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shopping mall at night Copyright: Judit Neurink, DW Mitarbeiterin, Erbil, Sept. 2013
Image: Judit Neurink

Boom town

Judit Neurink, Erbil
October 22, 2013

Young Western Kurds are settling in Iraqi Kurdistan, the homeland that they hardly know. They want to be part of the development of the region, but at times encounter a strange and unwelcoming world.


"I was in love with Kurdistan from a distance for years," says the Kurdish filmmaker Beri Shalmashi. After spending most of her life in Europe, she settled in Iraqi Kurdistan just over a year ago. She is one of many young, second-generation Kurds who decided to come to their parents' country. Driven by a sense of belonging or by recession in Europe, they want to help develop the country of their dreams.

Iraqi Kurdistan is booming, 10 years after the demise of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The autonomous region has its own government, parliament and economy, although not its own currency. Investors come from all over the world to build and trade, and the Kurdish cities Erbil and Sulaymaniya have in a matter of years changed completely because of a building boom.

Twenty-nine-year-old Shalmashi, who lived in Holland, came here to be part of this development, but finds herself struggling because film making is not one of the priorities of the new Kurdish society. "I want to make a movie about life in Erbil. The budget has been promised locally, but it takes forever to reach me."

People in a shopping mall Copyright: Judit Neurink, DW Mitarbeiterin, Erbil, Sept. 2013
Cities like Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan are becoming a commercial hub, attracting many foreign investorsImage: Judit Neurink

She found work teaching at the Film Academy in Erbil, but is not too happy about it. "The corruption is terrible, and you are forced to accept it. If you ask the students to make an essay about a movie, they just copy and paste. I tried to explain to the dean that they can never do a masters outside if they graduate this way. He just told me: 'Oh, you and your foreign countries!'"

Connections count

Shalmashi experienced that some of her colleagues, who never left Kurdistan, considered her as dangerous competition, as she was asking for improvements they could not provide. "They made my life hell. They are afraid to lose their position, and rather keep me out than work together on improving the quality of the education."

She is disappointed. In Kurdistan everything depends on who you know and how to play those connections, she says, talents are a minor detail. "My experience in Holland is not important. I was warned that nobody would roll out the red carpet for me, but I had not expected it would be this difficult."

Her complaint is common amongst returnees with an academic background. They get asked: 'where were you when we had a hard time?' Some say they try not to stand out, as their better knowledge makes them prone to criticism and attempts to get them fired. Most feel they are considered as a threat, as they usually are better-educated than their Kurdish colleagues.

Cases have been reported of Western diplomas not being accepted by the Kurdish medical board, even though the returning medical academics involved had excellent grades, references and work experience. A dentist who set up a clinic with government support from his European country was refused a clearance of his masters' title and was forced to stop working.

A picture taken on September 12, 2013 shows Iraqi Kurds walking in the main square of the northern Iraqi city of Arbil SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Despite its booming economy, corruption and nepotism are rife in ErbilImage: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Bad medicine

Returnees bring their European ethics, which often clash with the habits in Kurdistan, as 27-year-old Aram Amma discovered. After spending most of his life in the Netherlands, he started working in Kurdistan three years ago importing quality medicines from Europe, to compete with cheap, bad medicine from India and China.

The medicine business in Iraqi Kurdistan is mainly in the hands of two competing families and he got caught up in this feud. When a container of medicine was refused at the checkpoint of his home town Sulaymaniya, he went to negotiate and was picked up. He was thrown in a cell on a drug-related charge. "I heard of someone who got six months for possession of some pills. I had a whole container full."

He was locked up in a cell with 33 others, most of them seasoned criminals. The small cell had hardly any space to sleep. "We each kept guard in turn in the night to prevent abuse."

After a few days in jail he stopped denying the charge to his fellow prisoners. "I went to sit with the big crooks. That gave me a status, more food and more phone calls."

When in the next fortnight his lawyer failed to get him freed, Amma swallowed his pride and phoned his boss. He in turn placed phone calls at the right political levels and got him out within a day.

Meanwhile the container had been left out in the sun and the medicines, worth about 73,000 dollars (53,000 euros), had to be destroyed. "That was what my arrest was about, to get rid of the medicines. I had a letter that nothing was wrong with them, but that because of the sun they could not be sold anymore."

Amma never received any excuses. "My boss did not want that. He asked me not to make the case any bigger than it was."

Home, sweet home?

Aram Amma went back to Holland for a couple of months, but then returned to Kurdistan. His family, who like Shalmashi's stayed behind in Europe, calls him crazy. But his life is in Kurdistan, he says. Amma now has a group of friends around him who took care of him during his difficult time in prison.

Making friends is a difficult issue for many returnees. In their Western lives they moved around in mixed company, going out to bars, and playing sports together. Kurdistan's society is a split one; men and women live separate lives. "Having a girlfriend can only be done in secret," Amma says. Mixed parties are also taboo, but Amma's circle of returnee friends throws them regularly in the privacy of their homes.

Like Aram Amma, Beri Shalmashi also surrounds herself with friends who returned from abroad. "How can you explain your problems to others? They understand them," she says. "They are my soul mates."

Nechir Herki and Beri Shalmashi in the mall Copyright: Judit Neurink, DW Mitarbeiterin, Erbil, Sept. 2013
Nechir Herki, left, and Beri Shalmashi have suffered serious setbacks in their quest to fulfill their dreamsImage: Judit Neurink

Nechir Herki, 23, who returned from the Netherlands about a year ago, often feels misunderstood by his fellow Kurds. "Other returnees know what you are talking about. Here they have never been in Paris, and yet they start a discussion about it."

Herki set up a Facebook page to connect the Dutch Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan, called 'Nederland in Koerdistan.' "I want us to have a network, so that we can be there for each other."

Working on a dream

Yet at the same time, he claims that Kurds are more open than Westerners. "They are warmer and more hospitable. I have become a more positive guy here because of that."

He found that out the hard way after he had a car accident. His car overturned after it skidded off the road. "Here everybody is immediately on top of it. They pull you out of the car, and phone the crane. In Holland people get stabbed on the street and everybody just walks past."

Herki works in a logistics firm where he meets mainly returnees and foreigners. English is becoming a second language in Kurdistan, he says, because of all the international companies and expats that have come in over the past few years.

His dream is to set up his own business, something that can be easier in booming Kurdistan than in the recession of Europe. "That is my goal, and that is why I stay here," he says.

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