ERBIL, Iraq — Nine months ago, Lama Awad was traveling by bus between her hometown Damascus and Aleppo when the Syrian military took her off and detained her for two nights in jail without cause. After paying $500 in bribes, she was released, but at age 26 with half her life spent amid war, that was the final straw. She assessed her routes to leave legally.
The door to Turkey and Lebanon, home to the two largest Syrian diaspora communities worldwide, had largely been shut. The economic crises and anti-Syrian backlashes in those countries also made Lama uneasy. Travel to the United Arab Emirates was too expensive, and she didn’t feel she had enough experience to compete for a well-paying job to cover the high cost of living there. Egypt was an option, but she felt its lack of work and safety concerns would be more of the same she was trying get away from.
Lama didn’t have many options but she could afford a plane ticket and tourist visa to Erbil, the steadily developing capital of Iraq’s oil-rich northern Kurdistan Region.
“I think I made the right choice for now,” she told me about her arrival to Erbil. Wearing oversized glasses and a black concert t-shirt, her angsty appearance belied her mature demeanor. We drank a cup of vegetal tasting yerba mate, a tradition that began with Syrians living abroad in Argentina. “All the world refuses us except here,” she said. Her comment reflects just how much has changed in Syria and Iraq.
Twenty years ago, the United States invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. The Syrian government estimated more than a million Iraqis escaped the ensuing violence and instability by fleeing to neighboring Syria. In 2011, American troops pulled out of Iraq. That same year, Syrians began protesting against their president, Bashar al-Assad, which led to hopes for a brief revolution, and then a brutal war. The tide of migration reversed, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled east to seek refuge in Iraq.
In the initial stages of the war, Syrians made their way to Iraq to escape the military’s barrel bombs, the Islamic State group’s terrorism and Turkish ground offensives. Iraq’s Syrian refugee population has remained around 260,000 since 2015, with young men dodging Syria’s mandatory, open-ended military draft continuously trickling in.
Now, it is the economy of war that is pushing Syrians to leave. With most other options closed to them, white collar Syrians are arriving in Erbil by plane, hoping to use relatively stable Iraq as a first stop before moving on elsewhere. However, earlier transplants offer a lesson to the newcomers about the politics of hope, the strategy of making and breaking plans and how the search for a final destination may prove more difficult than many believe.
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Syria’s economy has hit its lowest point since the start of the conflict. The currency recently bottomed out at 7,500 pounds to the dollar on the black market. The cost of food has spiked and Iran has restricted its supply of cheap oil to the country, limiting a key source of fuel. Lucky households enjoy a few hours a day of electricity at best and some have no electricity at all.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq in contrast first gained autonomy following the Gulf War in 1991 when the United States set up a “no-fly” zone to support the rebellious, predominantly Kurdish population in northern Iraq. The Kurds are best known for the mountains they have inhabited, that have provided them refuge from chemical attacks by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and now a source of recreation for picknickers and hikers alike. But nowadays, it sometimes seems the rugged surrounding massifs will be eclipsed by the building bonanza in the city’s urban core.
Shiny high-rises and hulking, half-finished shells stand along the outer concentric circles that radiate from Erbil’s central citadel, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements. The post-modern E1 Tower erected last year is currently the tallest building for now, but even bolder skyscrapers are being planned. Pavilion Erbil, the latest luxury housing and residential complex in the city, will stand along one of the world’s largest man-made lagoons, despite warnings by the United Nations that the country is experiencing a water crisis. This type of glitzy construction, a mimicry of the oil-rich Arab Gulf monarchies, prompted the city’s reputation as the “small Dubai” or the “easiest of the Emirates” for Syrians who can apply for tourist visas.
The first thing George Saad noticed when he recently arrived in Erbil were the streetlights illuminating the city. The fluorescent white lighting could not be more different than the dim streets of Damascus. ‘I am still shocked how bright everything is here, especially after living in a dark place after all these years,” he said.
There are no publicly available statistics for the total number of Syrians flying in on tourist visas, but in February, the Erbil International Airport reported that 10,000 Syrians entered the country. “All of my customers these days are new Syrians,” Jelal Boutrous, a beefy real estate agent in the Christian enclave of Ankawa, told me. As we drank coffee in his triangular office, Syrians periodically popped in to see if there were any available apartments. After the second encounter, he smiled widely as he turned to me and said, “I told you I wasn’t lying!”
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Syrians largely expressed appreciation for the Kurdistan Region’s safety and stability relative to their own country’s. Dilan Mohammad, a Kurd from Qamishli in northeastern Syria, felt at home. It was her first time spending Newroz in Iraq. For Persians, Kurds and other groups around the world, the holiday marks the arrival of spring and a time for joyous renewal. We met on the eve of the festival amid the craggy peaks of Akre, a small city about 50 miles north of Erbil, where tens of thousands of revelers were streaming into the city to light fires on the surrounding mountains and welcome in what they call the season of light.
Dressed in a customary Syrian Kurdish ensemble made of silk and satin, splashed in red and orange hues, Dilan explained how back in her native Qamishli the celebration was essentially outlawed by the Assad government. In a game of cat and mouse, villagers would secretly light fires on hills before the authorities could catch them. But here in Akre, the city was hosting a spectacular night of music, bonfires and fireworks. “I am so excited,” she said beaming. “My name comes from our Kurdish dancing so I am going to do that.”
But most recent Syrian arrivals describe Erbil as a temporary station on their route to somewhere permanent. Berivan Hammoush, who came from Syria less than six months ago, hopes to save money as she assesses her options. A visual artist by training, she found her financial situation more difficult than she had expected. So far, she has only been able to find a job working in a clothing store in one Erbil’s many shopping malls.
“They want us to work 13-hour days. Even a donkey would complain about this type of work,” she told me over tea. She was hosting me on her only day off, she explained with relish. But she is hopeful a better job will come her way. “I’ve sent my CV to everyone in Erbil apart from Masoud, Masrour and Nechirvan,” she joked about the three top political figures in the region’s sclerotic political system.
Other recent Syrian migrants see Erbil’s functioning services, especially its relatively good internet, as reason to hope for a toehold in the potentially lucrative digital marketspace. Some work as freelancers for clients abroad, while others are focused on the domestic market. Lana Awad, the Damascene transplant, believes Erbil’s consumer culture is a good market to enter, and recently opened an online vintage clothing shop. When I asked her about her next steps, she shot back, “Syrians today can’t have a plan. The best plan is to have no plan.”
The city’s functioning consulates and institutions enable Syrians to apply for visas and obtain necessary accreditation to travel to Europe and beyond. Basel Hussein came from Aleppo after the February 6th earthquake that brought additional destruction to northern Syria. Trained as a dentist, he is poring over German grammar ahead of a language exam next month at the local Goethe Institute. “Here is like a bridge,” he said as he waited to complete his test before applying for a German work visa.
Others hope to continue their studies abroad. Tamim Badran, an archaeologist by training, first moved from Damascus to Beirut to avoid military service. He was able to work on an excavation site of a Neolithic settlement along Lebanon’s coast, but then the country descended into financial crisis, bringing turmoil and a spike in the country’s ever-lurking xenophobia. Badran immediately relocated to Erbil.
“It took me at least a month here to get used to living somewhere legally,” he told me while he slouched, dressed all in black, on a bench in the balmy spring air. “With Beirut over, Erbil was the next best choice.” He initially planned to stay only a year, but got stuck due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He managed to find work in monitoring and reporting online antiquity smuggling for an NGO and also started teaching Arabic on the side. However, he is currently focused on his plan to attend a master’s program in archaeology in Italy. “Now I am busy with leaving the country,” he said with a nervous laugh. He is waiting to hear the university’s decision about his application.
Reem Aizouk moved to Damascus from Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria after the Islamic State took over the area. She finds irony in her coming to Erbil for a job as an assistant editor for a television series about the Islamic State. She left the job after she faced challenges with her supervisors but decided to stay for now. “I thought I could still give Erbil a chance. It is safe here. There is running water and electricity,” she said. Her mother, still in Damascus, was initially hesitant to let her move to a new country on her own. “But now she tells me every time on the phone, ‘Don’t think about coming back to Syria.’”
Returning to Syria is not part of Reem’s plan, but neither is staying in Erbil. She applied for a humanitarian visa in Brazil. As she stands by for an answer, she is working three jobs to save as much as possible. During the day, she edits videos in the newsroom of an Iraqi television channel. After hours, she works for an advertising agency. When she has time, she also manages the social media account of a bakery.
“I’m tired of remaining here,” she said fiddling with a long braid of hair wrapped with red, brown and green thread. There are only a few weeks left before her residency permit expires, and she doesn’t want to spend her limited savings on hiring a lawyer to pay for a new one. “I am hoping to be gone before next year.”
But the Syrians’ high hopes for a temporary stay may actually impede their ability to plan ahead. Most end up lingering longer than they expect, especially for resettlement abroad.
“We got a file number for Australia,” Edward Khoury told me when I greeted him in his barber shop. Khoury has been in Erbil since 2018, when he came with other Syrian Christians hoping to emigrate. The Australian government has explicitly chosen to prioritize Christian refugees, a form of state-sponsored prejudice. Some of Edward’s friends and neighbors have moved on to Australia, Canada and elsewhere.
Edward has been my barber and confidant over the last five years. Handsome with a hearty laugh, he is prone to dancing with shears in hand or humming along to recordings of Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis. As much as I care for Edward, I always protested his decision to keep his three sons out of school since having relocated to Erbil. “The schools here aren’t good,” he said. “They will go to school when we are in Australia.”
Over cups of Nescafé, he insisted on video calling his children, who were at their apartment a few kilometers away. I saw they still had the same matching bowl cuts as the last time I saw them a few years ago, but Renee, the eldest at 15, appeared to be double his previous size.
Once we hung up, Edward cackled in his effervescent manner. “I am like the captain of a ship,” he said. “I will be the last to leave.” The demise of hope has still not hit him, but his five-year fixation on leaving has also stopped his children from enrolling in school or learning Kurdish, which could help them integrate and improve their own prospects should they stay in Erbil. Edward’s aim to move on to better his sons’ futures is noble. But sometimes refusing to adapt to the present may come at a high cost, as is the case for Edwards’ sons and possibly the more recent Syrian transplants.
Top photo: Erbil skyline at night (Wikimedia Commons)