Deprived of aid and citizenship, disabled Syrian Kurds struggle to belong in Iraq

Alan Syrian Kurd
5 min read
02 December, 2022

Alan Mahmoud Hassan, a Syrian Kurd with special needs, escaped the Syrian civil war in 2011 to seek refuge Iraqi Kurdistan.

Having stayed in the region for almost ten years, Alan is still trying to find his way. The destiny of tens of thousands of fellow Syrians remain in limbo, amid indifference from the Iraqi authorities, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Fleeing Assad's bloody regime, thousands of Syrians, mostly Kurds, escaped the country's unrest but in a clear breach of Iraqi binding laws Kurdish and Iraqi authorities have denied Alan and others Iraqi nationality. 

Alan, originally from Damascus, now runs a small tea shop in a neglected neighbourhood of Sulaimaniyah city. His wife also has disabilities. Alan earns his wage for himself, his wife and his three children by selling tea, coffee and cigarettes in his one-metre-long tea shop. 

"At a meeting between the Council of Syrian refugees and the KRG’s Directorate of General Security, the Kurdish officials clearly told us [Syrian Kurds] that we wouldn't be granted Iraqi nationality even if we stay for another 20 years"

Fleeing from Syria 

“We left our house in Damascus in 2011 and came here, God knows who is now owning my house,” Alan told The New Arab, inhaling a cigarette with his semi-handicapped left hand. Alan's feet are also handicapped, making it hard to walk. He has survived these injuries since he was two years old. 

“It is almost ten years we are here and we are yet to receive our rights, we are still asylum seekers,” Alan continued as he poured a cup of tea for a customer. “If you stay for a few years in any country around the world, they can grant you citizenship, we've been here for ten years however, the KRG doesn't grant us Iraqi nationality. Despite having special needs, I can't receive any aid from charitable organisations because I do not have an Iraqi nationality nor any other formal identity card.”

According to the Iraqi Nationality Law, number 26 from 2006, the Minister of Interior of the Iraqi federal government may approve the granting of Iraqi nationality to non-Iraqis (locally known as naturalisation) subject to some conditions, mainly that "the person concerned has legitimately entered Iraq into and has resided within Iraq at the time of applying for naturalisation; … has been legitimately residing within Iraq for ten consecutive years prior to applying for naturalization.”  

A document obtained by The New Arab, in which the KRG ministry of interior obliged all foreigners living in the region, including Syrian Kurds to sign declaring that they shouldn't ask for an Iraqi nationality after staying for ten years [photo credit: Dana Taib Menmy]

“The KRG has given us a residency card that is only permissible in Sulaimaniyah, Erbil, and Duhok provinces. Even so, we are subject to many investigations at the KRG-controlled checkpoints. The card is not permissible in Kirkuk and other provinces under the control of the Iraqi federal government,” Alan told The New Arab, expressing his frustration.

He said as per directives from the KRG, Syrian Kurds cannot register houses, markets, or cars with their own names. He said their children find difficulties in studying the Kurdish language at schools in the Kurdistan region because the children have become accustomed to studying in Arabic while were in Syria.

“Stuck in dire economic conditions”

“At a meeting between the Council of Syrian refugees with the KRG’s Directorate of General Security, the Kurdish officials clearly told us that we would not be given Iraqi nationality even if we stay for 20 other years in this country,” he added. “We live in dire economic conditions. We are stuck in this country, we cannot go to other parts of Iraq, or else we would be arrested and extradited to the Syrian regime and then would be executed. We cannot go abroad, because we have no Iraqi passports or any other formal identities.”

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According to Iraqi law, only citizens can hold public sector jobs and run businesses in the private sector. Syrian Kurds are unwilling to return to the autonomous Kurdish administration in the North and East of Syria (also known as Rojava), because of the dire situation there also. 

Relocation to a third country 

“To be relocated to a third country by the UN, frankly speaking, you need to know an acquaintance,” Alan recalled, “My interview with the UN was semi-political rather than humanitarian as they asked me questions about what the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had done or said to you. I think those questions have nothing to do with the UN because we are refugees and not politicians and we have nothing to do with the PKK.” 

According to a document obtained by The New Arab, the KRG ministry of interior has obliged all foreigners living in the region, including Syrian Kurds, to sign a legal document in which they abdicate their legitimate right of asking for an Iraqi nationality after staying for ten years in the country.

The head of a private sector company importing foreign labour in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, as well as a Syrian Kurd, confirmed the measures by the KRG outlined in the document which is in the Kurdish language. They also added that the KRG is not renewing temporary residences for the Syrian Kurds and foreign workers unless they sign the document. 

During a visit by The New Arab to the Sulaimaniyah residency directorate, Kurdish officials declined to comment on the issue and dismissed imposing any measures barring foreigners from asking the Iraqi nationality. 

An official from the Directorate of nationality in Sulaimaniyah, who declined to be named, told The New Arab that they continue to receive applications for naturalisation according to the Iraqi laws and regulations, and send them back to Baghdad for acceptance, but so far, the Iraqi federal government has not responded to the applicants. 

The New Arab also contacted the UNHCR via email, but they were not immediately available to comment.

Dana Taib Menmy is The New Arab's Iraq Correspondent, writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy