular were the child-oriented facilities. They've got safe spaces for children, because, in many cases, these are children who have been scarred, emotionally and psychologically, by their experiences. 

And there are many, many babies born there. Apparently the birth rate at this camp is far beyond the birth rate outside of the camp, so as a consequence, they've got very thorough pre-natal and immunization programs. The care that these kids get when they're born here is as good as or better than they would get anywhere else.

Kawergosk refugee camp

As hundreds of thousands of Syrians travel the so-called refugee highway to a safer climate in Europe, at least 10,000 of their counterparts are turning Iraq's Kawergosk refugee camp into a permanent home. (John Badcock/CBC)

Q: What have you heard specifically from some of the refugees you've spoken with?

A: The interesting thing here is that these are not people who will be expected to join the mass migration that we've seen ongoing in Europe recently. First of all, these are Kurdish people from Syria and they've come … from a place where they may have been a minority … to the Kurdish region of Iraq. It's like coming home for them in a sense.

And the second thing is, though … you think of refugee camps as transient institutions definitively, it looks like it's been there forever. It's orderly, it's tidy. There are businesses. There are shops, There are barbers and hairdressers and schools. The kids are all dressed very neatly in clean clothes. They're well behaved. There are medical facilities.

Because it is a place that has this infrastructure and permanence … they expect that most of them will stay here. In fact, they say that some of them already are getting homes outside of the camp, and they come back to the camp for services. They're getting jobs in the area, which is really quite phenomenal, but I think it's also a sad sign that the situation is not going to change imminently, and they're resigned to the fact that they're going to be here for a long time.

Kawergosk refugee camp

At least 10,000 people are turning the Kawergosk refugee camp into a permanent home. (John Badcock/CBC)

Interview conducted by Laura Fraser