Syria refugees bring new tastes and traditions to Kurdish Iraq
At first, no one in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil would drink the bitter coffee at Syrian refugee Abdussamad Abdulqadir's cafe. But now it's a hit, part of a growing cultural exchange.
Since conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, many ethnic Kurds living in the country's northeast fled across the border to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Despite their similar ethnic origins, the two communities speak distinct dialects and have different cultural habits, but in recent years they have traded customs.
When Abdulqadir fled his northeast Syrian hometown of Qamishli six years ago, he settled in Arbil and opened a cafe in its bustling market. During his opening week, he sent free cups of coffee to neighbouring shopkeepers to win new customers, but they complained it was undrinkably bitter.
"Business was bad," the 45-year-old told journalists, saying Iraqi Kurds typically prefer instant coffee or tea so sugary it resembles syrup.
Syria's Kurds between hope and fear
Photojournalist Karlos Zurutuza travelled through the northern Syrian border area following the Turkish invasion. He met families on the run and lonely men left behind in the villages.
Left on their own: the Kurds in Syria opted to side neither with the regime nor the opposition after the civil war broke out in 2011. Now they stand alone, besieged and with no one to back them since their American allies withdrew
Kurdish families in search of safety: according to UN sources almost 200,000 people have become IDPs (internally displaced people) since Turkey launched an attack on Kurdish-controlled territories on 9 October. Many Kurds have reportedly tried to cross the border to seek shelter in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, but only those who can produce an Iraqi-Kurdish resident card are allowed to cross
Men alone: many villages in Syria's northeast have nearly emptied of people over the last week. Women and children in towns close Turkey have been heading further inland, to Hasaka, leaving the border region inhabited almost only by men. "Conditions are deteriorating rapidly in Hasaka due to the massive influx of people, so we decided to stay," said Suna, a mother of three children
Life has gone elsewhere: the once lively bazaar in Amuda has turned into a gloomy place where just a few men gather. Many shops have folded since the Turkish invasion began, and those which remain open sell products at hardly affordable prices due to the collapse of the Syrian currency. Shelling from the other side of the frontier usually starts at dawn, so those who remain in the town hardly venture outside at night
Back in town: co-existence between the Syrian Kurdish administration and President Bashar Assad's regime in Qamishli, the main city in the country's northeast, has been tense since the Syrian civil war started in 2011. The recent deal between the two sides involves a re-deployment of Syrian troops along the Turkish border. It is unclear who will be in control of the region in the short term
Fighting on two fronts: while Kurdish combat units fight against the Turkish army and Ankara-backed militants, it's still unclear what the Syrian Kurdish fighters' status will be since reaching out to Assad for support. "We will keep controlling the area as we've done until today, there will be no substantial changes other than a joint command in certain border areas," said officials
Uncertainty reigns: Syrian Kurds feel betrayed since the U.S. president decided to pull out all remaining troops. Many confessed they felt relief that the Kurdish fighters had struck a deal with the Syrian regime to control the border areas as it could prevent Turkey from attacking their villages. "We know what Trump did to us, but we still know nothing about Putin's intentions," said Massud, a barbershop customer
'I would rather not speak': after decades of brutal repression under the Assads, many residents in Derik refused to comment on the possible consequences of the regime's comeback to an area that has enjoyed de facto self-rule for several years. "The whole country was controlled by the secret services back then, and it may happen again soon, so no one will dare to talk to you about it," one person said
Five more lost: all over Syria's northeast residents have had to deal corpses arriving daily from the frontlines. Turkish air strikes have hit both military targets and civilians so that many hospitals caring for wounded fighters, such as the one in Derik, have been evacuated to avoid further casualties
Deaths mount: the Syrian Kurds claim to have lost around 11,000 people in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Although IS has lost control over territory of any significant size, the killing continues. Dozens of civilians and hundreds of fighters have reportedly been killed since Turkey launched its attack on Syria's northeast
With persistence and charm, Abdulqadir first converted his neighbours to drinking coffee with sugar – then, eventually, to the original bitter drink. He now has so much business that he opened a second quaint cafe in the market.
"Now I sell between 200 and 300 cups of coffee every day and 90 percent of my customers are Iraqi Kurds who drink the coffee without sugar," he said proudly.
The changes go beyond caffeine, with restaurants adopting Syrian food, architects fusing Iraqi and Syrian styles and even musical and linguistic exchanges.
Jumana Turki, who has lived with her Syrian Kurdish husband in Arbil since 2014, said it used to surprise her how few women she would see in public in Arbil after dark. But now women – Syrian and Iraqi Kurds – are shopping and even working in markets and shopping malls until late.
"This was the impact of Syrian refugees because in Syria, it was normal for women to work in markets and be out at night," said Turki, who holds a master degree in sociology.
Around the world, communities faced with an influx of newcomers often react with xenophobia, because of an instinctive fear that change would mar the host culture.
Kurds in northern Iraq have carved out an autonomous enclave where they speak the Sorani Kurdish dialect, have their own television channels and government bodies. They, too, initially rejected Syrian Kurdish customs, but the slow integration in recent years "has deconstructed that historical rejection," said Hawzhen Ahmed, an Arbil-based academic who holds a doctorate in cultural studies.
Around 300,000 Syrian refugees – most of them Kurds – now live in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the threat of a Turkish offensive last year pushing thousands into displacement camps in the north.
"Syrian refugees have proved the historical argument that host cultures become more vibrant and enjoyable when mixed with different traditions and norms," Ahmed told journalists.
Integration is a two-way street, said Hussein Dewani, a Syrian musician and schoolteacher in Arbil since 2012. "Iraqi Kurds helped us revive our Kurdish language, since they speak a more pure Kurdish than Syrian Kurds, whose dialect was banned in Syria," Dewani said.
Syria's government had long prohibited Kurds from speaking their language or celebrating their festivals and had even refused Syrian nationality for the community, worried they would threaten the state with calls for independence.
But in Iraqi Kurdistan, radio channels, government statements and street signs are mostly in Kurdish.
Dewani said he has picked up the Sorani dialect of the region but also taught his colleagues some of the Kurmanji dialect used in Syria.
"When I arrived, I heard some Kurdish words which I used to hear from my grandmother and they were all lost generation after generation," he recalled.
Dewani, also from Qamishli, has decorated his Arbil apartment with musical instruments including guitars and the daf, a frame drum. He learned to play the daf in his new hometown, which he said hosts some of the best drum musicians and instructors.
The 33-year-old said the well-developed Iraqi Kurdish music culture had also seeped into Syrian Kurdish music, and that Syrian Kurds were now wearing more traditional attire that resembled their counterparts in Arbil.
Empathy and shared norms have blossomed in recent years, said Rodi Hassan, a Syrian physician working in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hassan arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2008, three years before Syria's uprising began, to study medicine.
"When I arrived, we had very little information about each other, and it was all stereotypes," he told journalists. "But now it is completely different. There is a strong empathy, friendship and intermarriage between us," he said. (AFP)