With world’s focus elsewhere, Iraq scrambles to house Syrian refugees
DOMIZ REFUGEE CAMP, Iraq — In a sign of sagging hopes that the Syrian civil war will end anytime soon, many of the refugee tents at this sprawling camp are being replaced by cinder-block homes, one man even painting faux wood trim on his newly built house. And in a sign of how hopelessly complicated the war has become, most Syrian refugees aren’t fleeing the government — they’ve been caught in a war within a war between anti-regime rebels linked to al-Qaida and secular Kurdish fighters who appear loyal to no faction.
Refugees have opened shops, hair salons — even a video game lounge — as Domiz has morphed from a camp into a dusty, rough-hewn town of more than 60,000 people. There’s no end in sight to the steady stream of arrivals pouring over the border.
“They are still coming,” camp official Salim Saed said wearily.
As the U.S. and Russia pursued a deal for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles to avoid a U.S. military strike, refugees by the thousands continued walking over the border of a country that the American military left less than two years ago. There are roughly 220,000 refugees in Iraq, nearly all of them ethnic Kurds who have taken shelter in the country’s three autonomous Kurdish provinces. Those interviewed for this story say they expect to be in Iraq for a long time.
“I don’t have any hope of going back to Syria,” said Aziza Ali, 26, who fled fighting near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kameshlo in late August with her husband and two young daughters.
Aid slow to arrive
While the Kurdish government is giving shelter to refugees and offering residency cards so that new arrivals can work, the crisis is beginning to strain public services. Local refugee officials complain that they are getting little assistance.
“Syrian refugees in Kurdistan have been ignored by the international community,” Duhok province’s refugee camps supervisor Edrees Nabi Salih said.
With world attention focused on the larger Syrian refugee centers in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, aid has been slow to arrive to Iraq, said Yousif Mahmood, spokesman for the Iraq office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the world body’s refugee agency. He said the agency is conducting contingency planning for as many as 130,000 more refugees, and the need for more aid is pressing with the end of summer.
“Especially with the winter season approaching, we’ll need the support of the international community more,” Mahmood said.
With Domiz overflowing, the Kurdish Regional Government is scrambling to find room for the Syrians who continue crossing over a rough dirt path through the barren, mine-laden hills that divide eastern Syria and Iraq’s Duhok province.
In Bagderash, a sleepy town on the brown rolling plains of northwestern Iraq, about 750 Syrians have set up camp in a youth sports complex, erecting tents next to an empty swimming pool and caged tennis courts. Lacking labor, local refugee coordinators have enlisted many of the male refugees to help build a more permanent camp on the outskirts of town.
Standing in the baking late-summer sun at the Bagderash camp, Dlovan Abdi Osman told of how he fled Damascus for the Kurdish enclave of al-Malkia with his wife and five children, then had to flee from there, too, as fighting between Kurdish forces and rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra encroached on the town. He didn’t have the money to rent a car, he said, so he left most of his family’s possessions behind.
“It was very difficult to leave,” he said, his voice rising in anger. “I know all the people in my neighborhood — it was like turning my world upside down.”
Caught in the middle
The fighting that has engulfed Kurdish regions of eastern Syria is between Kurdish militias known as Popular Protection Committees and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-affiliated rebel faction that espouses strict Sharia law and has fallen out with the mainline Syrian rebel group, the Free Syrian Army. The umbrella group for the Kurdish militias is the the Democratic Union Party, which is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Kurdish separatist group that has fought a bloody guerrilla war against Turkey for decades.
Refugees have been caught in a battle not only between the Protection Committees and Islamic extremists, but also between the Syrian Kurdish militias and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which rules Iraqi Kurdistan. That strife led to the border being closed for more than two weeks in September, while some refugees languished on the Syrian side with little food and few services.
“The situation was terrible,” said Fadel Mahmood, who fled with his wife, two daughters and seven siblings and waited a week for the border to open. “We had nothing to eat.”
The Democratic Union Party and Kurdistan Democratic Party have traded accusations about who was keeping the refugees out, with the rebels claiming their Iraqi rivals closed the border and the KDP echoing refugee claims that the rebels were trying to stop Kurds from leaving Syria for fear of depopulating Kurdish-majority Syrian towns.
Hamid Ahmad, an adviser to Iraqi Kurdistan’s president Massoud Barzani, admitted that the government was slowing the flow of refugees to avoid the region getting swamped.
“If we really opened the border fully in a short period of time, a million refugees might come, and we can’t handle that,” he said.
Democratic Union Party leader Jaafar Akar Hannan accused some refugees of leaving for purely political purposes — to make the Kurdish rebels look bad and bolster the KDP’s standing in the dispute.
“Of course there are some difficulties, because we’re in the revolutionary period,” he said. “Some of those who are coming over are politically motivated ... and are trying to show Syrian Kurdistan in a bad light.”
If anyone at Kowergost refugee camp is making a political point, they are paying a heavy price for it. Multiple families are stuffed into cramped tents, electricity is scarce and food is rationed. Many had their lives uprooted from the only home they’ve ever known before coming to the camp perched on brown grassland outside the regional capital Irbil.
After surviving a journey to the Iraqi border where some risked death from Islamist rebels — a stop at the wrong checkpoint can be fatal — Kurdish refugees are weary of conflict and annoyed by the infighting among Kurdish factions.
For Syrians such as Adil Bajo, 31, the man painting faux wood trim on his refugee camp house, factional disagreements between rebels mean much less than getting back home.
“We just want things to go back to what they were like before.”