Having fled encroaching Islamic State militants, Ali Hussein Abbas, his wife and two young children arrived at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital of the Kurdistan region, hoping to find refuge.
But the Kurdish peshmerga soldiers at the checkpoint told Abbas, a Kurd, that only he and the youngsters, and not his wife, a Sunni Arab, could pass through. Refusing to break up the family, they and four more families from the city of Mosul spent weeks below an underpass with only a tarp to protect them from the elements.
“They said, ‘Arabs are not allowed in, they’re banned,’” said Abbas, who, after multiple rejections, donned his own peshmerga uniform and passed through with his family without being stopped.
Others have been smuggled into Irbil, have walked through dusty fields to avoid highway checkpoints, or have managed to get a Kurdish resident to sponsor their entrance.
Once in Kurdistan, Arabs are not allowed to rent homes but must live in one of many refugee camps run by nongovernmental organizations cropping up around Irbil and across the region. In all, the region is now housing nearly 1 million displaced Iraqis. Even in trading one temporary harbor for another, the refugees are better off than those stuck outside the checkpoint perimeter, closer to the front lines, who find temporary shelter in abandoned buildings or just stay on the streets.
When the extremist Sunni fighters of Islamic State launched their rapid sweep through large parts of northern and western Iraq, they were aided by many Sunni Arab residents, tribal leaders and former supporters of deposed President Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baathist government and army. For years, these Sunnis had chafed under the Shiite Muslim-run governments that came to power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Not all Sunnis have been happy, however, with the subsequent sectarian violence, marked by Islamic State’s systematic targeting of Shiites, Yazidis, Christians and other groups for conversion or death.
Many, like the mixed-marriage Abbas family, have sought to flee to semiautonomous Kurdistan or areas still under control of the central government in Baghdad. But rather than gaining refuge, some have found themselves the target of discrimination or of retaliation toward Sunni Arabs in general.
In August, Shiite militiamen stormed a Sunni mosque in eastern Iraq and opened fire, killing many worshipers, reportedly in retaliation for a bombing targeting a Shiite security vehicle.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, rather than complain about what they see as their new second-class status, some Sunni Arabs express understanding, lest their resentment sow even more antagonism.
“We don’t blame [the Kurds] … because they don’t want to happen here what happened in Mosul,” Abbas said an hour after arriving at one of the camps, while still furnishing his family’s new tent home with donated mattresses and blankets.
“There are still many families who tried coming, but they turned them away,” added Abbas, who grew up in Arab-majority Mosul and speaks only Arabic. “They called me and said, ‘Come and see if you can help get us in.’ I said, ‘I can’t, I’m afraid they’ll kick me out.’”
“Khazir was a safe area for a long time, but the Arabs there allowed ISIS to advance,” echoed another recent arrival, Eiyad Nafii Sheet, using an acronym for Islamic State. “So when the Arab families fled here, the peshmerga didn’t trust them and didn’t allow them to come and take refuge.”
For Sunni Arabs who have fled Islamic State, the presence of the Al Qaeda breakaway group was as unwelcome as it was among those from other religious backgrounds. Many who left said the religious extremism brought by Islamic State was foreign to them.
Even some Sunni Arab tribal leaders who initially led resistance against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad are now seeking to strike a conciliatory tone toward other sects and ethnic groups.
Sheik Yahya Sonbol, a member of the Anbar General Military Council and the Tribal Revolutionaries, insisted his group has “full trust in the Kurds and the Christians and the Yazidis.” He also said they had no reason to battle Shiites.
Sonbol has been in Irbil since April. As a tribal leader in Anbar he is often dressed in a djellaba with a black flowing robe and a white head covering. But around Irbil he sometimes forgoes the traditional Arab dress because some Kurds view it as a sign of the decades of Arab rule and efforts to “Arabize” the Kurds, he said.
At another refugee camp on the outskirts of Irbil, teacher Hiyam Qadir Hussein vowed to never return to Mosul.
“ISIS didn’t make Mosul fall, we made it fall,” said Hussein. “The residents of Mosul were happy and stood there clapping when ISIS came in. They just wanted to get rid of the army and the police.”
She worries now what this will mean for her family. In 2006, at the height of the sectarian violence in Iraq, her two sons were wanted by the Shiite militia Mahdi Army only because they attended mosque regularly, she said.
To protect the boys, she sent them from Baghdad to Syria to live for two years.
“They were going to slaughter them,” said Hussein, who now works with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which oversees the camp.
In another tent in the mostly Arab section of the camp, a group of former Mosul SWAT police sat together underneath drying clothes next to a corner packed with donated canned food. An air conditioner battled against the heat.
The officers said they fought for days against Islamic State’s entrance into Mosul before withdrawing. Initially they went to Khazir, but when Islamic State advanced again, they fled farther east, sleeping 10 nights in a building under construction in the town of Kalak.
When the group went to a local bakery, one placed money on the counter and asked for a loaf of bread. But upon hearing him speak Arabic the young man behind the counter threw the cash on the ground angrily and refused to serve Sunni Arabs.
“The people of Mosul are afraid that if the [Shiite] militias enter Mosul we will be slaughtered because when ISIS came they slaughtered the Shiites and left the Sunni,” said Younis Saeed Ahmad. “So when the militias come in they will kill the Sunnis in retaliation.”
“Everyone has turned against us,” said a man called Sigar, who didn’t want his last name published to protect family still in Mosul. “It’s going to turn bloody again. The assassinations and killings and explosions are going to return.”