Arab Families Find Peace, Security in Kurdistan
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And with the daily violence in Iraq, tens of thousands of families are on the move, searching for safe places to live. Many Iraqi Arabs are making the surprising choice of settling in Kurdistan, surprising given the tensions in the current government and the decades of brutal Arab rule over Iraq's Kurdish minority.
NPR's Anne Garrels traveled to the Kurdish city of Sulimania and sent this report.
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ANNE GARRELS: With the school year just beginning, the only Arabic language school in the Kurdish city of Sulimania is inundated with families from the south seeking to register their children. Principal Mohammed Bahar Arif(ph) doesn't know how he's going to handle the surge in Arab students, up from 1,200 to 1,800 over the summer.
He points to a small classroom that will now have to accommodate 60 students at a time and there will be three shifts each day.
Civil engineer Hafiz Majid(ph) locked up his house in Baghdad and moved up here a year and a half ago.
Mr. HAFIZ MAJID (Sulimania, Iraq): I left my home with (unintelligible) 20,000 bucks, you know, just on coming here for safety for me and my wife and my children.
GARRELS: Hafiz is now helping his cousin register his kids. He recently fled Samara after receiving an anonymous threat.
Mr. MAJID: They sent him the message by the mobile, you know, tell him just clear this area or we kill you. You and your family.
GARRELS: Those coming here include professionals like doctors and engineers, part of the brain drain that has left Iraqis down south finding it increasingly difficult to track down a surgeon. Arab laborers have also come here hoping to get work in the Kurdish building boom. They camp out in the parks. Sunni and Shia, they're united here.
Hafiz Majid says he's been well received.
Mr. MAJID: There are no problems because, you know, when you live here and you speak to the people, they respect you and they try to help you anytime. Believe me. When I'm coming here, I'm surprised because I have no idea they are a good people like that.
GARRELS: Iraq's Kurdistan has been semiautonomous since 1991 when the U.S. and Britain stopped the Iraqi forces from flying over the region. The 2003 fall of Saddam deepened the region's autonomy and its relative calm sets it apart even more.
In this oasis of safety and tranquility there are no concrete barriers, no razor wire, no security forces racing through the streets, guns at the ready. Way into the night people sit on restaurant terraces enjoying a meal. Even a bottle of beer.
But the influx of Arabs does not make everyone happy. Sixteen-year-old Mohammed is concerned the Arab migrants could change the demographics of this overwhelmingly Kurdish region.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) I don't think it's a good idea to let Arabs stay in Kurdistan. For now, they need shelter. But if you go through history, the Arabs have treated us very badly.
GARRELS: He worries Arabs moving in are terrorists or might attract them.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) If there is an explosion it will be because of them. When you look at them, they're very scary. I'm afraid of them.
GARRELS: A few newspapers have run editorials in favor of segregating the Arab migrants in a special camp but most, like Niaz Latif(ph) say they're happy to give them temporary refuge.
Ms. NIAZ LATIF: (Through Translator) At first we were scared, but they get registered and security keeps an eye on them.
GARRELS: Though Kurdistan is part of Iraq, passengers arriving from Baghdad at the Sulimania airport have to go through passport control. The Arab migrants have to register with security agencies who track where they live. That's fine with engineer Nasir Yasirri(ph), who recently moved here with his wife and three kids.
Mr. NASIR YASIRRI (Sulimania, Kurdistan): The process is very long, but we are happy with it at the end because we don't want the terrorists to follow us here.
GARRELS: But fear follows those who move here. Dr. Bon Mohammed(ph) says it's hard to shake.
Dr. BON MOHAMMED (Sulimania, Kurdistan): (Through Translator) I jumped every time a door slammed shut, fearing it was another bomb.
GARRELS: This 30-year-old physician thought she would only be here a few months. It's now been almost a year. She receives patients in jeans and a T-shirt under her white coat, perfectly acceptable in this more tolerant atmosphere. Such skimpy clothing now draws stares, recriminations or possibly worse down in Baghdad.
She fled the Iraqi capital because so many doctors have been threatened, killed or kidnapped. She doesn't know when she can rejoin her family because she says the situation there just gets worse.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Sulimania, Kurdistan.
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