Kurdish guests or Syrian refugees? Identity, belonging and intra-ethnic displacement

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Citadel of Erbil, by Alan Abdulkadir Farhadi.

What happens when refugees and the host community adhere to a shared ethnic identity and an imagination of one homeland but are split across national borders and citizenships? How is identity and belonging negotiated in this case and what boundaries of inclusion or exclusion are constructed and contested? I address these questions within the unique experience of Syrian Kurds (as refugees) encountering Iraqi Kurds (as hosts) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). In this setting that I describe as intra-ethnic displacement, I conducted a qualitative study interviewing ten Syrian Kurdish refugees in KRI in the spring of 2018 [1]. The main aim of the study was to explore how structural inequalities and power relations connected to status and legal rights within this setting impact the formation of politics of identity and belonging among the refugees.


A starting point for understanding the experience of Syrian Kurds as refugees in KRI is to situate it within a historical context of the Kurdish struggle in the four states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria [2]. Kurdistan as a representation of the one homeland for all Kurds is often contested by the reality of the Kurds and their legal citizenship (or lack of it) in these four countries. As such, notions of identity and ethnicity acquire complex layers depending on where a Kurdish person is socially and politically situated and what boundaries and politics of belonging exist. Moreover, the value system that dictates the conditions for belonging, and by extension the boundaries of ethnic identity, is crucial in the Kurdish case to understand how politics of identity play out and become increasingly operative as politics of recognition [3]. In the context of intra-ethnic displacement studied here, the value system is not only significant for setting external boundaries around a community, it is more so in the internal determination of the roles that specific ‘social locations’ and narratives of identity should play [4]. While displacement not only constructs new identities, it also displaces belonging. In the case of Syrian Kurds, their displacement to KRI has had a huge impact on how their identity is (re)constructed and negotiated and how their belonging is emplaced, politicized and dispersed. 


The social location of being a refugee in KRI, in the experiences of the study informants, has turned identity into a field of political struggle. Their encounter with Iraqi Kurds on the other side of the border as hosts has created a space where the boundaries and content of Kurdish ethnicity have been troubled with their quest for recognition as both Syrians and Kurds. Kurdishness as they perceive it seems different to what their hosts have framed which then gives a way for the discriminatory politics of us and them to prevail. For example, whenever my interviewees discussed their relationship with the host community, the word Suriyakan was flagged as the most inappropriate and discriminatory label that they have been enduring from their hosts. Suriyakan in Sorani Kurdish or Suri in Badini Kurdish literally means the Syrians. Although it might appear referential to designate one’s place of origin in a factual manner, the label is seen by the study participants as a discriminatory economic stratagem that denies them equivalent claim to Kurdish identity when their Syrianness is instead foregrounded. Caught in the conflict of defying this label while also clinging to their Syrianness, contradictory, yet commonly performed, instances of identity politics come into play. For instance, they often have to emphasize their Kurdish origins as rooted in Rojava rather than in Syria in order to sustain the shared imagination of one people of Kurdistan. At the same time, they occasionally emphasize their Syrianness in contrast to the Iraqiness of their hosts as a way to defy or replicate the discriminatory discourse or as a strategy to subvert the economic value attached to their social location as refugees. Seen in an overall perspective, a reconstruction of identity in the context of the intra-ethnic displacement seems to have taken place when participants articulate a contested ethnic belonging to Kurdistan that could be complementary to their manifold connection to Syria. 


As in the dilemma of identity, contested belonging has appeared to be very much connected to the refugees’ current socio-economic position. Such a position that marks differences between them and their hosts, in spite of the formal discourse of considering them ‘Kurdish guests’, has gradually troubled their emotional attachment to Kurdistan on equal terms. The impact of their social location as refugees and the contestation of their identity as Kurds have rendered belonging, in the narratives of participants, to be increasingly conditional. Their experiences suggest that belonging as based on legal grounds of their Syrian citizenship has profoundly limited their acceptance and recognition in their host community. In response, they often employ a range of politics of belonging exemplified in highlighting their belonging to Syria through the role of ‘the successful Syrian refugee’ while at the same time attempting to bridge a shared ethnic connection with their hosts through the shared language, culture, community values and the political imagination of one Kurdistan. In contrast, different narratives show that constructed differences between refugees and their hosts could sometimes become highly operational which potentially put into question their shared ethnic markers of Kurdishness. These differences could ultimately become very critical adding more boundaries to belonging, expanding the maps of exclusion, and leading to severe relations and serious societal consequences in the future. 


As demonstrated here, intra-ethnic relations between the refugees and hosts have been heavily impacted by the displacement encounter. This encounter has further uncovered the asymmetrical power relations between the refugees and the hosts as embedded in social structures and emerging statuses. In sum, while Syrian Kurds, through their refugeehood narratives, adhere to a certain imagination of a homeland and shared markers of ethnicity, the reality of life in KRI transforms this homeland and their Kurdish ethnicity into an arena of epistemic and ontological contestation.


Notes and references

[1] The results of this study have been published as my master’s thesis in partial fulfilment for the degree of MA in Ethnic and Migration Studies at Linköping University, Sweden.

[2] McDowall, David. 2004. A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd ed. London: Tauris.

[3] Miller, David. 2000. Citizenship and National Identity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Polity. 

[4] Yuval‐Davis, Nira. 2007. ‘Intersectionality, Citizenship and Contemporary Politics of Belonging’. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 10(4), 561-574. 


Haqqi Bahram

Haqqi Bahram is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) of Linköping University, Sweden. His research project focuses on Kurdish statelessness in relation to forced migration and identity formation. He has previously worked as a senior program officer on humanitarian and development programmes implemented in Syria. Alongside his PhD work, he is actively involved in international refugee-led advocacy and wider research on stateless activism, social inclusion and transitional justice.

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