More than two million refugees from Syria and central Iraq have fled during the last two years to Iraqi Kurdistan. This means: A fifth of the population are refugees now. Just like in other countries in the region tensions are rising as the state is hardly able to accomodate newcomers appropriately. The women of Halabja have now set a unique sign against this trend: The Women Center and Radio Dangue Nwe, two longstanding partners of Wadi, started a campaign to support refugees through locally grown structures. “The Halabja Peace Project” does not only try to help women and children who had to flee war, the actrocities of the “Islamic State” or Assad’s regime, but wants to send a clear message that only cooperation and mutual understanding are leading into a better future of peace and coexistence.
It was a hot summer day in the end of May. The women in Halabja’s Women Center and Radio Dangue Nwe’s staff were going about their usual business, chatting about their classes and events in the city when a man politely asked at the door if he could enter. He was a Syrian refugee, he explained in the Kurdish dialect spoken in Northern Syria. He had heard of this center and now he wondered if this was also open for Syrian refugee women.
“We are open for everyone”
“Of course it is,” the answer came. “We are open for everyone.” The next day, a bus drove by, 40 women jumped out and entered the center. They reported how boring life was in the camp, sitting around in the blistering summer heat. “Do you have sewing machines?” they asked. “This would give us something to do.”
The women center, founded ten years ago by WADI, has sewing machines but also computers, a radio studio, a café and several classrooms. After getting a tour the Syrian-Kurdish women were full of ideas what they could do here. The garden was a wonderful place for their children, classes could be given, maybe a radio program. Not much sewing happened that day, as they were all discussing how to work together. Then, one woman asked if they could invite the Arab refugee women as well. “Why not!” the answer was, “bring them along.”
The next day, the bus came again with 40 Syrian women and then drove off again, only to arrive half an hour later with 30 Arab women.
The following meeting with about 100 women was inspiring and in the Iraqi Kurdish region anything but usual. Tensions between the locals and refugees run high these days. With two million refugees in the Iraqi Kurdish region which only counted four and a half million inhabitants before, accomodating refugees is not simply a question of money and organization like in Europe. Space is getting extremly limited, parks are overcrowed, children have nowhere to play, schools can not possibly fit all the new pupils. Even with money these logistical problems would be hard to overcome in the short time the refugees arrived. But money is scarce as well. European states are failing to meet their pledges to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
In the city of Halabja, 530 families have taken refugee in the recent conflicts. 400 of them are Arabs from central Iraq, 120 have fled the civil war in Syria and 10 families are Yazidis from the Singjar mountains who have also fled the Islamic State. In the whole province of Halabja a total of 2816 refugee families are registered.
Yet, there are also political reasons for resentment which can turn into open racism. While the Syrian mostly Kurdish refugees fleeing from the civil war have been welcomed warmly in most cases, the Arabs who have arrived from central Iraq are met with suspicion. Kurdish nationalism is strong and years of suppression under the Arab nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein have not been forgotten. Today, politicians voice their dismay that Iraqi Kurdistan is flooded with Arab refugees because the central government in Bagdad is failing its responsibilities, or, in fact, failing as a state entirely: While Kurdish Peshmerga are taking on the “Islamic State” and winning ground, the Iraqi army is still in retreat. The government in Bagdad is adding fuel to the fire by giving free reign to Shia militias which torment the Sunni Arab population forcing them to either flee or align themselves with the Jihadists.
Youth cleans up public gardens, Kids go picnic
As true as this analyses may be, the women in the Halabja Women Center understood perfectly well that politics can not be turned against people. Many of the women in the center have been refugees themselves when they fled from Sadam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds. Only if Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds and Arabis would join could they overcome this current crises and set a sign against rising racism – and at the same time even have fun together.
Together, they came up with a program which will serve Arabs and Kurds alike from which ever country they are from. Under the label “campaign for mutual living and Peace in Halabja”, the refugees are be offering classes teaching Kurdish to the Arabs and Arabic to the Iraqi Kurds – Syrian Kurds were taught in Arabic and only in Arabic in schools under the regime of the Assads.
The refugee women are participating in the women and youth radio program Radio Dangue New. During summer a vacation program for children was designed – in the long hot summer months there have been so far no activities for them. There were classes and outings e.g. to one of Kurdistan’s most beautiful recreational areas with waterfall and much greenery.
The children and youth also decided to clean the two public gardens in Halabja on one day with music and other festivities for everyone to join. They wanted to send the message: Refugees are beautifying our city.
The activities and the idea behind the “Halabja Peace Project” have already been reported widely on Kurdish media starting a public debate how a welcoming culture for refugees could work.
The whole program is carried out by the Halabja Nwe Organization which WADI helped to found ten years ago, but which has become an entirely independent grassroot organization. Many of the activities are funded by Green Cross, WADI has contributed 5000 Euros as a start-up from a rapid response fund. It was possible to extend the program into the winter months with support of the Salt Foundation, the German school in Brussels and individual donors.
The “Halabja Summer of Peace” is just one example how WADI’s approach works: support of those who strive to improve their living conditions and empowering them to make use of their democratic rights to decide their own future.
You can support the “Halabja Summer of Peace” with your donation as well.