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Living the American dream in Iraq

As the US military prepares to scale down its presence in Iraq's Kurdish north, a young businessman wants to bring US-style entrepreneurship to the country. DW's Guy Degen travelled to Dohuk to see the results.

The exterior of a fitness center

A small piece of America in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Gerdun fitness center in Dohuk

Ibrahim Abdullatif looks the part of a modern American businessman. Dressed in a suit and tie, he checks his email on an iPhone and drives to the large fitness centre he operates in a late model SUV. The 31-year old's cheerful accent speaks of Nashville, Tennessee, but the small Kurdish flag pinned to his lapel gives away why he's come from America to run a business in a country where others would not dare to.

Abdullatif was born, not far from Dohuk, in a cave where his parents took shelter while their village was attacked by the Iraqi army. Like many rural Kurds, Abdullatif's family led a traditional life raising goats. That changed in 1987 when Saddam Hussein's notorious al-Anfal campaign stepped up attacks on Iraq's Kurdish population. Abdullatif's family were forced to flee with thousands of other Kurdish refugees to neighboring Turkey. He was just 8 years old.

"Thinking about it, that is the time I remember the most out of my life," said Abdullatif about the dangerous mountain trek to Turkey. 'The more we walked, the more I asked my parents: 'Where are we going and when are going to get there?'"

From Turkish refugee camp to Nashville

A portrait of Ibrahim Abdullatif

Ibrahim Abdullatif says he wants to bring the American way of life to his hometown

To help his family survive as refugees in Diyarbakir, the enterprising young Ibrahim fetched ice to sell in the market, shined shoes and sold Kurdish jewelry and music on the streets. In 1991, after four years as refugees, Abdullatif's father weighed up the family's prospects and decided that the United States offered them the best future. Along with several thousand Kurdish refugees, the family made their new home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Abdullatif said he managed to master English at high school and quickly adapted to the American way of life.

"For me, everything that I am is because of America. Everything. Learning how to read and write. Not being oppressed. Going through a normal, happy life," he said. "Everything about America, if you only try, you'll get ahead and I appreciate that."

Returning to frontline Iraq

"Instantly I said I had to go... I was very passionate about giving something back to America."

When the United States began preparing in 2003 to invade Iraq, Abdullatif put his college studies on hold and offered his services as a translator for the US Army. Soon, he found himself on the frontline in Kirkuk.

"Several times we had close calls of being killed and I was fine with that," he said.

It was an emotional return to his homeland but he also saw the potential that the stability of northern Iraq offered for business opportunities.

Thanks to revenue from oil exports, Kurdish Iraq is thriving. The Kurdish Regional Government is actively positioning the region as a gateway for foreign investors into Iraq.

In 2007, Abdullatif raised enough capital with another Kurdish-American partner to open the Gerdun Fitness Center in Dohuk. The center boasts a modern weights studio, a swimming pool and a large snooker hall. Clients can work out on modern exercise equipment, steam up in the sauna, cool off in the pool or relax with friends at the "California Cafe" that offers an American diner-style menu.

"We set up a fitness and recreational center in Dohuk because the city needed one. People needed a place to work out and to have fun," said Abdullatif.

Making Iraqi Kurdistan fitter for the future

Kurdistan is often referred to as "The Other Iraq". People of different ethnicities and religions live together largely in peace in Dohuk which, like nearby Erbil and Sulaimaniya, is fast becoming a refuge for Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Muslims and Yezidis wishing to leave the violence of nearby cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk. However, Abdullatif's fitness center is also challenging conservative attitudes in Iraq, particularly toward women.

A swimming pool

The fitness center in Dohuk offers women the chance to stay fit

The fitness center offers special women-only opening hours and is the only place in Dohuk where women can exercise in a gym and learn to swim.

"It has given women freedom from home and the opportunity to take care of themselves and become healthier," said the center's women's swimming instructor, Bishkoj Khosro Abdullah.

Abdullatif and his partner have also introduced modern American business practices. Staff at Gerdun are drilled in American-style customer service. But Abdullatif adds that his employees are paid well above average local wages and have regular work breaks - something his employees had never experienced.

"Our staff are more productive," said Abdullatif. "And other businesses are now following what we do."

Ibrahim Abdullatif is confident about investing in Iraqi Kurdistan. He and his business partner are now looking into developing a cinema and bowling alley and opening more fitness centers in Erbil, Sulaimaniya, and if security improves, Kirkuk

Author: Guy Degen
Editor: Rob Mudge

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