Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Kurdistan: Tough Times for Arab Refugee Kids

Children of Arabs, who’ve fled violence in the rest of the country, struggling to settle in their new home.
By Najeeba Mohammad
Karwan Hussein, a 10-year-old Kurdish boy, was playing with his friends in the town of Qaladze when his new neighbour called for help. Hussein didn't respond, he knows better than to help an Arab.



"They're Arab terrorists," he said. "My mother told me not to be around people who speak Arabic because they might kidnap me."



He said his parents had told him that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein - "who was an Arab" - destroyed their majority-Kurdish town in Sulaimaniyah province during his violent reign.



The suspicion built up over years of brutal rule from Baghdad endures. Hussein and his family view their new neighbours, who escaped the bloodshed in Mosul and fled to Qaladze three months ago, with suspicion. All the children in the neighbourhood refuse to play with the Arab family’s two boys.



As the violence has exploded in Iraq, the Iraqi Red Crescent says at least 4,500 Arab families have fled to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, centre of this province in north eastern Iraq, since June 2006. This has come as a shock to Sulaimaniyah, which was seen as one of the most mono-ethnic cities in Iraqi Kurdistan.



While they are now neighbours, Arab and Kurdish children aren't mixing, with children like Hussein maintaining a legacy born of decades of distrust between the two ethnic groups.



Saddam Hussein and his top aides carried out ethnic cleansing against Kurds during the Anfal campaign in the 1980s.



The Kurdish region then achieved autonomy under the protection of the US no-fly zone that followed the 1991 Gulf War, and became isolated from the rest of Iraq until Saddam was overthrown in 2003. As a result, young Kurds have rarely interacted with Arab Iraqis.



Gona Abdullah, a Sulaimaniyah-based sociologist, said changing attitudes will take time and effort.



"The way the children are being brought up is a reflection of the political situation in Iraq, the disputes between Kurds and Arabs and the [past] wars between them," she said. "Kurdish and Arab children feel like strangers because they have been raised to feel uncomfortable with each other."



Many of the Arabs who have ended up in Sulaimaniyah are highly-educated professionals, but some are living in dire conditions. Amir Ali, 12, and his family fled Baghdad a few months ago. His father is dead, so Ali dropped out of school when they left the capital and supports his mother and three sisters by begging in the city centre.



"I make around 15,000 dinars (11 US dollars) each day, but Kurdish children often beat me up and take the money," he said. "It's very hard when you don't know the language of the people you live with and they don’t trust you."



Language is a serious barrier between Arabs and Kurds. Most Kurdish children know very little Arabic - school lessons are taught in Kurdish, which is usually the only language spoken at home - and most Arab children have never been exposed to the Kurdish language.



An ethnic-Arab doctor in Qaladze who fled from Mosul, and asked to remain anonymous, said he has trouble communicating with his patients now that he is working in Iraqi Kurdistan. He took his two children out of school because of language problems.



"They don't know Kurdish, and they were coming back crying from kindergarten everyday because they couldn't understand what the teachers and the other students were saying," he said.



Sulaimaniyah has four Arabic-language schools. Kurds and Arabs study together in these schools, but teachers say the number of Arab students is growing significantly. Kamal Mahmood, headmaster of Shorsh preparatory, where lessons are taught in Arabic, said that last year just under half of the 630 students were Arabs.



"I spend most days acting as a mediator between the students and bringing them together because there are fights between Shia, Sunnis, Kurds - all of them," he said. "I have told them many times that there should not be any discrimination among sects, classes or languages in the school, or we will suspend or expel them."



And children from mixed families are trapped in the middle.



Sara Mohammad's father is an Arab from Egypt, and her mother is Kurdish. She can speak Kurdish and Arabic fluently, but keeps her Arab heritage a secret.



"My classmates don't know about it because I don't want them to look at me differently," said the 11-year-old. "Only one of my friends knows, and she has promised not to tell anyone."



Najeeba Mohammad is an IWPR trainee from Qaladze.

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