Kurdistan Feels Pressure of Iraqi Influx

Fulbright scholar Bilal Wahab recently left Washington, D.C., to return home to Erbil, in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. Wahab says waves of people seeking the relative safety of the north put economic and social pressure on Kurdistan.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Over the past two years on this program, we've turned to Iraqis living here in the U.S. to help us understand the cultural context of their homeland. One of them, Bilal Wahab, has just returned to his native Kurdistan after a year and a half in Washington, D.C. as a Fulbright scholar. We thought we'd check in with Bilal, now that he's been home for a few months. And he joins me now by phone. Welcome once again to the program, Bilal.

Mr. BILAL WAHAB (Iraqi National; Fulbright Scholar): Thank you, Debbie. It's good to be back home.

ELLIOTT: How is your transition back home going?

Mr. WAHAB: It's been smooth and roughly(ph) at the same time. It's smooth to be back to the family, see my daughters, see my wife (unintelligible) my parents. However, I'm also sad that I had higher expectations for livelihood to become better, but there are some aspects that are unfortunately just the same as I left them two years ago.

ELLIOTT: Like what?

Mr. WAHAB: Unintelligible(ph) services mainly. The infrastructure is not there yet - lack of electricity. Lack of water, which is dependent on electricity and believe it or not, lack of fuel. And in - by fuel, I mean gas for your cars and kerosene for heating in winter.

ELLIOTT: Now, how are you making a living these days?

Mr. WAHAB: I'm doing good. I'm working for a training program called local governance program. It's a program by Research Triangle Institute, which is based in North Carolina, and they're operating here. I train public officials about the governance, transparency and so on.

ELLIOTT: And that is a contractor to the U.S. government there?

Mr. WAHAB: Yes. It's a USID contracting firm.

ELLIOTT: Bilal, can you paint a picture for us of how your home city, Erbil, has changed over the past two years?

Mr. WAHAB: The thing that struck me first and foremost was the construction boom. There are so many new hotels, some better streets, new supermarkets. And of course, the security has also gotten better. I'm very fortunate that in the past two years that I left, there haven't been any car bombs or explosions or serious terrorist attacks.

So the security is becoming the main asset of this region. You feel that there is a functioning government, and this has also attracted investors, especially from Turkey and Iran. And I was also struck by the number of Arab families and doctors and engineers who have fled the rest of Iraq and finding a safe haven here in Kurdistan.

ELLIOTT: Now, you mentioned that Kurdistan has - had not the problems with security that the rest of Iraq has had. You mentioned the investment that's there. You also mentioned that you're seeing a lot of refugees coming from points south. To what extent is it clear for you in your daily life that you are living in a country at war?

Mr. WAHAB: On the daily activities, I mean, you go downtown, you go shopping, you go to your workplace, and you see foreigners and business people at the hotels. So you feel that you are secure. But every day, when we come back at night and watch the news, we hear the car bombs in Mosul and the car bombs in Kirkuk. We are alarmed and reminded that it's not that far away.

ELLIOTT: How are Iraqi Kurds dealing with the influx of refugees there?

Mr. WAHAB: Some of them are happy. For example, in the health sector, you have great doctors and experts in different specialties of medicine, and they have fled Baghdad and Mosul. And now they came to Kurdistan, so the health sector has gotten much, much better. I just came back from a very good dentist who just came from Baghdad. And the construction boom is also in debt to the many engineers who have come not only from Baghdad but also from Syria and Lebanon.

However, some of the people who come here just come for work, and with the refugees, they work at the lower price. Erbil is really expensive. It's much, much expensive than when I left two years ago, and these people from the rest of the country, they not only flee the violence, but they also come here to make a living, and they're fine with making a living below the standard an hour(ph) that a Kurdish laborer would charge.

So on that front, not everyone is happy, and of course, sometimes you have to be alarmed(ph) that these people may be safe, but then they may have relatives who are not safe. They may have friends who may visit that might have connections to the terrorists or the insurgents.

ELLIOTT: Bilal Wahab is an Iraqi Kurd. He recently returned to his home in Erbil after a stint as a Fulbright scholar in the United States. We'll talk to you again down the road.

Mr. WAHAB: It's been good talking to you. You take care, and have a good day.

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