Syr­ian Kurds Find More Than a Refuge in North­ern Iraq

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE - Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Some were moved by fears that the vi­o­lence in Syria would soon find them, as ru­mors of be­head­ings by Is­lamist mil­i­tants cir­cu­lated from one vil­lage to another.

“They are killing Kurds there, Jab­het al-Nusra, Qaeda,” said Am­jad Su­laiman, 22, re­fer­ring to the Nusra Front and other ji­hadi groups fight­ing in Syria and ter­ror­iz­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Many oth­ers, beck­oned by im­ages of a bet­ter life broad­cast from tele­vi­sion sta­tions based here in north­ern Iraq, came in search of jobs or elec­tric­ity, even just a cold drink of wa­ter.

“There is no bread,” said one young man.

“There is no wa­ter,” said another.

Travers­ing a me­an­der­ing path­way across Syria’s eastern fron­tier to a makeshift camp on a desert hill­top here, tens of thou­sands of Syr­ian Kurds have fled to north­ern Iraq in re­cent days, one of the largest move­ments of refugees since the con­flict in Syria be­gan more than two years ago, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

Just as rapidly, a refugee econ­omy has sprouted: money chang­ers, cig­a­rette ven­dors, boys sell­ing cell­phone cred­its. Men rid­ing don­keys met fam­i­lies along the path and, for a fee of about $5, car­ried their things the rest of the way. The jour­neys per­pet­u­ate a his­tory of ex­o­dus and op­pres­sion for Kurds, a com­mu­nity whose am­bi­tions for state­hood have been thwarted for decades by Mid­dle Eastern govern­ments and their Western bene­fac­tors.

Amid the scenes of dis­place­ment and hard­ship, how­ever, as hordes of refugees mobbed trucks car­ry­ing wa­ter­mel­ons and mat­tresses, was the in­con­gruity of the hard­en­ing sense that emerg­ing from the civil war in Syria was a bet­ter fu­ture for the re­gion’s Kurds.

As per­ilous as the ex­o­dus was, for many refugees it car­ried a mea­sure of hope, bring­ing them not to the un­wel­com­ing places other Syr­i­ans have found them­selves, but into friendly arms. As grim as the con­di­tions are for the newly ar­rived refugees, some of whom spent their first night sleep­ing out­doors on a thin car­pet, a sense of shared iden­tity pre­vailed for many who have long lived un­der a govern­ment in Syria that re­fused them cit­i­zen­ship and pro­hib­ited them from even speaking their lan­guage.

“We have been liv­ing in fear,” said Salah Ali, 68, who ar­rived re­cently and is liv­ing in a new tent city on the out­skirts of Er­bil, the cap­i­tal of Iraq’s Kur­dis­tan re­gion. “Here, we fi­nally feel re- lief. We have food. We are safe. We haven’t slept well un­til we got here.”

The in­flux here stands in sharp con­trast to the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis un­fold­ing in Jor­dan, Turkey and Le­banon, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans have sought shel­ter. In many ar­eas, the flood of refugees has raised sec­tar­ian and eth­nic ten­sions and pre­sented a dire chal­lenge that govern­ments are strug­gling to meet. Here, refugees are wel­comed, even en­cour­aged.

“It’s kind of the fam­ily look­ing af­ter each other,” said Mike Seawright, a field co­or­di­na­tor for Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, whose med­i­cal work­ers treated ar­riv­ing Syr­i­ans for an as­sort­ment of ail­ments like de­hy­dra­tion and di­ar­rhea, but not war wounds.

“To gen­er­al­ize, peo­ple here are in pretty good con­di­tion,” he said.

The lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and aid agen­cies said they were un­pre­pared for the lat­est wave of refugees, and that an ex­ist­ing camp nearby in north­ern Iraq was ter­ri­bly over­crowded, hous­ing nearly 50,000 refugees in a site built for 22,000. Since last week, nearly 40,000 more Syr­ian Kurds have come, bring­ing the to­tal close to 200,000. Of­fi­cials have scram­bled to pro­vide for the lat­est in­flux, calling on res­i­dents across the re­gion to make dona­tions.

When Mas­soud Barzani, the pres­i­dent of Iraq’s Kur­dish ter­ri­tory, whose se­cu­rity and pros- per­ity has served as a model for the as­pi­ra­tions of Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iran, vis­ited a new refugee camp on Mon­day, he was greeted like a revered spir­i­tual leader, his ve­hi­cle mobbed as he ap­peared through a sun­roof.

“We are broth­ers to you,” Mr. Barzani told the crowd. “And you are now in your home and in your coun­try.”

Mr. Barzani has lately sought to po­si­tion him­self as not just the leader of Iraq’s Kurds, but some­one who can unite all Kurds as they push for more in­de­pen­dence and more demo­cratic rights. He re­cently threat­ened to send his own se­cu­rity forces, known as pesh­merga, to de­fend Kurds in Syria. Next month he will host a re­gional Kur­dish con­fer­ence that is viewed as a set­ting to dis­cuss how the Kurds can seize the tur­moil grip­ping the Mid­dle East to ad­vance a shared agenda, the dis­tant goal of which re­mains an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state.

While the flood of refugees has tested Mr. Barzani’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, it has also pre­sented him with a po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity. By caring for refugees and, in his call to arms for a peo­ple long steeped in a mar­tial cul­ture, he is bur­nish­ing his cre­den­tials among Syr­ian Kurds as a re­gional leader. As some refugees crossed the bor­der Wednes­day morn­ing they ap­proached a jour­nal­ist with a video cam­era and chanted, “Viva Barzani!”

“God bless Barzani,” said Mar- iam Ahmed, 30, a refugee at the camp near Er­bil. “We have ev­ery­thing we need here.” Muham­mad Mu­rat, 43, a welder, fled here af­ter hear­ing sto­ries of nearby vil­lagers be­ing ex­e­cuted by ji­hadi fighters. “Our only hope to go back home is for Barzani to send the pesh to fight,” he said, re­fer­ring to the pesh­merga. “That is the only thing that gives us hope.”

At the be­gin­ning of the civil war in Syria, now in its third year, Kurds had hoped to stay out of the fight. For a while, Kur­dish ar­eas of north­east­ern Syria were rel­a­tively safe. But lately, clashes have in­ten­si­fied be­tween Kur­dish mili­tias and Arab ji­hadis, who see Kur­dish claims to au­ton­omy and ter­ri­tory as a chal­lenge to their goal of es­tab­lish­ing an Is­lamic state.

That new fight­ing, as well as what peo­ple here de­scribe as a cam­paign by ji­hadis to de­stroy agri­cul­ture and cut power and wa­ter sup­plies, has hard­ened long­stand­ing ten­sions be­tween Kurds and Arabs, which were on dis­play here as aid work­ers and lo­cal of­fi­cials reg­is­tered refugees.

Around mid­day on Wednes­day at the hill­top camp where new ar­rivals were given wa­ter and food, a man with bull­horn tried to seg­re­gate the small num­ber of Arabs who had ar­rived from the Kurds.

“All the Arab peo­ple in the tents, come out here,” he said. “You have to go here and be on a sep­a­rate list.”

Stand­ing nearby, Er­do­gan Kalkan, a pro­tec­tion of­fi­cer for the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, was trou­bled. “We would never ac­cept this,” he said. But, he added, “they have se­cu­rity con­cerns, na­tional se­cu­rity con­cerns.”

The episode high­lighted what many Syr­ian Kurds say has be­come another ca­su­alty of their war: any hope for a mul­ti­eth­nic so­ci­ety, with Kurds and Arabs liv­ing to­gether peace­fully.

“There is no hope for that,” said Mr. Ali, sit­ting in his tent while his grand­chil­dren played with mar­bles. “Ev­ery­one hates one another and wants re­venge.”

For the refugees who ar­rived here in re­cent days, the things they brought re­flected the haste of their de­par­ture. For many, that meant a sin­gle bag of clothes, packed in a duf­fel bag or can­vas sack. Some, if they had the time and pres­ence of mind, brought small items to re­mind them of home­bound com­forts: a fa­vorite teddy bear or a wed­ding al­bum. One woman brought a small satchel of soil from her gar­den, another a minia­ture Ko­ran; one young boy came with four pet birds. A young woman said she had brought only her re­mem­brances:

“I brought my mem­o­ries of a beau­ti­ful and peace­ful Syria.”

Yasir Ghazi and an em­ployee of The New York Times con­trib­uted re­port­ing.

-This Pic­ture shows a view of Syr­ian Kur­dish refugees' camp in Kur­dis­tan Re­gion.

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