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Jihadists or Boredom? The Choices Aren't Great for Syria's Kurdish Refugees

Kawrgosk, Syria is home to thousands of trapped Kurds fleeing from the interminable civil war raging in the region. They struggle to get by in massive tent cities that have developed their own economy and culture separate from the war around them.

by Orlando Crowcroft
Nov 4 2013, 10:20pm

The Kawrgosk refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan

An hour's dusty drive from Erbil, the capital city of Iraq's Kurdistan region, we emerge over the crest of a hill to see white tents sprawling over a sun-baked basin. This is Kawrgosk, one of three major refugee camps in northern Iraq. Designed to hold 10,000 people, this sprawling, arid patch of land is now home to 12,400 Syrian Kurds who have fled in the face of escalating violence at home.

Syria’s Kurds have found themselves caught in a tricky place during the country's civil war. Never fans of Bashar al-Assad’s regime (the fact that they were denied citizenship until 2011 probably didn't help much), the Kurdish community in Syria has now become victim to the rise of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni Arab militias, such as the al-Nusra Front, who consider Kurds to be heathens. The conflict in Syria has even spilled over into Iraqi Kurdistan, with five explosions rocking Erbil in October. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) believes that the bombs were detonated by militants who were members of the ISIS jihadi group, who are currently fighting in Syria and don't appreciate the Kurds getting involved.

Rashid Sheikh Mous and his wife

That attack was bad news for Kurdish refugees from the conflict. The KRG closed its border with Syria, which had only been open since August. So, everyone I met in Kawrgosk had arrived in a window of just over two months.

Rashid Sheikh Mous, 53, and his family fled Syria in August after their hometown, Serikanye, was captured by al-Nusra. Mous escaped in a taxi with his wife and four sons three months ago and has been in Kawrgosk ever since. Like many others, he has no idea when he will be able to return.

Sitting outside his tent, he tells me, "The clashes between the Kurdish defence forces and the militias were getting closer and closer; in the end we had to leave. We want to return, but it is out of our hands. Until the war ends, we will stay here. It is impossible to live there—there is no money or jobs."

Ahmed, my translator and guide, explains that this is a common story in Kawrgosk.

His own village, Talaran, close to Aleppo, has been surrounded by the Islamist militia, which receives funding from wealthy backers in the Gulf. He was only able to flee through hidden tunnels and hasn't seen or heard from his family since arriving in Iraqi Kurdistan. "The Free Syrian Army, the Islamists, and the regime are all fighting for my town—but they are all the same," he says, as we walk between the tents. "They all say they are fighting for the people, but they all have their own agenda."

That there isn't a lot for Syrian Kurds to go back to means that most in Kawrgosk are digging their feet in for the long haul. Rashid Sheikh Mous has managed to get permission for two of his four boys to work in nearby Erbil. His eldest, a philosophy graduate in Syria, is working as a handyman.

Refugees plead with the guards for permission to leave the camp and search for work

After talking to Rashid, I'm introduced to 30-year-old Hozan and his father, Youssef—refugees from Qamishle, who look to the camp rather than Iraqi Kurdistan’s cities as a means of making money. The pair run a shop at the intersection of two rows of tents deep inside Kawrgosk. They travel outside to buy food, drink, and cigarettes, and then sell them to other refugees. They are not alone; the camp’s main street includes a dozen shops, a shisha café, and even a hairdresser.

But after a few minutes in Kawrgosk, it's obvious that situations such as these are exceptions to the rule. At the heavily-fortified entrance to the camp, crowds of men argue constantly with stony-faced guards in an effort to be granted permission to leave, while a porta-cabin that processes applications for Iraqi residency is besieged by an angry mob of Syrian Kurds.

This anger is stoked, says Ahmed, by the fact that those who fled Syria in the early days of the civil war were able to simply melt into the Iraqi Kurdistan population and now work freely in the region’s cities. But as the numbers increased—165,000 as of the 22nd of October, according to UNHCR—refugees were taken straight to the camps, where they have to run the gauntlet of bureaucracy to be allowed to work outside.

Taybit Ahmed Omar, a refugee from the small Syrian city of al-Malikiyah, is one of many who are currently trying to leave the camp to work. She fled Syria by car, crossing the border and reaching Kawrgosk by bus with her seven daughters and a son. Now the family shares two tents in the camp.

"If we can find jobs, we are going to stay here," she says. "But even if not, we will not return to Syria. I am sick of my town; there is nothing there—no jobs, nothing."

Anas and two of his daughters

"We left looking for a better job and a better life," adds her neighbour, Anas, sitting next to his wife, Amina. "People can’t get out so they don’t have any money, they can’t survive. I have three daughters and I am not working—that’s why we’re suffering."

Considering that half of all the refugees in the camp are children, Anas' predicament is shared by most of the families in Kawrgosk. The kids dominate the camp, playing in the dust ditches—dug in advance of the coming winter rain—flying tiny kites and chasing each other in and out of the tents.

It has been a late summer in Iraqi Kurdistan, with temperatures still in the high-20s in the day and around ten degrees at night, but the big fear for all the refugees here is the coming winter. Not only is the camp already well over capacity, but funding remains an issue for NGOs. "Everybody is worried about the winter," says Ahmed, signalling to the hills that surround Kawrgosk. "Because look—there are hills on all sides, and when it rains in Iraq, it really rains."

Refugee children play in the sewage system in the camp

We later meet an activist who is a wanted man in Syria and who is setting his sights far further afield than Iraq. He has looked at the prospect of paying smugglers to get him out of the country, but at a cost of $10,000, it's looking unlikely.

"It would take me two lifetimes to afford that," he says, sadly, before explaining that the preferred route for many refugees is through Turkey, followed by Greece, Italy, France and then either Scandinavia – where Sweden and Denmark are accepting refugees—or the UK. "I have to get out of here. I need security. I need to be settled. We can’t live like this," he says.

Before we leave Kawrgosk, I meet Doran – a former journalist and activist who has been in the camp since fleeing Syria earlier this year. As a former journalist for state TV, he is a marked man by the Free Syrian Army; but as a student activist, he is also wanted by Assad’s regime.

The 28-year-old says he was tortured and jailed in Syria in 2004, 2008 and this year, before escaping the country and arriving in Kawrgosk. He won't go into specifics on what was done to him in Syria, looking at the ground, muttering "horrible things" and shaking his head. "Right now, we are as afraid of the opposition as we are of the regime," he says.

"There’s no future in Syria. A lot of people have been killed already and nobody seems to care. We have lost a generation. Physically, I think it will take 40 years to rebuild our country; but psychologically, it is going to take a lot longer."


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Meet the Kurdish Female Freedom Fighters of Syria

The Syrian Refugees Living in An Abandoned Lebonese Mall