Despite Havoc, Syrian War Sparks Hope Among Kurdish Minority

With Syria in chaos, minority Kurds there hope they can realize long-standing ambitions for autonomy. Kurds who fled to northern Iraq from Syria will press those demands when they finally go home.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Syria, there's not a lot of hope these days, except maybe for one ethnic group, the Kurds. Inside Syrian, ethnic Kurds aren't allowed to speak Kurdish or hold traditional festivals like the springtime Newroz celebration. But as the Syrian government loses control over parts of the country, Syrian Kurds are gaining hope for a new autonomy and maybe even a state of their own. NPR's Alice Fordham recently spent the Newroz holiday with Syrian Kurds who fled to Northern Iraq and filed this report.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's the eve of Newroz, here in the (unintelligible) camp of Syrian refugees in Northern Iraq. This part of Iraq is dominated by Kurdish people and the people who fled the fighting in Syria who've come here are almost all Kurdish. The women in the camps are wearing the new bright clothes of the traditional. They're singing and dancing their traditional dances.

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FORDHAM: The Kurdish minority in Syria has had a tough time. Numbering about 2 million, they faced official and informal discrimination even before the war and now, they've run away from the fighting to live in these rows of thousands of tarpaulin tents, nestled in the mountains. A young woman named Dima(ph) explains that in Syria, it's always been hard to speak Kurdish or sing their songs.

DIMA: Of course, we was faced difficulty to speak our language, our traditional songs. Of course, we was studying Arabic all the time in the school and in the university, all things was Arabic, English, too. But Kurdish don't allow us to do that.

FORDHAM: A lot of people here say that they really miss their family and their old villages that they used to go to in Syria, at this time of year. But they don't have the repression that existed in Syria where they weren't allowed to sing Kurdish songs; they weren't allowed to speak Kurdish. Although they're poor here - they're living in tents - they actually say they feel more free.

A big part of that is because most people in this part of Iraq are also Kurdish. I speak with Nidal, whose little son's traditional baggy pants and colorful sash exactly match his dad's.

NIDAL: (Through Translator) This is our home, too, because it's the Kurdish homeland. And I'm very happy to be here because for the last three years, we couldn't celebrate in Syria and I'm happy to celebrate again. We have freedom here and we do what we want.

FORDHAM: The situation for Kurds inside Syria now is complicated. Different Kurdish factions have clashed both with the regime and with extremist Islamist rebels. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have largely withdrawn from Kurdish areas. This has allowed a certain shaky autonomy in some places. For many activists, this new freedom inside Syria and out is fuelling nationalist ambitions.

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FORDHAM: Visiting another refugee camp, I squelch through the mud to the tent of Abu Ayyas, who helps run things here. He explains that at the beginning of Syria's uprising, Kurds there were demanding citizenship, the right to own property. After they were granted that they began to think bigger. He suspects Syria will break apart and that one of the pieces should become a region for Kurds.

ABU AYYAS: (Through Translator) We think that Syria will be divided. So it's our right to have our own land for Kurdish people that we govern.

FORDHAM: Others go further. Faisal Ismail has been campaigning for Kurdish rights for decades. He now thinks that the time is coming for the ethnic Kurds living in Syria and Iran, Iraq and Turkey to unify and call for a state of their own.

FAISAL ISMAIL: (Through Translator) I believe that the unified Kurdistan is imminent in the future, because people do not accept oppressions from the countries that are occupying parts of Kurdistan.

FORDHAM: Others aren't so sure. Iraq's Kurds have their own struggles. And neighboring countries could oppose the formation of a new state. Plus, many Syrian-Kurds are still proud to be Syrian. One woman tells me that they celebrate Nowruz more freely now but she still calls Syria home.

Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That story from Alice Fordham. She covers Iraq and Syria from her base in Beirut. She's part of our great international reporting team. You hear their stories here on MORNING EDITION, also on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and other NPR programs.

Our former Beirut correspondent Kelly McEvers is hosting the program this week, sitting to my right. You can follow her on Twitter @kellymcevers.

MCEVERS: And you can follow David at @nprgreene. Steve Inskeep is @nprinskeep. And this program is @morningedition.

GREENE: Thanks for making NPR News part of your day. You're listening on your Public Radio station. They have a website, go check it out.

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MCEVERS: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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