Fleeing Syrian Kurdish refugees find
little comfort or freedoms in Iraqi Kurdistan
March 15, 2012
In this Monday, March 12, 2012 photo, Syrian Kurds
refugees sitting in a rented house in Erbil, the
capital city of Kurdistan region in Iraq's north.
Syria’s Kurds are fleeing to Iraqi Kurdisan to
escape the bloody uprising in their home country,
where they have been pulled in different directions
by opposing political forces.
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QAMISHLI, Kurdistan region 'Iraq',—
Kurdish Syrians fleeing their nation’s bloody
uprising are all but prisoners in northern Iraqi
refugee camps, though they seek shelter in a region
that was created specifically as a safe haven for
Local Kurdish officials in the Iraqi province of
Duhok, which borders Syria, voted Wednesday to open
a second refugee camp for the growing number of
Syrian Kurds who are arriving every day. But they
are not allowed to leave the first, spartan camp at
Qamishli, and have been told they must apply for
residency before they may live freely in the region
widely referred to as, simply, Kurdistan.
It’s a twofold irony: Kurds are Syria’s largest
ethnic minority but long have been considered
illegal immigrants there. Moreover, Iraqis used
Syria as a safe haven during the worst of the
sectarian violence that nearly plunged their nation
in civil war just a few years ago.
“We can’t move or work freely, and our family can’t
send us money,” Qamishli refugee Radhwan Nadhum
al-Ali said in an interview this week. He compared
the small camp to “living in a big prison cell.”
“I’m mulling whether to go back and face death
rather than staying here,” al-Ali said.
Iraqi Kurdish soldiers guard the camp at Qamishli,
about 60 kilometers (30 miles) from the border.
Duhok provincial immigration director Mohammed
Abdullah Hammo said its Syrian Kurdish residents
“are not allowed to leave the camps.”
“They need security approval and residency
permission to be in Kurdistan, just like anyone
else,” he said Wednesday. He estimated that process
would take a month.
The three northern provinces that make up Iraq’s
self-rule Kurdish region are protected by Kurdish
security forces and governed by Kurdish officials.
It has for generations given asylum to Kurds —
though mostly to Iraqis during Saddam Hussein’s
Repeated requests for an explanation for the
lockdown on the Syrian Kurds were rejected
Wednesday, but in general, Iraq has been hesitant to
take a stand on the yearlong protests and fighting
that have engulfed Syria.
Iraqi support for the regime of President Bashar
Assad, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiite
Islam, would risk angering the Sunni-dominated Arab
League and could provoke violent retaliation from
Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups. But if Baghdad
outright condemned Assad, it would draw the ire of
Syria’s chief patron and the only other
Shiite-dominated nation in the Mideast besides Iraq.
“The only option is negotiation and dialogue,” Iraqi
vice president Khudhair al-Khuzaie, a Shiite, said
in an interview with state-run media Wednesday
night. “We do not believe that violence must occur
in Syria; we call for a dialogue that gathers both
the Syrian regime and the opposition.”
The dilemma highlights the plight of Syrian Kurds,
who are trying to avoid being used as political
pawns in the battle between Assad’s regime and
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria and
make up 15 percent of the country’s 23 million
people. They have long complained of neglect and
discrimination, and Assad’s government for years
argued they are not Syrian citizens at all, but
Kurds who fled to the country from Iraq or
Now, however, both the Syrian government and
opposition forces are reaching out to Kurds, whose
support could tip the balance in their conflict.
So far, most Kurds have sat it out. Last April,
Assad granted citizenship to 250,000 Kurds who were
registered as aliens before, an early overture to
try to interrupt the momentum of the uprising.
Opposition protesters, for their part, last week
staged nationwide demonstrations in hopes of
rallying Kurds against Assad.
Many in Qamishli said they do not want to pick sides
— even if it seems inevitable to them that Assad
eventually will be defeated.
“We are waiting for the fall of the regime to go
back to our homes,” said Abu Jihad, a political
activist who would agree to be identified only by
his nickname, since he illegally travels between
Syria and Iraq regularly. “We believe the regime
will fall, sooner or later.”
Many of the Syrian Kurds at Qamishli are young
adults who fled to avoid being forced to fight for
Waleed Abdul-Kareem, 25, said he used to drive a
tank for the Syrian army and helped seal off towns
where security forces would raid homes, arrest
citizens and launch attacks against people whom the
government indiscriminately branded as terrorists.
“I used to spit on my face whenever I looked at the
mirror,” said Abdul-Kareem, who was wrapped in a
blanket while sitting on the floor in a flimsy
house. “I blamed myself for what happened in my town
and asked myself how long I would continue with this
It’s not known exactly how many Syrian Kurds have
sought refuge in Iraq, although camp organizers said
at least 300 people are living in Qamishli alone.
The U.N. refugee agency this week reported that
30,000 Syrians so far have fled into neighboring
countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
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