In Iraqi Kurdistan, former refugees embrace new ones

Given the strain it is putting on the local government and economy, many Iraqi Kurds are worried that if Syrian Kurds continue to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan, it will have a negative impact on the status and power of Kurds in Syria.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, former refugees embrace new ones

World Bulletin/News Desk

For many Iraqi Kurds, being a refugee is an experience they vividly remember. For decades, they had to flee Saddam Hussein's tyranny and take refuge in neighboring countries, such as Iran and Turkey, and some even migrated as far as Europe, North America and Australia. But the newfound prosperity and security of the Iraqi Kurdistan region have meant they are now hosting refugees from elsewhere. Syrian Kurds are just the latest group.

With the civil war in Syria showing no sign of abating, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, mostly Kurds from the northern and northeastern parts of the country, have fled to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

Kurdish authorities put the number at more than 200,000 people. This is in addition to tens of thousands of refugees from the southern parts of Iraq who took refuge in the Kurdish region following the outbreak of sectarian conflict between Iraqi Sunni and Shia Arabs, as well as thousands of other Kurdish refugees from Turkey and Iran.

The massive influx of Syrian refugees has put great strain on the ability of the Kurdish government to respond to the crisis. But the swift and effective response from the Kurdish government and the population at large has won praise from both Syrian Kurds and international organizations.

“People help us a lot and bring us food,” said Qadir Ali, a refugee from Aleppo who is currently based at the Bahirka refugee camp, just a short distance from Arbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. “The government is also taking care of us and has built a health center as well as a small school for us so that our children can study.”

The camp has a population of 5,000 people and was set up last month.

There's a strong sense of Kurdish solidarity here. The local population has rushed to offer donations of everything from food to clothing, home appliances and cash. During a recent visit to a refugee camp, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani told the Syrian Kurds that they were at home and should not feel like refugees.

Even before the civil war, conditions were difficult for Syrian Kurds, as they were subject to systematic discrimination and their areas were kept impoverished by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Now with the increasing instability in Syria's Kurdish areas, many are fleeing their homes, hoping for more stable conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan or Syria's other neighboring countries. Syria's Kurdish region, referred to as Rojava by Kurds, is largely controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The Syrian Kurdish political scene is deeply divided and other parties complain that the PYD does not allow them to genuinely participate in running the region.

Twenty-year-old Lawin is a student waiting for the start of the new school year. She says the Turkish Fezalar Educational Institute has provided help to students in the camp.

Fezalar runs a chain of schools in Iraqi Kurdistan and has donated $1 million in educational grants to students in Syria.

Fezalar currently runs 33 education facilities in Iraq, 18 of which are in the Kurdistan region, including Işık University. Fezalar official Talip Büyük said they donated $1 million in scholarships to assist Syrian refugees, estimating that this might be the best way to help them out as an educational body.

Although the conditions in the camps across Iraqi Kurdistan are stable for the time being, many are concerned about the advent of winter. Syrian refugees in the Bahirka camp say they will be transferred to another nearby camp where they will live in makeshift housing units, protected from rain and cold.

“We will stay there until conditions in our country stabilize and we can return,” Qadri Fakhri, another Syrian refugee at the Bahirka camp, told Today's Zaman.

Iraqi Kurdish authorities have complained about the inadequacy of international assistance to Syrian refugees.

“The international community needs to take this problem [of Syrian refugees] more seriously. This is a tremendous problem that humanity is facing,” Kamal Karkuki, the former speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, told Today's Zaman. Karkuki's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is the major party in Iraqi Kurdistan politics and is led by Barzani.

In recent weeks, around 50,000 Syrian refugees have entered Iraqi Kurdistan and more refugees arrive on a daily basis.

Given the strain it is putting on the local government and economy, many Iraqi Kurds are worried that if Syrian Kurds continue to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan, it will have a negative impact on the status and power of Kurds in Syria.

“We prefer Syrian Kurds to stay in their area and not be scattered around in other countries,” Mohammed Tofiq, a senior official from Iraqi Kurdistan's largest opposition party, the Change Movement, told Today's Zaman. “Humanitarian aid should be delivered to them in their own areas.”

Last Mod: 17 Eylül 2013, 10:02
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