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Refugees, including children, sitting on the floor. (Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

'People are in dire straits'

Interview: Jeanette Seiffert / ng
July 23, 2014

The jihadists in Iraq show no sign of tiring. Christians in Mosul have almost all fled to Kurdish areas of Iraq that can hardly cope with the influx, Irbil mayor Nihad Qoja tells DW.


Deutsche Welle: How are you affected by the influx of refugees in Irbil?

Nihad Qoja: We're strongly affected. There have been waves of refugees coming in before, from all over Iraq - many of whom are Christians who had feared for their lives in Baghdad for example.

In total, we have nearly one million refugees in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, of which 250,000 are from Syria, the rest is from other parts of Iraq.

What state are they in, the people who are coming in from Mosul and other cities, and what kind of support do they get on arrival?

The people really are in dire straits. Luckily, some families have relatives or friends who take care of them, they are coping relatively well.

Nihad Latif Qoja. (Photo: Shamal Sharef/ DW)
Nihad Qoja is mayor of IrbilImage: DW/S. Sharef

Most people have to stay in shelters though, and they're hopelessly overcrowded. Some of the people who had to flee Mosul in a hurry did not have any money on them at all to buy even the most basic things.

Many arrive hungry and thirsty, some have come here on foot. Once they cross the border, we try to assist them as best we can. Then, we send them on to safe areas, further behind the border, into villages and cities.

The problem is that we don't have enough resources to cope with the sheer number of refugees. That's why we have called on all international charities to help us deal with this task.

At the moment, there is a delegation of the German emergency relief agency (THW) in Irbil. I hope other organizations will follow suit to at least offer these people the bare minimum of help, because we cannot cope on our own.

Are Christians safe in the Kurdish areas?

They are completely safe with us. We have always had plenty of Christians here, Kurds, Muslims and Christians have lived here side-by-side for centuries and without any problems.

You're free to practice your religion, people are tolerant and help each other out. The Kurdish population is very open, Christians can feel like this is their second home.

At the moment, it's impossible to say if and when the jihadists can be stopped and Christians can return to Mosul. Could they stay in Irbil indefinitely?

Of course, they can stay, we won't refuse anyone or send anyone back. We always say: Iraqi Kurdistan is home for all the people of Iraq. It's always been like that in the last 60,70 years - whenever the various Iraqi governments put political pressure on the people, they came to us in the north of Iraq.

And it'll stay like that, because Kurdish society is tolerant. However, we do need an international solution for this problem, the Kurdish regional government needs support.

Do the refugees in Irbil have any chance of finding work, what are their prospects there?

Anyone is free to work here. And they tend to integrate quickly, once they've found work. But a small region cannot provide work for a million people. Even in a highly industrialized nation like Germany, refugees and foreigners who have just arrived often struggle to find work - how can it work in a country like ours?

At present, the Kurdish territories in northern Iraq are the only bastion against the terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which now calls itself "Islamic State" (IS). Many believe that Irbil may become the "new Baghdad" and that more and more Western diplomats are using Irbil as their first port of call.

Can you imagine Irbil becoming the focal point of the West's activities in Iraq?

Irbil has already become Iraq's second capital. We have over 30 foreign consulates, there are many UN institutions here, big global companies have subsidiaries here. Irbil has long become a replacement for Baghdad.

Many think this means the Kurds are more likely than ever to get their own state. What's your view?

We have certainly come closer to getting that. But we also emphasize that we are prepared to stay in a peaceful and democratic Iraq, if all political groups adhere to the constitution.

But if the problems between Sunnis and Shiites escalate further, we are not prepared to get drawn into this conflict any further. Then we have to go our own way.

Nihad Latif Qoja is mayor of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish territories in Iraq. The government of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is also based in Irbil. In 1981, former PE teacher Qoja fled Saddam Hussein's regime to Germany. He lived in Bonn for more than 20 years, where he worked for the Iraqi opposition movement among others. He returned to Iraq in 2004.

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