Ipswich: Meet the Kurdish refugees who call Suffolk home...but still live in fear of ISIS

Suffolk Refugee Support talk about the Ipswich Kurdish communities response to events in Iraq
Ian St

Suffolk Refugee Support talk about the Ipswich Kurdish communities response to events in Iraq Ian Stewart

Ahmed and Mohammed are scared. is in Iraq and SyriaScared for the lives of their loved ones, frightened for the future of their homeland and terrified for the safety of their friends.

Suffolk Refugee Support talk about the Ipswich Kurdish communities response to events in Iraq
Ian St

Suffolk Refugee Support talk about the Ipswich Kurdish communities response to events in Iraq Ian Stewart

They are Kurds who live and work in the UK, and Suffolk is their home.

An estimated 1,000 Kurds live in Ipswich and the surrounding area and they have been an established part of our community for a number of years.

They have jobs, they run businesses, they speak English, their children go to Suffolk’s schools – they lead successful lives.

But their fear of the Islamic State, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), means they dare not be photographed or even named.

Kurdish landscape

Kurdish landscape

We have used aliases to project their identity.

Ian Stewart, chairman of Suffolk Refugee Support, said: “We know that in the UK as a whole an estimated 500 people have left the UK to go and fight with ISIS.

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“Kurds in the UK are worried that if they are named or photographed or publicised there will be repercussions for their relatives in Iraq or Syria and that their loved ones will be under threat.”

Mr Stewart added: “Their families come from the towns and cities that ISIS have taken over and they are deeply concerned for the welfare of their families and friends.”

Kurdish landscape

Kurdish landscape

Mohammed is in his early 40s. He lives in Ipswich. =

“I am from Northern Iraq. I was born in Kirkuk but my family now live in Sulimaniya. At the moment there are things going on in Kirkuk. ISIS is trying to take over but hopefully our pashmirga will cover the surrounding area.

“They are fighting them. Sinjar has been taken over by ISIS. 100,000 people have escaped Sinjar to the mountains without water or food. “People are dying without anything. They have also taken so many kids and girls and women and killed the men. Some men are in prison.

Kurdish landscape

Kurdish landscape

“At the moment they are trying to sell the women – they are selling them for like £1,000. I have heard that about 50 children at the moment about 12 years old have been taken by ISIS.

“My extended family are fighting with the pashmigra against ISIS. They are scared of them – everyone is scared at the moment. No one knows what is going on. It is all politics stuff, it’s not just in Sinjar. The problem is there is no border between Syria and Iraq.

“No one actually knows who ISIS is. They are coming from other areas.

“At the moment ISIS are trying to come forward and take more of our cities but because American airstrikes support the pashmirga, they can’t come forward - hopefully.

Map of ISIS area

Map of ISIS area - Credit: Archant

“They are crazy. Completely crazy people. Everyday there is different news coming through. All of my family are scared of these people – they want to take over our cities, our areas. My mum and dad are old, what will they do if they come forward? They will have to run away from our home.

“I have been advised by family not to come back – they say it is not safe enough.

“Personally I don’t like ISIS – they are horrible. They don’t know anything about humanity.”

Ahmed is 30 and lives in Ipswich.

“My family comes from North Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulimaniya area. I came to England in 2000 because of the conflict between Sadam Hussein’s regime and the Kurdish. He used chemical weapons on the Kurdish and 5,000 people died in one day I remember.

“My family were living just outside Sulimaniya in 1988. Sadam Hussein used chemical weapons at this time and killed 182,000 people. 20-25 of my family members at this time disappeared, and we still do not know where they are. Everything in Kurdistan was destroyed – homes, shops, everything.

“In 1991 the Pashmirga took back control of half of the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. There was nothing outside of the capital city. There was nothing to see. After 2-3 months of the Pashmirga taking control, the Iraqi army advanced back up to Northern Iraq. Many thousands of people fled. It wasn’t until the US invaded that the Pashmirga and the people of Kurdistan could come back to their homes. If the US did not invade, maybe the Kurdish would not exist in the world any longer.

“In 1996 Saddam Hussein formed a relationship with Masoud Berzani from the PDK, a Kurdish group. Again, thousands and thousands of people were killed. Because Berzani lost power in Kurdistan, he bought in Sadam Hussein and killed anyone that did not support him.

“I have three bullets in my body from this time. I was shot in the fighting. They went through my stomach and came out of my back. After this, I decided to come to the UK. When I came here, it saved my life.

“Now it is very different in Kurdistan. It is not very safe.

“I have three brothers, my uncle, my cousin, a lot of the family who are fighting with the Pashmirga against the terrorism in Kurdistan of ISIS. Everyday people are dying. The problem is between the Kurdish, and Kurdish area, and the Iraqis and ISIS. Europe needs to support the Kurdish and the Pashmirga to push the terrorists outside of Iraq.

“Everyone is waiting for the situation to end. Every day we are looking to Europe to help the Pashmirga. I know of someone that has gone back to Iraq to fight against ISIS. I saw on TV last night my best friend fighting with the Pashmirga – he lived in the UK for 15 years but wanted to go home to protect his family.

“I don’t know what will happen. I don’t want to go back. Not now. I would prefer if my sister came back soon as she is visiting Kurdistan now. Life here is safe – I don’t want to go.

My parents tell me it’s not safe. They tell me stories like nearly 1,500 Kurdish Yazidi women have been sold for between $50 to $200. The ones who are not “pretty” are sold for $50 and if you are “very pretty” maybe more. I don’t know who did it or how they done it. I think ISIS. It’s all scary. Very scary.”

The crisis in Iraq and Syria

Suffolk’s Kurdish community first began to come to the area in the early 2000s.

Ian Stewart, chairman of Suffolk Refugee Support, said: “Suffolk Refugee Support opened in 1999 and we work with refugees in Suffolk, mostly in and around Ipswich. The government has a dispersal policy so refugees are not concentrated just in London and the big cities.

“Refugees get a free room and £35 to live per week but they can’t work while their asylum case is processed, if they are accepted they have the right to reside in the UK. If they are rejected they face deportation.”

Mr Stewart said somewhere between two and three hundred refugees come to Ipswich each year with about half being granted asylum.

He added: “There are about two thousand people in Ipswich who have the right to remain in the UK and about half of them are Kurds.”

Mr Stewart said Kurds in Northern Iraq were persecuted by Saddam Hussein after the first gulf war.

Mr Stewart said: “The US and British said to Saddam that unless you stop we will start bombing Iraq again so Saddam withdrew from that part of Kurdistan and between 1991 and 2003 it was a semi-autonomous region.

“During that time a lot of Kurds came to the UK. There was civil war in Kurdistan and the British government was fairly tolerant of accepting refugees from areas in which it had been involved.

“There were a number of Kurds that came to Ipswich and made lives for themselves here and some managed to bring their families over.”

Before the recent conflict began Iraqi Kurdistan had a population of around five million people. Today an estimated two million are displaced.

Mr Stewart said: “Ethnic Kurds are fleeing for their lives. They have their own fighting force called the Peshmerga which is like a home guard. Many Suffolk Kurds have family and friends in the Peshmerga and some served in it themselves against Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Stewart said the charity would not comment on whether Britain should be involved in military action in the conflict.

He said: “This crisis is directly affecting people in Suffolk. Most people we talk to support the American airstrikes against ISIS. We have already dropped humanitarian supplies.

“ISIS now has anti-aircraft weaponry. The question is do we follow the Americans into combat?”

Suffolk Refugee Support

Martin Simmonds, communications officer for SRS, said the charity offers support for the Kurdish community.

He said: “We want to raise awareness about how ISIS is affecting members of the community here in Suffolk and that there is a significant Kurdish community in Ipswich plus how they are really affected by events in Iraq.”

“We have followed and known these people since they came to the UK. We have watched them go through the asylum process and establish themselves in Suffolk.

Suffolk Refugee Support is a charity based in Ipswich serving Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Suffolk.

Suffolk Refugee Support aims to provide a warm welcome to those that have left their countries fearing for their lives.

The charity helps to rebuild shattered lives and support individuals to become fully functioning members of UK society.

The charity provides a number of services and support groups including drop in advice, English classes, employment advice and men’s and women’s groups.