photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, July 27, 2012

Working towards the Kurdish dream

Of course the Iraqi Kurdish president Barzani supports the struggle of the Kurds in Syria! I have not heard anyone in the KRG question the training offered by Barzani to Syrian Kurdish deserters, nor the time spent on getting the different Kurdish groups in Syria to form a High Council. This is help to the brothers in Syria, which may well eventually lead to the dream of regaining the Greater Kurdistan to come true.

At the moment everybody in Iraqi Kurdistan is looking at Syria, and remembering the difficult time in 1991, after Saddam was forced out of the Kurdish territories. There was no police, no army, no government. With the Syrian president Assad removing more and more soldiers from the Kurdish North-East of the country to fight in the main towns elsewhere, more and more territory is open for the Kurds to rule for themselves. But who is going to take over the security, who will govern?

Massoud Barzani knew this vacuum would happen in Syria, just like it did in Iraq. Partly for that reason, he brought the different Kurdish parties and groups from Syria together in Erbil. And some of these groups were not really friendly. In the past months there have been deadly clashes in Syria between the PKK-daughter PYD and other Kurdish groups. The latter work with the opposition Free Syrian Army towards a federal republiek, of which the Kurdish state would be part - like the situation in Iraq. But the PKK was taking over area's left by the Syrian army, without wanting to work with the other groups.The PKK-group has the support of about a third of the 2 million Syrian Kurds, and it is the most militant of the groups.

In Erbil, Barzani had a hard time convincing the groups and the PYD to work together and form a High Council that could fill the administrative vacuum. At the same time, he was working on the security vacuum. How to make sure thieves and thugs would not take over, or - as was happening - one of the Kurdish groups, which would lead to internal strife?

Since months, young Kurdish men were smuggled into Iraqi Kurdistan, most of them deserters from the Syrian army, others boys who ran away to stay out of the army. For a while, they were left on their own, until the Syrian Kurdish parties started pointing out how difficult their position was - without residency, no work, or underpaid work which could easily lead to criminal behavior - and asked the KRG to open up special camps for them.

I myself visited the Ministry of Peshmerga at the base just outside Sulaymaniya in March, and already then noticed that there were Syrian refugees in the waiting room. But reports about military training for the Syrian Kurdish youths were denied - until a video turned up on Youtube. It showed young Kurds in a dark uniform that reminds everybody here of the elite troops of the Barzani's. 'We go to Kamishlo, kaka', one of the guys is heard saying. Then president Barzani had to confirm the reports.

<P>Syrisch-Koerdische militairen trekken door het Iraakse grensgebied naar Syriƫ, volgens een filmpje van de oppositie. </P>Kamishli - the international name - is the main Kurdish town on the border from Syria and Turkey, one of the few places in the Kurdish region where fighting is going on with the Syrian army. Are these new recruits going to join in that battle? In the video they walk unarmed, and do not really show military behaviour. From Barzani's comment it appears that these guys are merely policemen that fill the vacuum that Assads police and army will leave.

For most Kurds in Iraq, Barzani has done the right thing. Helping brothers based on the experience of the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey, KRG's main business partner, is giving off a double message. Surely this has been covered with Barzani, when they agreed on building an oil pipeline for the Kurdish oil. It seems very probable, that Erdogan asked Barzani to make sure the PKK would not take over Syrian Kurdistan, as that would gave them too good a base to work from towards doing the same in Turkey. By bringing the groups together and training young Kurds to police the place and not leave that to PKK, Barzani seems to have done the job.

Yet the official Turkish message is a different one. Ankara warns that it does not want a Kurdish state in Syria, and the Turkish minister of Foreign Affairs is coming to Erbil to stress this. Yet Ankara must know that this is a station that is passed: when Assad is gone, a new situation will make it possible for the Kurds in Syria to have their own rule, inside a federal republic, as most of the Kurdish groups are stressing. It seems that the harsh message is mainly meant for the PKK. Don't mess with Turkey, work with other groups, but do not think about taking the future of the Kurdish area in Syria in your own hands.

The question is also, how much influence the Iraqi Kurds can have on the situation in Syria. The process that has started, cannot really be stopped. How much can it still be sculptured to the Iraqi situation? And: who will be the Barzani and the Talabani of the Syrian Kurds? Or will Barzani be able to increase his status even further and play a role in Syria?

Yet there is a bigger issue, that cannot have gone unnoticed in Erbil nor in Ankara. Since the Kurds had their own state inside Iraq, Kurds in the other three countries have wanted the same for themselves. If Syria is the next country where the Kurds can have their own rule, the eagerness amongst Kurds in Turkey and Iran will only grow. And so will the nationalism amongst the Kurds, and the drive towards a Greater Kurdistan. President Barzani has always been loyal to that dream - while his PUK opponent, the Iraqi president Talabani has spread the message that the dream of a Greater Kurdistan cannot come true because of the political situation outside Iraq. The Kurds have too many enemies, let's not provoke them, his message was. 

Barzani has by mentioning the dream time and again kept the fire burning. The developments in Syria will further feed the flames. Change is in the air. The dream seems suddenly not so impossible anymore.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

No honey, no money

,,Some ninety percent of the Iraqi youth, when asked, say they want to settle in a Western country,'' the Dutch diplomat assured me. That is the reason for the strict visa rules, in Holland but also elsewhere in Europe, which will not loosen up soon, so he predicted.

Those visa rules hit everybody. Iraqi businessmen, housewives, husbands who want to join their family, lovers who want to unite. And also single mothers who do not want to leave their children behind - as a staff member found, who was refused entry. Surely she wanted to take her child to the land of milk and honey and start a new life there. That she has a good job, a mother who needs her care and owns her own house did not make any change. For the bureaucrats she was a real threat.

Yet I think, based on personal experience, that the number of ninety percent - where did it come from, I only know research in Iraqi Kurdistan from at least 4 years ago that mentioned eighty percent of the Kurdish youth eager to leave - is far too high. Recession in Europe has already made a big change.

Herish for instance, one of the drivers I use, changed his mind. A year ago he was adamant that he would go to Europe to get rich. He was learning English and saving up to buy the passport with the visa on the black market - like so many other young men. Those passport prices had gone up to as much as 10.000 dollars a piece, and yet the demand was still high.And Herish was one of the eager young men to get out of Iraqi Kurdistan and into the part of the world where everything was better. Where life was easy, women plenty and willing and problems few.

Many a trip I argued with him, and I told him about the negative atmosphere in my own country, Holland. About the problems he would have finding work, about the impossibility to get asylum. He smiled and thought that I just wanted to keep him from the milk and the honey.

Then his brother returned from England. And suddenly Herish realized my story was true. His brother was caught up in the recession, lost his job and saw no other way out than to get back home. Since then Herish has bought himself a house and is saving money to get married, although he does not have a candidate yet for the post of his wife. Occasionally he will complain bitterly about the backwardness of his country and praise the enlightened state of Europe - but he no longer yearns to go there.

Herish is by far not the only one. Since recession hit Europe, many Kurds and Iraqi's who live there lost their jobs, had to close their businesses or lost their temporary permits and benefits. Many have returned home. And because the reason for returning was not theirs, they for once were honest. No more glorious stories about the great life of luxury in the West, because the family and the friends were expecting those. No more need to show off with expensive cars and clothes. Now out came the complaints about the former paradise: no jobs, no warmth, no equality, no support. And finally they could also admit how bitterly they missed their country. Who wants to be a migrant? Don't! There is no honey and no money to be captured in Europe!

People are more aware of the tightened rules that have been put in place. As one of the Belgian papers put it: 'Working hard for the Belgian identity' - only those migrants that are really integrated will get a Belgian passport. And many other countries have done the same. By now many Iraqi's have heard the stories about asylum seekers that could not work in Europe and thus sent their family into poverty - no income and yet many debtors to be paid because of the loans for the expensive passport plus visa and the trip.

This, plus the fact that the economic situation in Kurdistan has improved so much since they left, have made many young people change their minds. Their dreams have changed, from luxury in the West to luxury at home. Get a house, a car, a wife, a nice set of sofa's, a big TV... it is somehow now all possible for most of the young Kurds.

Of course the other grievances against the Kurdish (Iraqi) society remain. Social freedom is hard to come by. The family is the centre, which means also that the families rules. Social control is almost complete. Yet young men have found ways around it. They meet outside, where bowling halls, malls and cinema's have opened. They even found ways to get to know girls, as in some places now unmarried couples can meet without being harassed or stigmatised. And with the economic boom boredom is decreasing - new businesses open, more trading opportunities arise and with all the western companies and the new 5 star hotels more job opportunities have opened.

Yet the issue remains, that Iraqi's cannot travel on their Iraqi passports. Only if they capture a western passport, the borders will open for them. Even if the honey and the money are no longer there, the opportunity to get a foreign nationality and finally be free to go where you want, will still attract people.

So perhaps the figures that my diplomat friend mentioned really have another background.If you need to settle elsewhere to get the possibility to see the world, very many  young Iraqi's will do so. But ask them,  what they will do if they are allowed to just take a peak without that foreign passport. I am very sure that many will say - because I asked them: ,,I will go and see, and then be very happy to return home.''

Saturday, July 14, 2012

When will the bubble burst?

,,Why don't you buy a house in Kurdistan, in stead of paying such a high rent'', people have asked me. A good question, with rents in Erbil as high as 2000 dollars a month for a 3 bedroom apartment and 3000 and more for a villa. Yet buying might mean getting caught up in the bubble of Kurdistan's housing business.

Kurdistan is booming. There is hardly a neighbourhood in the main Kurdish towns and cities without building activities going on. Housing, industry, hotels, shopping malls - Kurdistan is building at a speed that is hardly imaginable. Compounds of luxurious apartments are being filled, and I have been told that at the moment some 62.000 units are still in the process of being build in Erbil alone.

At the same time, in the Kurdish capital Erbil the prices of housing have gone up enormously. In a society where an average government wage is around 600 dollars, the rent of apartments and family houses has gone up to between 1800 and 4000 dollars. That is partly because there is a lack of good offices, and (international) companies have taken over many of the family houses. Most of the houses in English Village and Italian Village, two neighbourhoods originally built for upper class families, have been taken over by companies. With investors and oil industries arriving, there is a lot of request. These companies can pay more than a family, so the rents have gone up to highs that hardly any family will be able to afford any more.

This seems to be a process that repeats itself.A process that starts with the sale of housing before it is built, and the reselling of it before it is even finished. Before anyone can move in, most apartments have been sold twice or three time to new owners. I know of apartments that cost around 100.000 dollars when they were still on paper, and are now doing around 250.000. Most owners are not interested in the property to live in it; they see it as an investment. For that reason, many owners do not even bother to rent the place out, and many apartments remain empty.

Those who do rent their property out, ask high rents. They only need to look at the market, which is dominated by companies, to decide on a slightly lower rent than the one asked in other neighbourhoods. This starts the move, as it did from Italian to English Village, and now to the newer apartments of for instance Royal City.

What happens to the older houses, that are left in this game? That is where the bubble comes in. It might be a profitable game to buy and sell housing, but there is always someone who in the end pays the bill. At the moment that is the latest owner of the house that is no longer sell able, as other, newer buildings are more interesting. He is stuck with a building for which he paid a price that was already far too high. He was the poor guy who did not realise he was at the end of the game - as I am sure there are many like him.

Yet the game continues, and housing prices and rents in Erbil are still on the rise. Who can afford a rent like that, you wonder. And: should the government not interfere, as those who the housing projects were planned for, do not at all profit from them. Which means that there is a huge demand for affordable housing, and that in itself again pushes up the prices.

However in Sulaymaniya, where building is going on on a bit slower rate, the prices are on the way back down. Here owners still need the rent, it seems, and renters have been clever enough to use the lower rate elsewhere in town to start the descent down to more decent prices. That will probably also be the way out for those who got stuck with unsellable houses in Erbil. Bring down the rent, and many will move back into the slightly older areas.

This makes you wonder when this balloon is going to burst. And who is going to suffer - and who to profit. I'd rather be at the side looking in, than in the middle. So if I buy a house, preferably not in Kurdistan, however much this country has got under my skin.

This reaction reached outside this website:
Azad Shekhany (Dean of the college-university at Sulaimany Technical College) wrote:
"Dear Judit, almost you find the same housing situation in Sulaymania, with renting around from 1550 to 2000 USD per month and prices of accommodation from the worst area of the city around 15000 USD to the MIDDLE and "higher" areas reaching around 220.000 (for apartment) and 700.000 usd for a villa. it is full madness. this is a result of a full speculation from one side, and the absence of housing and land market policy by the regional rulers. "

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No extra lessons, please!

During Saddam Hussein, teachers in Iraq were paid so little that they made sure their students needed extra lessons, to be able to get some extra income. That time is past. And yet not completely.

'My daughter has found a teacher to help her with maths', a friend of mine told me recently. I was surprised; I knew the girl passed the year, surely she should be having her vacations now? No, I was told, she will also need extra teachers for other subjects, as she is entering the last year of high school this autumn. And at the end of that school year she needs good points to be able to choose for a good university education.

Some things have not changed with the new regime. And one of those is the outdated point system. Young people collect points at high school, to determine which university study they may enter. This is not so much a matter of choice or talent, but of points. To be able to study medicine, you need over 95 points. Also dentistry, pharmacy, engineering and law need good points. If you have less, say about 70, not many studies are open for you. Sharia law, is one, and I know that up till recently also geology did not need top points - which might have changed since the oil boom in Kurdistan.

The system is not only bad because it does not take into consideration the talents and the interests of the youngster. At the same time, brilliant students do not make good doctors - that is only reachable for those with the right state of mind. Which explains partly the bad medical state of Iraq.

It's not only the points that decide on your future profession - it's also the family. If your father is a doctor, he will want you to become one as well, as does the lawyer want his son the study law and many engineers also thinks engineering is the best profession for their kids. I thus know (Iraqi) families of generations of doctors and lawyers. As if the profession is given to the child with the mother milk.

Children in the highest classes of high school have to do well in their exams. Only if they have enough points, they can become what their family wants them to, or choose a well paid future job.

Because of that, children need extra lessons. But not only for that reason. Kids could teach themselves a lot, as we know in Europe, where self study is part of the schooling system. In Iraq children are not stimulated in school to find the knowledge themselves. It is fed to them, in sizeable bits, in a way so that they hardly need to think. They only have to remember it long enough for the next exam. Children are not stimulated to find and digest information, they hardly know how to tap into the enormous pool of information that is called internet and even less how to use it.

So children cannot study on their own, they need teachers for the extra hours. And even though teachers are nowadays quite well paid, they like to get the extra income from the extra lessons.

If Iraq would change the system of teaching, that would rob them of an income. So they stimulate the kids to get some extra lessons after school.Modernisation of the education is not completely in their best interests, it seems.

Changing the system as such is not even enough. When children have to take turns in overcrowded schools, where often three shifts of classes daily are organised, how can you expect them to get enough knowledge in the short time they have at school? Building new schools, extra schools, is another issue.Who pays for them, if the government does not seem to want to do it?

I do not want to take income away from teachers. Yet I think children should learn enough at school, and get taught how to find additional information by themselves. Because I do want Iraq to move forward. And to do that, we need young people who are well educated, who hunger for more knowledge and know where to find it. And we need young professionals that choose their profession with their hearts, not with their wallets.