ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Shaida was just 17 when she fell in love and married an Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, following him to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2014. By the age of 18, she was a widow.
Her husband, Khalid, was killed while fighting the regime in Iran. Now, like many others, she is stuck in limbo, unable to return home and unable to leave the Kurdistan Region.
“We didn’t even reach our second year of marriage,” Shaida tearfully tells Rudaw English. “Now I’m alone here with no family.”
Shaida lost her husband young but is unable to rejoin her family in Iran. Photo: A.C. Robinson
Shaida’s story is similar to many other Iranian Kurds who live in the Kurdistan Region and suffer most from harsh economic conditions, many of them for decades.
These political refugees are forced to live in camps, which lack sufficient support from the KRG and the UN. The Iraqi central government doesn’t recognize them.
Kurds have fled Iran for different reasons and at different times. Oppressed under the Shah, they initially supported the 1979 revolution led by Khomeini. Relations with the new Islamic Republic, however, were fraught from the start.
Elected Kurdish representatives were barred from participation in the government in Tehran, provoking political violence. Throughout the 1980s, Iran’s Kurdish opposition parties encountered deadly clashes with the Iranian regime. Many opposition supporters were forced to flee the country.
Former Peshmerga fighter Osman, now 60, fled to the Kurdistan Region shortly after the revolution and has been living in camps for nearly four decades.
Although he is registered with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, he has only received financial assistance once from the UN – a mere $435.
Osman bares the scar of an assassination attempt. Photo: A.C. Robinson
Osman survived an assassination attempt in the mid-1990s. He described how three cars drove up and started shooting indiscriminately. The attack left four dead and seven wounded, including Osman.
“Kurdistan is like a prison for us now,” he said. “We don’t live in a state and all Kurdish refugees are prisoners in this jailed Kurdistan.”
A married couple, Azad and Somaya, both came to the Kurdistan Region as young children. Their fathers were Peshmerga fighters in Iran.
Azad receives a small salary as a camp council member. Somaya recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics. However, they are unable to obtain citizenship for themselves or their two-year-old daughter.
“In every country, when a child is born, he or she will receive full citizenship rights, but in Iraqi Kurdistan, children cannot receive these benefits,” Azad said.
Somaya aspires to learn English. Government jobs are out of her grasp without Iraqi citizenship and her lack of English hinders her ability to work in the private sector, even with a university degree.
Somaya and Azad were both children when they came to the KRI as refugees. They and their child have not been given citizenship. Photo: A.C. Robinson
“The KRG says we are all Kurdistani, but in reality there is a lot of discrimination against Iranian Kurds in the Region such as getting a job, not getting citizenship, not receiving enough training like English, hospitals or parks,” Somaya said. “I ask the UN to help us to coordinate with a private hospital in Erbil so we receive affordable healthcare.”
Somaya suffers from kidney problems, but cannot afford treatment.
Another refugee, Parveneh, moved to the Kurdistan Region eight years ago with her husband, who is also Peshmerga.
Parveneh, just 38 years old, suffers from severe Rheumatoid Arthritis, which has left her disabled, unable to have children, and barely able to walk. She can only maintain her home with the help of neighbors.
“A few years ago, the KRG provided me with medical treatment and free injections which would have cost me $1,000,” she said. However, the expensive injection must be administered once every week at a cost of $250 each.
“I wish the UN would provide me and others like me with medical treatment which we cannot afford,” she told Rudaw.
Parveneh suffers with Rheumatoid Arthritis, but is unable to afford treatment. Photo: A.C. Robinson
Speaking to several people among the three different camps, Rudaw found all of them hold UNHCR identification as registered refugees, yet have received little or no financial support from the UN.
Among their demands, first and foremost, is citizenship, so they can have access to basic refugee rights and a passport to be able to travel to a third country where they may be able to receive better education, jobs or healthcare.
Secondly, they request access to affordable higher education and additional training within the KRG, which could lead to jobs for financial stability.
Also, they request improvements in living conditions within the camps, such as schools and parks.
Karim, age 55, a former Peshmerga who retired early due to a long term illness, explained that representatives from the KRG keep making promises to improve their living conditions, but have not delivered.
“Sometimes, officials come and keep promising rights and citizenship but it hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
Karim (R) says the KRG have made several promises they have failed to deliver on. Photo: A.C. Robinson
Rudaw reviewed two documents sent to the camp residents from the KRG.
The first document, dated from 2013, promised to build a park for children, a center for funerals, and to pave roads within the camps. The second document, dated from 2017, promised to provide security measures.
Only the promise of paved roads materialized, Karim said.
Everyone Rudaw spoke to fears they will be targeted by the Iranian regime and want tighter security around their camp.
Iranian opposition groups based in the Kurdistan Region claim two such attacks occurred in March. One attack involved a car bombing east of Erbil on March 2, which killed one member of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), and the assassination of a commander near Sulaimani on March 7.
Loqman is a former Peshmerga and manager at a different camp who has lived in the Kurdistan Region for 28 years. He told Rudaw the events of October 16, when Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi took control of Kurdish-held Kirkuk, frightened the refugees.
“People were afraid as Hashd al-Shaabi and their Iranian supporters came close to some of our camps,” he explained.
Loqman and several others told Rudaw they fear going to the market just a ten minute drive away.
Mina and her father Fahim. Photo: A.C. Robinson
Fahim, 50, who lives in a nearby camp, says he has been fighting the Iranian regime militarily and politically for 30 years.
“If I return, I will go to prison, or the Iranian regime will force me to become a spy or even come back to the Kurdistan Region to assassinate people or commit other crimes,” he said. He will never return.
Even his 16-year-old daughter, Mina, says life is difficult for children born and raised in the camps.
“Our life is not good,” she said. “Since we have different social and economic conditions and we are from Iranian Kurdistan, it’s difficult to mix with local Kurdish children.”
Another camp council member, Ashkan, said he was imprisoned in Iran for two years and four months for being an activist for Kurdish rights at the age of 17, even though he was unarmed.
Ashkan fled Iran to the Kurdistan Region ten years ago when he was 20.
Camp conditions remain basic. Photo: A.C. Robinson
“It is very difficult to survive here,” he said. “We cannot find a job. We are suffering. We have to borrow money which we cannot even repay.”
He and others met with UN officials in Erbil recently and were promised help with their cases, but they were told Syrian refugees take precedence over their situation.
“When I came here, I was young,” he said. “Now I am old and sick and I am afraid my children will have the same fate.”
“I’m asking Western countries to pay attention to our cases,” he added. “We are wasting our time here and just waiting to die.”