Kurdish-Iraqi Returning Refugees

Spaetzle in Erbil

Germany is home to the largest Kurdish diaspora outside of Kurdistan. But since their temporary "toleration" status is no longer being prolonged many are returning to northern Iraq. A report by Birgit Svensson

Botan in Reutlingen, Swabia (photo: private copyright)
A Kurd with a Swabian accent: This picture shows Botan in Kurdish gear near his German hometown of Reutlingen. After the birth of his son, he and his young family returned to Kurdistan

​​ Is there a sky over Germany? Does it rain there? Is there night? These were the kinds of questions Bebak faced when he returned to Iraqi Kurdistan from Saxony Anhalt, Germany, over five years ago. He and his family had lived there in the city of Stendal for six years.

One year before finishing secondary school, his father decided it was time to leave Germany and return home. "I found it difficult," recalls the 24-year-old, "very difficult." When Bebak arrived in Germany, he could not speak German and had to repeat a grade. Back in Kurdistan, his Kurdish had since become weak.

Caught between cultures

Once again, he had to repeat a grade. "I could speak Arabic better than Kurdish – and German best of all." In Stendal, he had German and Arab friends. Even today, Bebak feels caught between cultures. "Germany has left its stamp on me," he says. He was a teenager there, and it was where he grew up.

Thousands of Kurds are currently going through similar experiences to Bebak and have been returning to northern Iraq from Europe. Germany is home to the largest Kurdish diaspora outside of Kurdistan. Estimates place the number at around a half a million.

Most come from Turkey. Since the Kurds that have come to Germany are originally from various countries – Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq – they are not registered as an ethnic group. According to information from the German Ministry of the Interior, almost 80,000 Iraqis were living in Germany last year. It is assumed that the majority are Kurds.

Two completely different worlds collide

Some 10,000 have already returned in the years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, says Nihad Qoja, Mayor of Erbil and a returnee from Bonn, where he had lived for 23 years. He is convinced that the return of Kurds from Europe will continue for quite some time. Since the German airline Lufthansa introduced flights from Frankfurt to the Kurdish metropolis in May this year, the airline has seen a steady increase in families making the trip.

photo: Deutsche Schule in Erbil
Very popular among Kurdish returnees: The German school in Erbil offers five elementary grades and a pre-school class for 131 children - a record for a new German school abroad

​​ "Many only come for the first time on vacation," says Tarek from Bielefeld, who took advantage of the fall school break in Germany to take his family on a trip to Kurdistan. "The decision to return for good requires a lot of consideration," says the father of three, reflecting on the difficulties one encounters. "Two completely different worlds collide here!"

The German school in Erbil, which opened its doors in mid-September, could make the decision easier for those considering a return. With 131 children, five elementary classes and a pre-school class, including kindergarten, it already holds the record for a new German school abroad. Two thirds of the pupils are returned refugees from German-speaking countries in Europe.

Emigration in retrospect

There are three periods in which Kurds have left Iraq en masse. In the 1970s, when Saddam Hussein seized ever-greater power in Baghdad, the Kurds tried to establish their own state. The Peshmerga, Kurdish freedom fighters, took up arms and fought against the central government.

Then in the late 1980s, as the war with Iran became increasingly bloodier, Saddam accused the Kurds of collaborating with the Iranians and attacked Kurdish villages with poison gas. According to Kurdish sources, the dictatorship murdered around 180,000 Kurds – a genocide against the country's own population.

And, finally, in the mid-1990s, there was a third wave of emigration when a civil war broke out between the two leading Kurdish clans, the Barzani and the Talabani. Since then, the conflict has been resolved and the former warring parties have joined in an alliance to form a common regional government. They even jointly represent the region at the national level in Baghdad.

Over the past ten years, Iraqi Kurdistan has been able to develop undisturbed. An almost seamless surveillance by the police and intelligence service has prevented terrorist attacks, which have ravaged the rest of the country since the invasion by American and British troops. The number of bomb attacks in the three Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Dohuk during the last seven years can be counted on one hand.

A a good security situation

One is just as secure or insecure in the Kurdish areas as in Europe. In view of the stable security situation, a number of countries, including Britain, Sweden, and even Denmark, have been sending their Kurdish refugees back home. At present, Germany has not deported any of its Kurds, but is no longer prolonging their temporary "toleration" status, leaving them as illegal migrants. Many, therefore, prefer to return to northern Iraq.

photo: Birgit Svensson
Sons of Swabia, sons of Iraq: The Kurdish brothers Nidschewan (left) and Botan – closely tied to their native Zakho as well as to Reutlingen

​​ The majority of Kurds in Germany, however, possess valid residence permits and their return is voluntary. And many who came to Germany in the 1970s have since acquired German citizenship.

Such is the case with the brothers Nidschewan and Botan. Their unmistakable Swabian accent immediately reveals where the family lived for 26 years. "I always say Stuttgart," says Nidschewan, the elder of the two. "No one knows where Reutlingen is!" There is no way they are going to give up their German passports, even though they have since established themselves in the Kurdish city of Zakho, Iraq's only border city with Turkey.

"Being able to travel to Germany at any time helps us to continue here," admits Botan. The 26-year-old got married to a returnee three years ago. His son was born in Stuttgart. After the birth, the young family returned to Zakho.

Easing homesickness in Erbil's "Deutscher Hof"

Living between two worlds has become a reality for Botan and he manages to cope quite well. It is a different story for his brother Nidschewan. Sometimes, the 42-year-old industrial manager is overcome by homesickness for Germany. Then he listens to German music, phones his German friends, drives to Erbil to the "Deutscher Hof" to eat spaetzle, or climbs to the top of "his mountain," as he calls the elevation in Zakho, from where one can enjoy a majestic view of the border city with its population of 180,000 and its famous bridges dating back to the Romans.

This is where the brothers operate their pool hall and organize wedding parties. Sometimes, Nidschewan simply disappears for a few days, without even a word as to where he is going. Then a surprise phone call with a 0049 country code betrays his location in Germany. "It was just time to go again."

Bebak would also like to travel to Germany once again to visit his friends in Stendal, feel the rain, and breathe the cool air. Yet, his residence permit has expired. He didn't live long enough in Germany to be eligible for a German passport.

He has since begun to study sport at the university in Erbil. He says of himself that he has arrived between two worlds. "I'll do my Master Degree in Cologne," says the young man confidently.

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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