Iraqi Arabs seek refuge in Kurdish north

According to figures compiled by local officials in the three provinces that make up Iraqi Kurdistan, at least 12,500 Iraqi Arab families (about 75,000 individuals) have fled to the region.

There they find themselves in what feels like a foreign country: Kurdistan has been autonomous since 1991 with Kurds running their own affairs. While Arabic is still an official language, it is all but eclipsed by Kurdish.

But Iraq's Kurdistan has largely been spared the relentless car bombings, suicide attacks and Shia-Sunni infighting that has left thousands dead in Baghdad, central Iraq and the south.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an estimated 60,000 people are being forced to leave their homes every month due to the continuing violence in Iraq.

As of September, the UNHCR estimated that over 4.4 million Iraqis had left their homes. Of these, some 2.2 million were IDPs while over 2.2 million had fled to neighbouring countries, particularly Syria and Jordan.

"We couldn't even read the signs in the streets," said Abu Mohammed, a Sunni Arab from Baghdad's western neighbourhood of Gazaliyah. "At the beginning it was very hard to find an Arabic language school for the children," said the 46-year-old engineer.
Now he says he is thrilled to have found the Jawahiri elementary school - Sulaimaniyah's only Arabic language school - where he has enrolled his two sons.

IDPs strain infrastructure

The influx of IDPs has strained social services in Iraqi Kurdistan and fuelled rising housing prices.

Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman of the Kurdistan regional government, said rents had doubled since last year and some schools had been forced to run three shifts to cope with the increasing number of children. He said the federal government should do more to help immigrant families by paying them money and sending them food rations.

Manal Ali, the headmistress of Jawahiri elementary school, said that despite the school shift system class sizes had increased to 40.

The influx also comes at a time of heightened Kurdish-Arab tensions over the status of Kirkuk (a referendum on its incorporation into Iraqi Kurdistan is due to be held in December). Similar Kurdish-Arab tensions have also arisen in the northern city of Mosul. Kurds say that under the regime of former President Saddam Hussein they were oppressed, and efforts were made to Arabise the region.

In the light of this, the current migration of Iraqi Arabs to Kurdish cities like Sulaimaniyah may appear somewhat unusual, but so far it has not sparked significant ethnic tensions.

Fakher-Eddin Hayas, a taxi driver and father of 11, became an internally displaced person (IDP) two years ago in Sulaimaniyah, after death threats drove him from his house in the city of Mosul, also in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Militants accused me of being a collaborator with the US army as I was driving some Iraqi masons to the US base in Mosul," said Hayas. His whole family now lives in two cramped rooms in a floor tiles’ factory in Sulaimaiyah's industrial area.

Meanwhile, at the "border" between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, Kurdish fighters at checkpoints now stop and search Arab cars. Families are allowed in without permits, but single men must have a Kurdish sponsor and a work permit - a security measure to prevent militants from entering, the Kurdish authorities say.