A dif­fer­ent type of refugee

The Kurdish Globe - - NEWS - By Sh­van Go­ran – Duhok

The Kur­dis­tan Re­gion is known for coex­is­tence and tol­er­ance. Mi­nori­ties live in the Re­gion along­side the Kurds and prac­tise their re­li­gious and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties. The Ar­me­ni­ans are a mi­nori­ties who have been liv­ing in the Kur­dis­tan Re­gion for some 80 years. They mainly set­tled in Zakho and its sur­round­ing vil­lages. Mem­bers of Zakho’s Ar­me­nian com­mu­nity talk about life in the city and ex­press their ap­pre­ci­a­tion to the Kurds for ex­tend­ing them their hos­pi­tal­ity for so many years.

Yousif Gara­bet, a young Ar­me­nian in his twen­ties, re­ceived his BA de­gree from Zakho Univer­sity this year. He speaks a charm­ing Kur­dish with a lo­cal Zakho ac­cent, and you would only know about his Ar­me­nian ori­gin if he chose to re­veal it him­self.

He says life in Zakho is go­ing well, and that the com­mu­nity has a close re­la­tion­ship with the Kurds. It’s be­cause of this re­la­tion­ship that “all Ar­me­ni­ans can speak Kur­dish well,” Yousif says. An­other rea­son is that the older gen­er­a­tion chose not to teach their chil­dren their na­tive lan­guage.

Ar­me­ni­ans have their own cul­ture and tra­di­tions, but most of the com­mu­nity in Zakho, and the el­derly es­pe­cially, wear tra­di­tional Kur­dish clothes. Young peo­ple like Yousif keep up with mod­ern fash­ions, just like all the younger gen­er­a­tion.

Yousif says Ar­me­ni­ans, Kurds, Kil­dans and Assyr­i­ans have been liv­ing to­gether peace­fully for a long time in Zakho and that there is a lot of mu­tual re­spect be­tween the com­mu­ni­ties.

Al­though the Ar­me­ni­ans con­sider both Ar­me­nia and Kur­dis­tan as their home­land, Yousif says Kur­dis­tan has be­come our coun­try. “That’s why re­turn­ing to Ar­me­nia is im­pos­si­ble,” he says.

Most of the Ar­me­ni­ans in Zakho live in the cen­tre of town, near the banks of the Khabur River in a neigh­bour­hood they call ‘Kesta’, but is also of­ten called ‘the Ar­me­nian Neigh­bour­hood’. The Kesta bazaar is called the Sika Dere by the lo­cal peo­ple, which means ‘the Church mar­ket’. There is also a mosque a few hun­dred me­tres from the church.

The church the Ar­me­ni­ans at­tend ev­ery Sun­day was built in 1923, ac­cord­ing to Fa­ther Ar­tuk Kha­la­tian, the Ortho­dox priest of the Church of the Vir­gin Mary in Zakho, told the Kur­dish Globe. He says it was a school be­fore it was ren­o­vated in 1936. The church is a meet­ing place as well as a re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tion, and peo­ple gather there in the evenings to talk about a va­ri­ety of mat­ters and drink tea.

“There is no dif­fer­ence be­tween other Chris­tian mi­nori­ties re­gard­ing re­li­gious cer­e­monies” Fr. Ar­tuk says. The only dif­fer­ence is the lan­guage-Ar­me­ni­ans have their own lan­guage, which is mainly used dur­ing re­li­gious cer­e­monies in church.

Ac­cord­ing to un­of­fi­cial sources, there are roughly 200 Ar­me­nian fam­i­lies in Zakho, 90 fam­i­lies in Avzrog Vil­lage, and an­other 60 in Zroog Mery (both vil­lages are in Duhok prov­ince). A fur­ther 115 fam­i­lies live in the cen­tre of Duhok. Due to threats from ter­ror­ist groups and in­sta­bil­ity in Iraq’s south­ern prov­inces, more than 200 Ar­me­nian fam­i­lies have fled to the Kur­dis­tan Re­gion since 2003 and taken up res­i­dence in Er­bil.

Af­ter the Ar­me­nian mas­sacres that be­gan in 1915, some Ar­me­ni­ans fled to Kur­dis­tan and Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The Ar­me­ni­ans in Zakho say the Kurds opened their doors to them and pro­vided them with shel­ter. They say the Kurds and Ar­me­ni­ans have shared the same suf­fer­ing, which is why they live to­gether peace­fully.

“We’ve lived along­side the Kurds of Zakho for decades. They visit us at our feasts and we visit theirs. There is a tran­quil­lity and a sense of love be­tween the Ar­me­ni­ans and Kurds here,” Fr. Ar­tuk com­ments, men­tion­ing the favour the Kurds did the Ar­me­ni­ans when they pro­vided them with shel­ter in the nineteen twen­ties.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Ar­me­ni­ans and Kurds has in­spired singers and nov­el­ists. in In A Day From Ev­dale Zeynike’s Days, Mehmed Uzun, a Kur­dish nov­el­ist, dis­cusses the Ar­me­nian ques­tion. Aram Tigran, an Ar­me­nian singer, de­cided to sing only in Kur­dish to re­pay the favour to the Kurds who shel­tered his peo­ple in those dark times.

The Ar­me­ni­ans who took shel­ter in Kur­dis­tan be­came part of Kur­dish so­ci­ety, which is how they learnt Kur­dish so quickly. Now, the old peo­ple all speak Kur­dish only.

In the ar­eas where Ar­me­ni­ans live, Ar­me­nian is taught in schools. The KRG has sup­plied an of­fi­cial cur­ricu­lum to these schools so the new gen­er­a­tion can learn their mother lan­guage.

Kur­dis­tan’s Ar­me­ni­ans have one quota seat in the Kur­dis­tan Par­lia­ment. Dur­ing the re­cent par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, four Ar­me­nian can­di­dates com­peted for the seat.

Vahram Hairek, a mid­dle-aged Ar­me­nian man, re­counts the tale of the Ar­me­ni­ans’ ar­rival in Zakho. Al­though he is too young to have lived these events him­self, he has read widely and dis­cussed the his­tory with the el­derly. He says there are still a few old peo­ple who re­mem­ber the events, but they can no longer hear or speak. Vahram says the ma­jor­ity of Zakho’s Ar­me­ni­ans are orig­i­nally from Shir­nak, a city in south­east Turkey. He says they sought an op­por­tu­nity to flee to safer ar­eas when they were pro­hib­ited from speak­ing their own lan­guage dur­ing the nineteen twen­ties, and chose Zakho and other ar­eas around Duhok. “When the Ar­me­ni­ans ar­rived in Kur­dish ar­eas, they were home­less, dis­placed and fear­ful. De­spite the fact the Ot­tomans were still in power in Iraq and the Mid­dle East, the Kurds and their lead­ers shel­tered us,” he re­marks. He counts to six on his fin­gers--the num­ber of Ar­me­nian gen­er­a­tions who have lived in the Kur­dis­tan Re­gion.

He says the Ar­me­ni­ans moved into a num­ber of pro­fes­sions, es­pe­cially weav­ing, and made their liv­ing out of them. Many Ar­me­ni­ans also work as teach­ers or civil ser­vants, and oth­ers have stores in Zakho. “Kur­dis­tan has be­come our coun­try and we’re not go­ing any­where else,” Vahram says.

Zakho is a dis­trict in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan lo­cated a few kilo­me­tres from the Iraqi-Turk­ish bor­der in Duhok prov­ince. In ad­di­tion to Kurds, mi­nor­ity groups in­clud­ing Assyr­i­ans, Kil­dans and Ar­me­ni­ans live in the city and prac­tise their re­li­gious and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties.

A View of Zakho City.

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