News / Middle East

Kurdistan Tourist Towns Last Resort for Iraqi Refugees

Reuters
The holiday season has yet to begin, but hotels in the mountain resort towns of Iraq's Kurdistan region are already fully booked.
 
The patrons are not tourists but refugees, fleeing the conflict in the country's arid Sunni Arab heartland for the relative safety of its autonomous north, where Kurds run their own affairs.
 
Shaqlawa may seem an unlikely refuge, but the resort town's population has swollen by almost a half since the start of the year. On the main street of the town, crowded with construction sites, motels and guest houses, the newly opened Fallujah Kebab Restaurant is testimony to its new residents.
 
It is no small irony in a country with a historic enmity between Sunni Arabs and Kurds that residents of Anbar, a place synonymous with Arab nationalism, should now seek sanctuary with their onetime foe.
 
In this mix, there is mistrust and old animosity, but also instances of goodwill, as the refugees bring a touch of Anbar to Kurdistan and the two communities are pressed into an awkward co-existence.
 
"Shaqlawa has become like another Fallujah," said Khalil Yousif, who is paying $400 a month for a dingy apartment in the Holiday Center. "We are all one, we are all brothers; we are all Iraqis."
 
For many here, however, Kurds and Arabs alike, that unity is under question.
 
Anbar's two main cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, have been under siege by the army since militants overran them on Jan. 1, precipitating Iraq's largest internal displacement since the sectarian civil strife of 2006-07.
 
Around 5,200 Anbar families have found refuge in Kurdistan, where many are now staying in hotels and holiday resorts. Many of the refugees hope parliamentary elections in April will somehow allow them to go home, but even that is just a hope.
 
They know they are lucky to enjoy the modest comforts of  scenic mountain resorts while fighting rages in Anbar. Still, many describe themselves as uneasy about the profound differences between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country.
 
"We feel as though it's a different state," said 30-year old Arkan, who left Fallujah with 27 members of his extended family and is now staying at the Happiness Hotel in Dokan, a lakeside holiday town full of restaurants serving freshly fished flame-grilled carp.
 
"It's nice here, but we can't appreciate it because we were forced from our homes, and the language is a problem: we don't know what they're saying".
 
Welcome
 
None of Anbar's refugees had expected to stay so long. They brought little more than the clothes they were wearing when mortars began to fall on their homes as they found themselves caught in the fight between the government and Sunni militant fighters. All of them wanted to return to Anbar as soon as it was safe, and said they were running out of money.
 
Surprisingly, for all the antagonism that exists, some Kurds expressed sympathy towards their plight and felt a sense of duty to assist them.
 
Some refugees in Shaqlawa said hotel owners had reduced room rates for them, and one family described how their landlord bought them an extra generator. Kurdish authorities are also distributing some free gasoline for the refugees.
 
"We too were once homeless, refugees, so we welcome them," said shopkeeper Ghazi, whose small supermarket in Shaqlawa has been doing an unseasonably good trade over the past two months. "As Kurds, we must help them".
 
Scars of history
 
The scars of modern history are too painful to be erased anytime soon.
 
The Kurds were gassed and displaced under late Iraqi Sunni Arab president Saddam Hussein in a bid to stifle aspirations for greater independence. Only after the 1991 Gulf War did the West intervene to protect the Kurds with a no-fly zone that shielded them from Saddam.
 
Fortunes have since changed, and the Kurdistan region is now Iraq's most stable and prosperous. Meanwhile, many in the country's once-dominant Sunni minority complain of ill-treatment under the Shi'ite-led government that came to power after Saddam was vanquished in 2003. Separate development has fueled tensions.
 
A feud over how to share Iraq's resources has intensified to the point that Baghdad cut funding to Kurdistan, retaliating against the region's moves to export oil independently through a new pipeline to Turkey. There is also a cultural drifting apart.
 
Many older Kurds speak at least some Arabic but the generation that grew up after the region gained autonomy generally does not. Today, Arab Iraqis cannot enter Kurdistan without a permit and need a local sponsor if they wish to stay long-term.
 
"The social ties and interconnectedness between Arabs and Kurds that sustained the idea that these are one people and part of one country are long gone," said Fanar Haddad, the author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity.
 
Kurdish suspicions have not eased regarding Iraqi Arabs' intentions.
 
"Frankly, we suffered at their hands," said a 50-year-old taxi driver in Arbil who was imprisoned during Saddam's time for refusing to do military service. "We don't hate the Arabs, but let them have their country, and we'll have ours."
 
Faultline
 
Shihab Ahmed Kufaysh, 22, was less fortunate than some of his fellow Anbaris.
 
Clutching his Iraqi passport, Kufaysh stood angry and dejected outside a checkpoint on the border with Kurdistan after being denied passage across one of the country's deepest ethnic and political fault lines.
 
"They won't let me in," he said, with his belongings lying at his feet and a national identity card in hand. "I am Iraqi: isn't this part of Iraq?"
 
Already vigilant on their internal border with the rest of the country, Kurdish authorities have put Arab Iraqis under further scrutiny after a rare bombing in the regional capital Arbil last year, which was claimed by Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
 
Officials in Kurdistan said the perpetrators of the attack were all Arab.
 
"They think we're all terrorists. This is racism," said Kufaysh before abandoning hope. He turned his back on the border and began his long journey back to Fallujah.

You May Like

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs