For Syrian refugees in Domiz, Kurdish is one of few comforts

Amid the small stores and shisha cafes of Domiz, the Kurdish language thrives

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In a restaurant at the heart of Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ahmad Jasm sits quietly at a plastic table while two other customers argue about the Syrian conflict.

“When is your country going to come and help us get rid of Assad?” a man asks me when he finds out I am British.

“Better Assad than al-Nusra,” says his friend before I can answer.

Jasm does not express a preference for Syrian President Basher al-Assad’s regime or al-Nusra – the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militia that controls parts of northern Syria – but looks intently at us as the waiter brings over our food.

He eventually rises from his chair and sits down at our table, saying he has a story to tell.

Jasm made his living making cultural programs for Syrian TV until the conflict began. As life in Damascus became intolerable, he headed north to the Kurdish areas of Syria, where there was no fighting but no work either. He crossed the border and arrived in Domiz in early October.

The situation [in SYRIA] is that there’s no electricity, no water, and whatever needs for day-to-day life aren’t there. People who don’t have money can’t buy what they need, which is why they’re coming here,” he says.

The situation in northern Syria contrasts with Domiz, where a camp economy has quickly evolved. The streets are lined with small stores, barbershops, shisha cafes and restaurants. In the past few weeks, there have even been two weddings.

Leila Khalil left for Domiz 18 months ago from Damascus. She says that while she could go back to the Kurdish areas of Syria, the lack of work means that it makes more sense to stay in the camp, where she runs a small grocery store.

“We came because of the economy. There’s nothing in the Kurdish areas of Syria,” she says.

Another camp resident, Mohammed, stands outside a concrete workshop. Inside, two women are making clothes on sewing machines. A teacher at home in Damascus, Mohammed now trains women in the camp as tailors.

“I’ve had five groups of 15 women; once the group learns how to do it, I move on to another one,” he says, as both of his students recoil from the camera.

“The idea is that once they have these skills, they can go into the cities and get work.”

When we meet Waleed Ibrahim he is standing outside his house on the main street that cuts through the sprawling camp, clutching a plastic-bound business textbook and wearing a smart black shirt and trousers.

He ushers us through the door and into a small yard. His youngest son is sitting on the concrete floor watching cartoons as his father motions for us to sit, and offers us coffee.

A civil servant, Ibrahim stayed on in Damascus for two months after his family left for Iraqi Kurdistan two years ago, but when his house was destroyed in an air strike, he followed them to Domiz. He built this house, he says proudly, with his bare hands.

His wife works for a non-governmental organization in the camp, making tea and coffee, and she supports the family despite suffering from a muscular disease.

In the past, the family had been able to afford to send her to Jordan and Lebanon for treatment, but now they have no access to either care or medicine.

“In Damascus our situation was very good, but now we don’t have anything. I can deal with it, but it breaks my heart to see this happening to my children. They have no future,” says Ibrahim, as his eldest son brings us thick black coffee.

Ibrahim bears no nostalgia for the days of Assad, when the Kurdish language was all but banned in Damascus and there were no Kurdish schools for his children.

The family all have Arabic names, a legacy of the Syrian government’s refusal to allow the registration of children with Kurdish names.

If Domiz has provided them with anything, it is the freedom not to have to hide their ethnicity.

“Now we speak Kurdish outside openly. We don’t need to hide the fact that we’re Kurdish. So [in that respect] we’re comfortable here,” Ibrahim says.

They are also relatively comfortable in their house, made from concrete and including more than one room.

Many of the refugees who arrived at the camp when the border first opened with Iraqi Kurdistan are in a similar situation. A concrete shack may not be much, but it is at least protection from the elements.

For camp resident Qahraman, a father of four who arrived in Domiz a year ago, life is far harder. On the outskirts of the camp, he has managed to lash together U.N. plastic sheeting around a metal frame, and found enough blankets to keep the family warm for the time being.

He explains that it is impossible to get help building a more permanent home because his tent is outside the official perimeter of the camp.

Domiz - designed for just 32,000, but now home to 45,000 or more - is well over capacity, so more and more families have a similar problem, he says.

As we drink tea sitting on the floor of his tent, I ask Qahraman what his expectations are for his country, when he believes they will be able to return, and whether the situation for Kurds will improve in a post-Assad Syria. He shakes his head.

“I don’t know. We’re not thinking about what will happen in Syria. How can we? What I’m worried about is what will happen when the rain comes, whether my roof will blow off like last year. We’re just thinking about tomorrow,” he says.

A girl reads her school book in Domiz camp. UNICEF and UNHCR have employed Syrian teachers from inside the camps to provide education to refugee children.
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