Iraqi Kurds raise money for Syrian Kurdish refugees

By MUHAMMED ABDULLA, Written for UPI  |  Sept. 21, 2012 at 6:46 PM
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RANIA, Iraq, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Beneath a canopy of pines in central Rania, the music has been playing for weeks. For locals in this city of 100,000 in northern Iraq, the sound of "Oh, Enemy," the saz-infused Kurdish national anthem, conjures memories from the early 1990s, when the Kurds in this city rose up against then-dictator Saddam Hussein. The song is a somber rallying cry that charts the sacrifices and tenacity of Kurds throughout the centuries.

Today, this tree-shaded area is the site of a charity camp conceived as a way to raise money for beleaguered Kurds in warring Syria.

Khalid Qadir, a mainstay at Rania's youth activity center in the city and an organizer of the charity camp, says the similarities between events in Kobani, a Kurdish stronghold in Syria, and Rania are hard to ignore.

"Rania was the first city to start rising up against Saddam's government," he said. "Kobani was one of the first in Syrian Kurdistan. We, at least, have this in common."

Kurds seized power in Kobani and declared independence from Damascus, Syria's capital, in July. The Kurdish influence in the Kobani region is so strong that it is often referred to as Syrian Kurdistan or Western Kurdistan.

The Rania charity camp has been open around the clock since early August. Beneath a Kurdish flag, activists sit in a ring of red plastic chairs. At the opening of a tent hangs a hand-scrawled sign. "Visit here," it says, "to donate to Kurds in Syria.

Organizers say they have raised more than $68,000 -- money they hope to deliver to Kurds in Kobani, a town whose uprising against the regime of Syria's Bashar Assad have captured the imagination of people here.

The camp has attracted a cross-section of Rania society. Shene Aziz, who was chosen as the first Miss Kurdistan in June, recently paid a visit. So, too, have the city's poor.

Ameed Rassul, a 42-year-old volunteer at the camp, said he's overwhelmed when he sees peddlers and other people with little money excitedly donate what they have.

"I have seen some who put money into the box with tears; they were very passionate and emotional," he said.

The developments in Rania come at a time when violence in Syria has reached fever pitch. There are more than 220,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the United Nations reports. Each of those countries has said that they'll soon stop accepting more Syrians. In a move that rankled many Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi government recently closed the al-Qaim border crossing to Syria's al-Bukamal province.

Conditions in refugee camps can be grim, with limited basic services and no access to schools. Even in cities like Kobani, basic necessities can be hard to come by.

"We want to buy them some clothes and food, especially flour," said Qadir. "Many of them are living in hunger."

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria. Turkish leaders have expressed concerns that newly liberated Kurdish cities, including Kobani, could provide safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the militant Kurdish resistance group that has been fighting for an independent Kurdistan in Turkey for decades. The party is known by its Kurdish initials PKK.

In August, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, held an unprecedented meeting with Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, in which he cautioned the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan against recognizing Kurdish political parties in Syria that have ties to the PKK.

Ali al-Mosawi, an adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, condemned Davutoglu's visit.

Fueled by outrage over Turkey's actions, a sense of religious duty and camaraderie with their fellow Kurds, activists in Rania continue to gather beneath the pines. The Kurdish flag wafts in the breeze. The music plays.

"Kurds in Syria have been struggling for their natural rights," said 28-year-old activist Sarkawt Karem. "My conscience tells me they deserve to be aided."

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