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Arab IDPs Seek New Lives in Erbil

Despite cultural and language barriers, many IDPs consider Iraqi Kurdistan their new home.
By Mohammed Furat
Ali Awad goes to sleep each night without locking his front door.



When the father of three arrived in Erbil two years ago, it was to find sanctuary from the sectarian violence of Baghdad. Now, the Kurdish capital, Erbil, has become not only a safe haven for his family, but also their home.



“We are safe here,” Awad said. “I know that my family is safe.”



Awad and his family are among more than 1.6 million Iraqis who were driven from their homes by violence between 2006 and 2008, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, IDMC. The International Organisation for Migration estimates nearly 7,000 internally displaced families are living in Erbil province.



Many middle-class internally displaced people, IDPs, left Baghdad and other provinces after militias began kidnapping and killing professionals. They struggle with cultural and language differences, unemployment and difficult living conditions, including high rents.



But many families are also reluctant to return to their homes after building new and stable lives in Iraqi Kurdistan.



Awad fled Baghdad in 2007 at the peak of Shia-Sunni violence in the capital. He was forced to leave his car dealership and his home on Haifa street in west Baghdad, at that time a hotbed of insurgents.



“It was extremely difficult to walk in Haifa street,” he said, recalling how men would disguise themselves by putting on women’s traditional Islamic robes, so as not to be targeted by the militias.



Life in Erbil did not begin well. According to Awad, the stress of having “no job, no place to stay, and no contacts” contributed to a heart attack he suffered four days after he arrived. He spent his second week in Erbil in intensive care in one of the city’s public hospitals.



But two years later, his situation has dramatically improved.



He now works as an assistant accountant at Public Aid Organisation, PAO, an NGO helping resettle IDPs in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although his 400 US dollar monthly wage is low by local standards, he has managed to rent a small flat in a middle-class neighbourhood; his three children are back in school; and he is even taking Kurdish language lessons.



He says he has no immediate plans to return to Baghdad, even though the security situation has significantly improved in the past two years.



“My brothers and sister in Baghdad tell me that they are living in a big prison. There is still criminal violence. My children might be kidnapped at any minute,” he said. “Even if I dream of going back to Baghdad, I look at my family and think again. They are happy here.”



The influx of IDPs to Erbil began three years ago. Some former Baghdad residents have sold their properties in the capital, suggesting they have left the city for good.



Around 25 per cent of families displaced from Baghdad are planning to stay in Erbil long-term, according to PAO director Hogar Chatto, who says that some Arab IDPs have even tried to adopt Kurdish names and ethnicity.



“They thought that taking these steps would help them overcome the bureaucratic hurdles,” he said.



Procedurally, relocating to Iraqi Kurdistan is similar to moving to a foreign country. The three governorates run by the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, are considered the safest in the country and the KRG is strict about who it allows in.



An Iraqi who moves to Erbil, Sulaimaniyah or Duhok must receive security clearance and obtain a residency permit through a local sponsor - typically an employer or a local resident.



Most resident sponsors are civil servants who can be easily tracked by the KRG.



Kurds from other provinces must also register with Erbil’s security forces but do not require a sponsor.



Middle-class Arab newcomers who have found a steady job say they feel comfortable.



“I know that the situation here is much better than Baghdad,” said Bishar Abdullatif, an engineer from Baghdad, whose wife gave birth to their first child in Erbil a few months ago.



“All neighbourhoods became sectarian [in Baghdad]. Checkpoints make it impossible to move in the city and jobs are scarce.”



In Erbil, Abdullatif claims he has never been asked about his religion or ethnicity. Kurds, he said, “are basically good and peaceful people”.



Many new arrivals, however, have faced social challenges, stemming from language – few speak Kurdish – and cultural differences.



“Generally speaking, we have no social life here,” Awad said. “Having new friends, and especially a true friend, is not at all easy. It takes a lifetime.”



While some Kurds say the influx of Arab professionals has been a boon for the north, others say they should return. Improved security has enabled some IDPs to travel back and forth to their home provinces, but many say moving back is too dangerous.



“The situation in the rest of Iraq is better now,” said Lawlaw Rafat, who owns a beauty salon in Erbil. “The IDPs should go home. Kurds living in Europe are being deported to Kurdistan because the situation in the region is better. Kurds coming back from Europe should be doing the IDPs’ jobs.”



Others are more sympathetic.



“I have compassion for [Arabs who have relocated to Iraqi Kurdistan],” said Aryan Barzan, a university student in Sulaimaniyah. “Honestly, we [Kurds] are part of Iraq so they have the right to come to [Iraqi] Kurdistan whenever they like, just as we can go to the rest of Iraq.”



Mohammed Furat is an IWPR local editor in Erbil. IWPR local editor Hemin Lihony and IWPR-trained journalist Najeeba Mohammed contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah and Erbil.

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