Aid workers dish up rice and stew to refugees at the Gawilan camp in northern Iraq. The camp has accommodated nearly 2,000 new arrivals in the past month. 
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Aid workers dish up rice and stew to refugees at the Gawilan camp in northern Iraq. The camp has accommodated nearly 2,000 new arrivals in the past month.
Credit: NPR

Syrian Kurdish Refugees Say Kurdish Forces Tried To Prevent Them From Fleeing To Iraq

The Gawilan camp is situated in the hilly terrain of northern Iraq, 90 miles from the Syrian border. Since 2013, it has been home to more than 8,000 Syrian Kurds who fled their country's civil war. Now, hundreds more are coming — this time, seeking refuge after fleeing Turkey's offensive in northern Syria.

Camp managers are scrambling to accommodate the new arrivals. The camp is still under construction, even as newcomers try to settle in. A yellow bulldozer levels the muddy ground, and children play hide-and-seek between rows of white tents pitched on the uneven dirt. Nearby, a crew is building an emergency lavatory and shower area.

At least 14,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees have arrived in Iraq in the past month, according to refugee camp management. Around 1,800 of the new arrivals are in the Gawilan camp.

Wasfiye Jalal al-Din is sitting on a patch of dirt outside her tent, holding her 3-year-old grandson. Two granddaughters hover around her. She escaped the northeastern Syrian city of Qamlishi with one of her daughters and her daughter's children. But her daughter's husband, and another daughter and her family, are still in Syria.

"Our houses were on the Turkish border. When Turkey attacked, the [Kurdish fighters] made our homes the front line for their operation. The Turkish bullets were coming toward us, and the [Kurdish] bullets were coming toward us," she says.

She says they fled after Kurdish forces began storing weapons in their home. But her son-in-law was forced to stay behind. Her neighbors were killed in the fighting. Her other daughter and family stayed back, protecting their home during the day and then leaving the city every night, when the fighting starts.

It took a week to reach the border, where Jalal al-Din and her daughter and grandchildren hid from Kurdish security forces for four days. She says they had no water, food or phones. Finally, they were able to hire smugglers — who demanded $300 per person — to get around Kurdish forces who wanted the men to stay and fight.

"Every night, the children ask me if their father is going to die in Syria or if he will be able to come here," she says.

Almost everyone NPR spoke with in the camp said they have family members or friends still trapped in Syria. Alwan Abbas says it took his family two weeks to make their way to the border — a distance of 50 miles.

Evading Kurdish fighters was so difficult, they almost gave up.

"They did not let us go," he says. "They told us, 'Even if you stand here for 100 years, we are not going to let you cross.' "

He eventually got help from a son in Europe to pay smugglers $500 per person for a way around the checkpoints.

Other refugees also accuse the Kurdish forces under the YPG militia of coercing men into staying behind or preventing Kurds from leaving. Kurdish commanders did not respond to NPR's questions about whether they are blocking people from leaving.

Tom Peyre-Costa, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, says there has been a significant decrease in the number of Syrian Kurdish refugees coming to Iraq since the first two weeks of the conflict, which began last month.

"In the first week, we had a rapid increase in numbers," he tells NPR. "It was almost 2,000 people per day. And now we have 200, 300. So it's almost divided by 10."

During lunchtime at Gawilan camp, aid workers arrive with pickup trucks filled with huge metal pots of rice and stew. Refugees come out of their tents with their pots and pans. Men and boys get in line on one side, women and children on the other.

Away from the crowd, a man stands alone among the white tents. He has white hair and a white mustache, and is staring at the ground, kicking the dirt. At first he says that he doesn't want to be interviewed by an American outlet. But he stops long enough to say he was a professor back in Syria and blames his situation on President Trump, for pulling U.S. troops out.

"He is a businessman," he says. "He sold us."

When a fruit truck arrives, few customers show up. Most of the refugees spent their life savings to pay smugglers to get here. They might get permits to work in Iraq, but jobs are scarce. Their future is uncertain.

Berivan Muhammed, another refugee, says she hopes they're just here temporarily and will be able to resettle in Iraq. But just a few hundred feet away is the other, older section of Gawilan camp. It's still filled with thousands of Syrian Kurds who came here years ago with similar hopes of a better life. [Copyright 2019 NPR]