When members of the Median Empire Motorcycle Club Dark City showed up at a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq, residents didn’t really know what to make of the tattooed and leather-clad bikers. “Some of them were afraid, some were happy,” said the club’s president, who goes by Azad Onepercenter. “They looked at us like we were a little bit crazy.”
Azad and two other members of the Median Empire were in the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq on an aid mission. The men, all of Kurdish descent and living in Germany, said they felt a duty to give back. “It’s our families, it’s our brothers and sisters,” said Fat Joe, the Median Empire’s Sargent at Arms. “We’re here in a better place so we try to give them a better situation, because we know the feelings, what they’re feeling right now.”
Totaling more than 30 million, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a homeland in the world. The majority of Kurds are spread out over Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. In all four countries, they have been repressed for generations. In Iraq, however, Kurds have been granted a degree of autonomy in the country’s North, where the Kurdish Regional Government is the ruling body.
In Syria, most Kurds are concentrated in the Northeast, near the border with Turkey and Iraq. Though they were denied rights by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as the Syrian civil war has grown worse over the past three years the Kurds have been attempting to carve out a homeland. Consistent attacks from jihadi factions, however, as well as a decimated economy, have caused many Kurds to flee to the relative safety and prosperity of the KRG.
Having faced state sponsored persecution all over, Kurds are no stranger to fleeing. Many have crossed borders to seek refuge in other Kurdish territories, such as the exodus of Iraqi Kurds to Turkey in the early 1990s.
“We know the feeling of being in a refugee camp, we’ve felt it ourselves,” Azad told VICE News.
An Iranian Kurd, he fled that country with his family when he was just 9 years old. His parents were members of the peshmerga — armed Kurdish militants whose name means “those who chase death.”
“We are here in Europe now. Everybody is good, everybody goes to work, everybody has money, everybody has a warm place, and enough to eat,” said Azad. “I see a lot of people — they forgot where they came from.”
As Azad tells it, the members of Median Empire decided it was their turn to give back. Funding the trip through membership dues and private donations, the members arrived shortly before the Newroz festival, which celebrates the Kurdish New Year, and spent three weeks touring the region and visiting the refugee camp. They also paid a visit to the Qandil mountains, a frequent site of Turkish air force bombings and the home base of the Kurdish militant separatist group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Founded by Kurds, Median Empire formed in 2011 and is now 70 percent Kurdish, though Azad says they welcome all. Originally, it was part of Mongols Motorcycle Club Germany but then branched off into Mongols Motorcycle Club Dark City before finally separating into Median Empire Motorcycle Club Dark City.
The Mongols Motorcycle Club is a global organization long suspected of being involved in organized crime. German authorities have also targeted Mongols clubs in Germany.
In Kurdistan, the Median Empire spent most of its time at Camp Arbat, a refugee camp just outside the city of Sulaymaniyah located close to the border with Iran. Camp Arbat is home to about 3,500 Syrian refugees, many from the city of Qamishli. All have fled deteriorating economic conditions and violent confrontations with jihadi factions.
As of March 31, there were approximately 214,000 registered Syrian refugees in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, according to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees. They have fared better than Syrian refugees elsewhere, but conditions have worsened as more refugees flow into the region. “The Syrian Kurds that work in Iraqi Kurdistan complain about travel restrictions, low-paid jobs, the more conservative culture among Iraqi Kurds and that it is more difficult to get residency permits since last year,” said Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a prominent analyst of Kurdish Affairs, speaking by phone from Erbil. “It’s difficult for the Kurdish government to accommodate all those Syrian Kurds.”
Instead of bringing supplies, Median Empire members brought money and visited the camp to see what the residents needed. Fearing corruption, they then purchased everything themselves and handed it directly to the refugees. “Our president was smart enough, he went and looked around first to see the issues,” said Fat Joe.
The Median Empire members focused primarily on providing medical care — and even brought a number of local doctors with them to the camp. They also provided funding for teachers for the next few months, and decided to sponsor two young girls who were orphaned after their parents were killed by jihadis in Syria, according to Fat Joe. “It had a big effect on us. We can help as much as we can, but it’s still not enough,” he said.
Meanwhile in Syria, the situation for Kurdish enclaves is still dire. At the same time that the Median Empire was aiding the refugee population, the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane was facing attacks from a large contingent of jihadis. The Popular Protection Units, the main Kurdish militia, even issued a call for any and all Kurds to come to its defense. Asked whether Median Empire had considered going to fight in Syria, Fat Joe said, “We can’t really talk so much about this, it could create problems for us.”
Azad agreed. “We’re not really there to take lives, we’re there to save lives,” he added.