Carried to safety, Kobane refugee joins thousands heading to Iraq

Mohammed Ali is one of more than 2,500 Kurdish Syrians from the town of Kobane to have crossed into Iraq's Kurdistan region in recent days.

Mohammed Ali, a 55-year-old refugee with a lung infection, lies in a bus at the border between Turkey and Iraq's Kurdistan region that will take him to Gawilan refugee camp.   © UNHCR/D.Nahr

IBRAHIM KHALIL BORDER CROSSING, Iraq, October 13 (UNHCR) - When residents of the Syrian town of Kobane fled their homes, many had only minutes to decide what to take with them. Some brought jewellery, family photos or a child's favourite toy, but 55-year-old Mohammed Ali took an oxygen tank.

"I have a lung infection. I'm sick and I don't think I will live for a very long time, but at least I am here with my family," he tells UNHCR minutes after arriving in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq having crossed the border from Turkey.

He is one of more than 2,500 Kurdish Syrians from Kobane to have made the crossing since Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government opened the border to refugees last Friday, with the authorities predicting that tens of thousands more could arrive in the coming weeks.

When ISIS fighters began advancing towards Kobane in mid-September, Mohammed and his family remained in their home on the outskirts of the town for as long as they could, despite hearing shelling and suffering shortages of food and electricity.

Even when the fighting came to surrounding villages, where people they knew were killed or driven from their homes, he refused to go. "I asked my family to leave me in my home, but they insisted on taking me with them."

Frail and unable to walk, his sons carried him to their car together with his oxygen tank and drove to the Turkish border, leaving all their possessions behind. At the border they were forced to abandon their car, and his sons carried him into Turkey.

Many of the estimated 200,000 people who fled Kobane sought safety in Turkish towns and cities across the border from Syria. Mohammed and his family travelled to the town of Mardin, trying to survive on what little money they had left.

Lying on a mattress in a vast concrete transit area just inside the Iraqi border and inhaling from his oxygen mask, Mohammed says he and his family struggled during the two weeks they spent in Turkey after leaving Syria. "It was a very bad experience. We've spent everything we had on accommodation, food and travel."

He managed to refill his oxygen tank twice while in Turkey, but says that when he sought medical assistance at a local hospital he was turned away.

Many of the hundreds of newly arrived Syrian refugees share similar stories of the hardship and high costs they faced inside Turkey. Like them, when Mohammed and his family heard the crossing to Iraqi Kurdistan was open, they left the town they were staying in and headed to the border.

After a short wait in the transit area, Mohammed is again gathered up into the arms of one of his sons and settled in the back of a bus for a three-hour drive to the Gawilan refugee camp, near the Iraqi Kurdistan regional capital, Erbil. There, he and the other refugees will be registered by UNHCR and provided with shelter and basic assistance items, including food, mattresses and blankets.

Once registered, he and his family hope to join his brother who lives and works in Erbil. Exhausted and fighting back tears, Mohammed says he knows he may never return to Kobane and see his home, but he is grateful to know that his family has found safety. "Beyond that, my future is in God's hands."

By Charlie Dunmore at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing, Iraq