Since leaving Iraq, I had only occasionally, accidentally come across the Kurds, while browsing the Internet or zapping TV channels – always looking for something else, of course. Nevertheless, I formed the impression from all these “unsolicited” encounters that since the demise of Saddam, they had been particularly eager to reassert their identity and their autonomy.
And here, as I was at their doorstep, was when that subconscious impression resurfaced. I broke out in a sweat mulling this dilemma: In what language should I greet this immigration officer? Would Arabic be in order, or remind them unnecessarily of a time they wanted to forget? And even more important: In what language do I speak to Syrian Kurds? Would they even agree to open up and talk to me, once they hear my Shami accent?
Well, it turned out that all this worrying was unnecessary. The immigration official that stamped my passport, and every other Kurd who followed, would reply in Arabic with that strong Iraqi accent I grew to love. Refugees would smile and engage in conversations that would know no end, inviting me into their tents to drink tea and tell their stories without inhibitions. They even spoke about their fear of the Arabs taking over their villages and houses in the chaos that is riddling Syria. In fact, Domiz camp, with its exploding population of 35,000 and counting, is perhaps the friendliest refugee camp I have ever known.
It’s what a UNHCR staffer would dub a worker’s paradise: You can talk freely to any refugee you want, you have no swarms of other refugees forming circles around you, no authorities breathing down your neck, and you feel safe. But that is not the only reason why my visit to Domiz became so special. It was also the one occasion where I was exposed to the multifaceted Kurdish identity.
One thing became clear during my visit: Kurds view themselves as part of a whole, or of one population. It is this sentiment that explains how the Kurdish regional government took in, without hesitation, more than 130,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict to date, allowing them to work and reside freely, despite the enormous pressure that their presence has put on the region. It is also the reason why hundreds of average Iraqi Kurdish citizens that struggle themselves to make ends meet responded enthusiastically to a fundraising campaign launched by local Kurdsat TV, collecting relief items, food and money worth $2 million for the refugees.
Impressive? Most certainly, especially when they have done so quietly – their generosity towards their Syrian brothers has gone largely unnoticed by the international community.
The most incredible thing I learned in Domiz was how profoundly Syrian Kurds identified themselves as both Kurdish and Syrian, even if they did not always historically feel treated as the latter. It was there that I heard some of the most emotional testimonies of love and yearning from Syrian refugees for a country they once called their own. In particular, I will not forget Hassan, a middle-aged Kurdish shopkeeper from Aleppo. With tears welling in his eyes, he said, “Syria is like air to me. It would be impossible for the Kurds to hate the Arabs or the Palestinians. We have lived together across time.”
That was sentiment that resurfaced again in the tale of Ossama, another Kurd from Aleppo, while describing his brief return to Afrin to pay a long-standing debt he had to his landlord. “The whole way from Dohuk to Afrin, I was crying. How can the Syria that I love so much turn into this rubble?”
Are they isolated cases? No. They are representative of a wider yearning that exists among refugees of all backgrounds. Today, as the voices of sectarianism, violence and hatred continue to rise, attempting to mute all other voices, the words of people like Hassan and Osama continue to ring in my ears, reminding me that those most affected by Syria’s conflict still hope to resurrect what they valued most in Syria: its rich multicultural identity.
(Editor’s note: All names have been changed to protect the identity of the refugees. The views in this article are Alsalem’s, and do not necessarily represent those of UNHCR.)