HALABJA, Halabja province – A new peace organization in Halabja is overcoming linguistic differences to promote tolerance and cultural exchange between local residents and the refugee communities that have flooded the area.
The NWE, or “New” in Kurdish, organization, which advocates for human rights and the environment, recently launched the Halabja Summer of Peace and Coexistence campaign to act as a bridge between local Kurds and the mostly Arab arrivals.
In a recent event, NWE brought together 24 Iraqi women, 18 Syrian women and 10-15 Halabjans to exchang skills and unique experiences.
The first hurdle was how to speak to each other. Halabja people speak Sorani Kurdish, Syrian refugees speak Kurmanci Kurdish and Syrian Arabic, and Iraqi IDPs speak Iraqi Arabic.
NWE used the challenge as an opportunity, offering the group classes to learn Kurdish and Arabic.
The parliament of the Kurdistan region declared Halabja the capital of peace in September 2014 for its sacrifices for the Kurdish cause, namely the chemical attack at the hands of the Iraqi regime in 1988.
The NEW organization will offer participants language classes, crafts, and vocational courses during the three-month campaign. Some 17 Iraqi and Syrian children also receive English courses.
Suhad Abbas is an Iraqi IDP, a college graduate and mother of six children. She worked as a volunteer teacher this year at an Arabic school for Iraqi IDPs in Halabja.
As her family struggles to pay for the rent and basic needs, she is now attending sewing classes offered as part of the NWE campaign. Her new occupation, she hopes, will bring some extra income to the family.
Abbas’ hometown of Diyala was been recaptured from the Islamic State in February, but she’s not ready to return.
“We are afraid to go back since we fear being detained by Hashd al-Shaabi [Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Units],” she said. “All of us have been scattered in Kurdistan.”
Besides some 720 displaced Iraqi families, there are also 70 families from Rojava, known among locals as the Kobani refugees in reference to the symbolic Kurdish city.
Khansa Derbas, from the Syrian city of Hasaka, came to Halabja three months ago along with her three children. She was encouraged by her husband who had found refuge here 10 months ago.
“My husband told me the people here are good.” Khansa said, insisting that she will stay in Halabja as long as she is a refugee.
Amira Arsalan, a new college graduate from Halabja, has practiced her first Arabic conversations with the Arab IDPs.
Understanding the language, she said, makes her day even harder because she now understands how difficult the situation of the IDPs is.
The community radio station Dangi Nwe, or New Voice, has also taken part in the campaign. The radio broadcasts a special program about peace and coexistence twice a week by inviting refugees to share their experiences with their audience.