Stories from Kurdistan

Decades on, Thousands of Iranian Kurds Still Refugees in Kurdistan Region

The following article was originally published in Reuters. 

KOYA, Kurdistan Region — Ilya was born in the Kurdistan Region five years ago to a father and a mother from Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhelat) but like them and thousands of other Kurds from Iran she is considered a refugee despite her new birthplace and integration into life here from an early age.

Ilya likes drawing, her favorite subject in school is art and she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

Her mother, Qumri Ahmed, fled Iran with her family at the age of three months. Officially recognized as refugees by the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, they are among thousands of Kurds from Iran living in limbo in the Kurdistan Region for decades.

Kurds have fled Iran for different reasons 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 and with a different language and culture and alliances that crossed borders, Kurds were considered open to foreign influence.

In 1979, Khomeini declared jihad against Kurdish independence aspirations which forced many from their homes to seek shelter in neighboring Iraq. As the world marks World Refugee Day on June 20, Iranian Kurdish refugees in the Kurdistan Region are frustrated with years of waiting and repeated promises that their cases would be considered for resettlement in the US or Europe.

They are unable to build a life as full citizens in Iraq or return home. Ilya’s grandfather was a politician and Peshmerga in Iran. He had to flee with his family, including his three-month old daughter Qumri, in 1985. Qumri grew up in the Kurdistan Region. She remembers early years in a refugee camp where they had little and were dependent on the UN for food and clothes. She was a clever child, she said, often top student in her class. When she was in seventh grade, they were living in a village where there was no secondary school.

Her father, committed to her education, drove her to school every day until she graduated. With her good grades, Qumri enrolled in university, but the family did not have money to pay for her further education. No one in her family has been able to finish further education, she said. Now, Qumri worries about Ilya. “I think my daughter’s future will be similar to mine,” she said. Ilya’s father is also a Peshmerga, with the Iranian Kurdish party PDKI.

He is based in the Kurdistan Region mountains and visits his family in Koya frequently. “On World Refugee Day, held every year on June 20th, we commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees,” states the United Nations. The UN estimates that there are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced worldwide – families uprooted, separated, in some cases barely surviving.

The family of Alijan Abdulmajeed Hidayet Majeedi is one of those that have been separated. Alijan was 48 years old when he fled in 1998. He had come to the attention of the Iranian authorities after taking up arms as a Peshmerga.

His wife, Layli Ahmad, was arrested and detained for six months. She was interrogated about her and her husband’s activities. “I had a little child with me,” she recalled. “I was still breastfeeding him when I was arrested.”

Fearing execution if he was captured, Alijan had no choice but to flee. He crossed the mountains on foot into the Kurdistan Region, taking a path that many Kurds have taken over the years in both directions. After fifteen years of separation from his family and with the help of a smuggler Alijan was able to arrange for his wife to join him in the Kurdistan Region. They had both changed in their years apart. “I recognized him but he did not recognize me,” Layli remembers, laughing. They have four children still in Iran. The Iranian government has threatened them. If they leave, Alijan’s brother will be arrested. “This is punishment of me,” said Alijan. As the Kurdistan Region prepares for a referendum on independence, these refugees are hopeful that a Kurdish state would be more sympathetic than Baghdad, granting them citizenship that will finally allow them to move on with their lives.

This article was originally published in Rudaw.

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