Syrians find safety for Eid al-Adha holiday in Iraq

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Shaqlawa Mohammed Rashid sits at the entrance of a white tent in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, reflecting on what will be her first Eid al-Adha holiday outside Syria.

The 16-year-old girl smiles at her mother Barshan, who sits next to her on a dusty carpet with a cloth covering half her face to shield it from the sun and dust, and whispers comfortingly: “Our situation here is temporary.”

They are two of almost 14,000 Syrian Kurds in the Kawergosk refugee camp who will be spending Eid al-Adha -- the Feast of Sacrifice, which is the biggest Muslim holiday of the year -- away from their home country.

But while they are far from their homes, the refugees have escaped the brutal Syrian civil war and found safety in the camp near Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region.

“We came from Mazzeh in Damascus. We left it because of the situation there ... where we could not go to school or go out of our houses” because of the “threat of being slaughtered or killed or kidnapped,” Shaqlawa says.

“This is our first Eid outside Syria. In the past, we used to prepare sweets and visit each other. I used to buy new clothes and go out with my friends” to amusements parks or restaurants.

But that all changed due to the deadly violence of the civil war between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.

Shaqlawa says she spent last Eid al-Adha in Damascus with her family. “But we would not go out of the house back then,” she says.

“The situation here is ... better because there is safety.”

The Kawergosk camp was established in August as tens of thousands of refugees, most of them Syrian Kurds, flooded into northern Iraq, leaving aid agencies scrambling for critical infrastructure and supplies.

Fighting between jihadists and Syrian Kurdish forces helped drive the exodus, and there are now more than 185,000 Syrian refugees in the three-province Kurdistan region of Iraq, according to the United Nations.

Near Shaqlawa's tent, Naras Qassem, also 16, is busy washing clothes in a large metal pot.

“We came from Hasakeh, where there were explosions,” Naras says. “We are happy, because we are safe. In Syria, there was no food, but here everything is available.”

Now, “in Hasakeh, there is no Eid. Even the last Eid al-Adha was not like the ones before. This Eid is better because of safety, and it will be better than Eid in Syria.”

But she adds: “My little sister's wish is to buy clothes for Eid. We have not bought anything new, as we do not have the money for that.”

The Kawergosk camp is surrounded by a chain-link fence, which its residents cannot pass without obtaining permission or legal residency.

Near the fence, a group of people led by Hassan Yusef discuss songs and plays they want to perform for the camp during Eid al-Adha.

“In Qamishli, people are sick of death,” says Yusef, 44, referring to the Syrian city he fled.

But he adds with a smile: “Here, we do not feel that we are far from our country. We feel that we are in the middle of our country, because this is really our country.

“We formed a musical and theatre (group) to entertain children and young people and families, so they can be happy,” he says. “We are doing our duty, easing the pain that they are feeling.”

People begin encouraging Yusef to play, especially one man who excitedly tells everyone around him with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes: “This is my cousin, this is my cousin!”

Yusef sits down in a blue plastic chair near the camp's fence with a stringed musical instrument called a “saz,” and begins to play.

After a few seconds, he starts signing in Kurdish as well, and silence falls as people listen with rapt attention to him lament what is happening in Qamishli.

In his song, he says: “Safety is better here; Kurdistan is our home.”