A different type of refugee
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.