Displaced, Jobless, Threatened—For Arabs in Kurdistan, Life Is Complicated
Iraqi Kurdistan is teeming with Arab refugees—and Kurds can’t agree what to do with them
In February, fighting between Islamic State militants and the Iraqi army drove 41-year-old Salam, a Sunni Arab, from his home in Babil province. He fled with his family to the town of Salahadin, believing it to be safe.
He was wrong. The Iraqi army collapsed. Islamic State captured the city of Mosul … and kept advancing. Salam and his family fled again—this time to the safest place he could think of.
Thousands of refugees had the same idea. Salam looked around for somewhere to live in the increasingly crowded autonomous region.
No luck at first. He and his family were standing in front of a real estate office in the Kurdish village of Piramagrun when a local man approached them. The Kurd said he had an unfinished house where the family could stay.
“He offered it to us to stay in for free,” Salam said.
They have water for only a couple hours per day. They borrow electricity from the Kurdish neighbors. Salam said he and his family are incredibly thankful for the Kurds’ generosity.
“The people around here, our neighbors, they are very kind and they are helping us by giving us ice, sometimes food,” he said. “They are very nice and hospitable.”
But not all Kurds are as welcoming to Arabs as the people of Piramagrun. In other places refugees have been met with suspicion and scorn. Some Kurds see them as potential terrorists. As the war drags on, anti-Arab sentiment is growing.
Now, many people in Kurdistan worry that the fight against Islamic radicals could morph into a race war between Kurds and Arabs.
On Nov. 19, a car bomb exploded in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, killing four and wounding 10. The blast shattered the relative peace the city has enjoyed for years.
True, a bomb struck the outskirts of the city this summer, but the November blast was the first attack in the heart of the Kurdish capital since the Kurds’ began fighting Islamic State early this year.
Security officials said Islamic State was likely behind the bombing. They said there’s a strong possibility the bomber entered Kurdistan disguised as a refugee.
Some Kurds took to the streets in protest following the attack. Photos and videos emerged on social media of Kurdish men in Erbil vandalizing cars belonging to Arabs.
Many Kurds see this war as a continuation of their long blood feud with Saddam Hussein’s Arab Ba’athists. Some of Islamic State’s most efficient fighters are former members of Hussein’s army and intelligence services—men that carried out mass killings of Kurds in the 1980s and early ’90s.
But many of these Arabs have lived and worked in the Kurdish region since before Islamic State invaded. The war has torn apart what were once some of Iraq’s most diverse and tolerant communities.
Many Kurds want the Arabs to leave. Other Kurds insist they have a duty to help the Arabs. And Kurdistan’s Arabs themselves are caught in the middle, wondering what war, terrorism and swelling racial tensions mean for their future.
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city—and one of its most diverse. When militants seized Mosul in June, thousands fled. Among the refugees were members of all of Iraq’s many ethnic groups and sects, including Iraqi Shias, Sunnis, Christians and Yezidi.
Darir—a Sunni Arab tech specialist from Kirkuk who lives and works in Kurdistan—explained that the Sunni Arabs are in a predicament.
“Sunni people have a big problem with ISIS, because they kill everyone. They do not care about anyone,” he said. “The people have started to leave the cities because of both sides, because of ISIS and because the government bombs them.”
“Both sides kill them.”
Bahari Taza, a small Kurdish village just a 20 minute drive from the front-line town of Jalawla, has taken in thousands of refugees. When War Is Boring last visited Bahari Taza, more than 600 families lived there. When Islamic State seized Jalawla in August, even more refugees fled to Bahari Taza.
The Bahari Taza village head, Adnan Mohammed Ali, made it his personal mission to care for the refugees. He spent his own money on food and supplies and urged his people to donate their time preparing meals for the refugees.
The refugees find shelter wherever they can—in tents, unfinished construction sites, barns or any other space the people of Bahari Taza can spare.
All around the town Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen refugees live side-by-side in these makeshift dwellings. Despite their differences.
We asked Ali why Bahari Taza had taken in all these people, many of them not even Kurds. Ali seemed confused by the question. He explained that as a human being, he didn’t see how he could do anything else.
And Bahari Taza is just one of many communities to open its doors to Iraq’s displaced.
At the Sha’ab Chaikana—a tea house in Sulaymaniyah—Kurdish men play dominoes and backgammon, sip tea and talk politics. The refugee situation is a common topic.
Most of the Kurds we talked to at Sha’ab expressed sympathy for the refugees.
“All of Kurdistan is full of Arabs from the region, Christian, Muslim, Shia, Sunni all of the religions, and the Kurdish are known for helping,” said Tofiq Aziz Ahmed, a 41-year-old journalist. “That’s a religious thing, a humanitarian thing.”
Hussein, a local engineer, said he thinks Kurds have an obligation to help the refugees based on their own experience with war. “We should help them because we were once refugees in the past. So we know how they feel.”
But not everyone at the tea house agreed. Abdula, 59, saw things very differently. “We are Kurdish,” he said. “We want to separate from the camels and from the pigs—from the Arabs. The Arabs, they do not have any culture.”
To the streets
In August, militants broke through Kurdish lines and seized the Yezidi town of Sinjar. They killed thousands of people, kidnapped and raped women and forced thousands more from their homes. Since then, anti-Arab sentiment has been on the rise.
Some activists want authorities to put Arabs into camps. Others want the Kurdish government to expel the Arabs altogether.
“The first time I saw the demonstrations in the street here I was shocked,” said Ramiza, a Sunni Arab human rights worker married to a Kurdish man.
She said she couldn’t believe that Kurds—who’ve experienced displacement so frequently in their history—could turn on the refugees.
“If you talk with any person he would tell you about 1991,” she said. “But now things have changed.”
Ramiza said that when she saw her first demonstration in August, her sisters were visiting her. She says the protesters scared them—they told her the Kurds hated them.
Ramiza reassured them. She insisted that her sisters had nothing to be fear, that these protesters were just an angry fringe group—that they didn’t know better.
“Then they saw all those comments and offensive posts on Facebook,” she said.
Some Kurdish Facebook pages, like Naheshtni Arab la Kurdistan, often express anti-Arab sentiments.
“I posted photos of the demonstration on Facebook,” Ramiza recalled. “I wrote that these are not the Kurdish people I’ve known and lived with. Kurdish people are not this group.”
She said Kurdish friends and relatives got defensive. They told her they weren’t protesting her, just the refugees.
Darir said that one of his Kurdish friends wrote on Facebook that “all the Arabic people who came here, most of them have jobs, they have high posts in the companies and good houses to live in. Then the Kurdish citizen is left sitting in the house without warmth because the Arab gets it.”
When Darir messaged him, his friend told him he didn’t mean Darir because he was a Turkman. In fact, Darir is of mixed Arab and Turkmen descent.
“I had to tell him that I am an Arab.”
“There are a lot of pages there that are attacking Arabs, not only refugees,” Ramiza said. “What I saw on Facebook was pages asking the Kurdish government to take all Arabs out, to attack them and put them in prison.”
Kurdish authorities have struggled to balance open discourse with protecting the refugees. Not to mention looking out for Arab residents like Darir and Ramiza who have lived peacefully in the region for years.
“A lot of Arabs who live in Erbil for example, who have lived there with their families since 2007, they feel insecure,” Ramiza said. “So for those Asayish [intelligence officials] who know old Arab families who live in Erbil, they called them and asked them to stay calm … that is nice, in a way.”
As demonstrations ramped up in Erbil, Ramiza said an Asayish officer called the father of one her Christian Arab friends in the city. The officer asked him not to do anything if he saw—or got caught up in—an anti-Arab protest.
The officer informed him that the Asayish couldn’t stop the protest, but wanted to promise him that the officers would keep the Arabs in the city safe.
Ramiza said she doesn’t know what to make of it. She’s particularly disturbed by what she’s seen in her friends and colleagues—fellow human rights workers who she thinks should be fighting for the refugees.
“I’ve heard bad comments about Arabs and a lot of people attacked Arabs in front of me, people that I wouldn’t imagine would do that,” she said. “Open-minded people like women activists, like human rights activists.”
“They were like, ‘No, no, no—Arabs need to be in camps.’”
Kalan is a college student who has taken part in the protests. But he insisted that he isn’t motivated by hatred or racism. According to him, the situation is far more complicated.
“We are not against the Arab refugees which came from the war who were kicked out by the ISIS,” he said. “We have a problem with the refugees who have ISIS in their minds.”
“We want some security procedures. Those procedures are putting the Arab refugees in a camp, not in the cities.”
He said he’s concerned that the refugees pose a massive threat. He insisted that terrorists and sympathizers have already infiltrated Kurdistan as refugees. “Islamic State was close to Erbil, and Arabs inside the city were having a party,” he said, referring to events this summer.
He explained that police arrested hundreds of Arabs as they celebrated the militants’ advance. He said the Arabs told Kurdish authorities they had no right arresting them for celebrating.
“They use our democracy against us,” Kalan said.
Kalan alleged that many Arab refugee families are living in Kurdistan while their husbands and fathers fight for Islamic State. “They see Kurdistan is safe,” he said. “They are fighting against the Peshmerga and their families are safe.”
He claimed there have been specific documented cases. He cited a sniper that Peshmerga forces captured in Jalawla. “He was ex-Saddam’s army. He was a great sniper. He killed six Peshmerga.”
According to Kalan, when the Peshmerga captured the militant, they asked him where his family lived. Kalan claimed the sniper told the Peshmerga he’d sent his family to Sulaymaniyah, because he knew they’d be safe there.
“So you can imagine, [Kurdistan] is the safe part, his family is living there, but he is still fighting against us,” Kalan remarked.
But he insisted he doesn’t hate Arabs.
“They can change. We can help them. We can open universities inside their cities. We can open schools for them. Maybe in 20 years, the next generation of them will be a society like yours. I could never hate them. There are cities like Karbala, [where] there’s not any hate towards the Kurdish.”
Kalan said he’s willing to concede that some of the protesters probably are racist. “Of course. there are many of them that hate Arabs,” he said. “Many Kurds hate the Arabs and many Arabs hate the Kurdish.”
But he insisted that the influx of refugees has only exacerbated ethnic tensions. He said that’s part of the reason he advocates sending Arabs to camps—or out of Kurdistan as soon as possible.
“If we don’t take care of the problem, if we don’t move the people to the camps or move them back to their cities, people will not trust Arabs.”
Kalan insisted that putting people in camps is a normal thing. After all, he said, the Kurdish refugee ended up in camps during and after the Kurds’ wars with the Arab Ba’athists.
“When the Kurds went to Iran as refugees, do you know what Iran did?” he asked rhetorically. “Iran put them in camps, camps like the ones animals lived in.”
Kalan said that Iranians didn’t let the Kurds into the cities, even though most of the cities along the border were overwhelmingly Kurdish. Kurdish refugees who had family in Iran weren’t allowed to go stay with relatives.
“Despite this, we are very grateful for what the Iranians did for us, even if they treat us like animals. At least they didn’t kill us.”
Kalan said he believes the Kurds can do better than the Iranians did. “I don’t say to keep [the Arabs] in camps and treat them like the Iranians treated the Kurdish. I’m saying put them in the camps and treat them well. Not like what the Iranians did, not like what Turkey did.”
But Ramiza insisted division is the wrong strategy. She said Islamic State represents something far more sinister than any regional feud. The way she sees it, it’s more important than ever for Kurds and Arabs to come together.
“There is ISIS out there and we all need to go and fight them,” Ramiza said. “Not only Peshmerga, not only Iraqi army, because they are attacking everybody. They don’t distinguish if you are Kurdish or Arab.”
Ramiza pointed out that many ethnic Kurds have also joined the militants to fight against the Peshmerga and Iraqi army. Islamic State includes militants from all over the world—including radicalized white Westerners. It’s far from a strictly Arab movement.
Many Peshmerga also believe that shelving old hatreds—at least for the time being—is vital to defeating Islamic State. They say getting the support of Sunni Arabs is critical to undermining the militants’ power base.
One of Boor’s officers—a retired Peshmerga named Sherda who came from England to fight—echoed this sentiment. Sherda insisted that it’s the Kurds’ duty to protect all innocent people, regardless of ethnicity or sect.
When War Is Boring visited Jalawla in June, Maj. Borham Mohamad—the Kurdish officer in charge of supplying Kurdish troops—said he had sympathy for the Sunni Arabs in the town. Even members of the Karwy tribe, which had moved to the area as part of Ba’athist “Arabization.”
By August, the Kurds had actually recruited some members of the traditionally hostile Karwy tribe to help track militants and gather intelligence.
“Move forward people. There is no Saddam now, no Ba’ath party,” Ramiza proclaimed. “There are Sunni and Shia and Kurds who are fighting for positions and that’s it.”
But what will it take get the Kurds, Turkmen, Shias, Christians, Yezidis and Sunnis to work together? “We need a superhero,” Darir joked. “When all Iraqis will be united against them, then ISIS will be finished,” he added more seriously.
He said that the sooner that happens, the sooner the refugees will leave Kurdistan.
“They are poor people, running away from death. They don’t want to change the demography of Kurdistan. As soon as every thing is normal again they will go back to their cities. They are not happy to be far away from their neighbors, their childhood homes.”
But Kalan is skeptical. He compared today’s Arab refugees to Kurdish refugees who fled to Britain in the 1990s.
“[Do] you hear about those Kurdish coming back to Kurdistan? A little, very little, return. Even before these problems, they don’t come back. Why? Because Britain is better than Kurdistan. They want to stay in a better country.”
Long way from home
“At any point he could ask us to leave,” Salam said of his family’s Kurdish benefactor as he stood in the small unfinished house they call home. He said he doesn’t know what he would do if his family has find a new place to live.
“We could rent a house for two months and then we would have no money left.”
Salam used to work as a shuttle driver, driving people to work and school. He even still has his van—it’s parked outside the house—and he’s more than happy to work. But he said that the Asayish told him only Arabs with a residency card are allowed to work.
“We do not have a residency card. Maybe this will mean we will have to leave Kurdistan. The residency card, you can only get it if you have a Kurdish sponsor. But because I don’t speak the language, I don’t know how make a Kurdish friend to be a sponsor. So it is very hard for us to do this.”
Even so, Salam said the people of Piramagrun have been good to him and his family. But he said he’s homesick. He’s tired of living as a refugee. “We have not lived like his before. We do not have the things we need. You can see we are sitting on the dirty ground. We are not used to it.”
“Everybody who left misses their house, their land, their neighbors, their home,” he said longingly. All he wants to do is go back. But he said until that’s possible, he’ll stay wherever he can keep his family sheltered, fed … and safe.