Driving through the undulating countryside outside Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq (KRI), on his way to see patients at a nearby Syrian refugee camp, Dr. Mohammed Issa is sanguine about the fact that any fees he receives will barely cover his fuel costs.
“Money is the last objective,” he said. “I want to help Syrians as much as I can. They can’t afford to come and see me – they are poor. I do home visits because I can’t allow a poor person to pay for a taxi ride to [the city].”
A general practitioner who now focuses on physical therapy, he makes house calls to mostly elderly Syrians after a morning of appointments at a private clinic in Erbil. He gently massages his patients’ feet and legs before leading them through exercises that he encourages them to perform each day until his next visit.
What makes these particular doctor-patient relationships unusual is that Mohammed is also a refugee from the long-running conflict in Syria. Being able to practice medicine as a refugee, he says, is testament to the openness of the city he has called home since fleeing Al-Hasakah in northeast Syria with his family in 2014.
"The city welcomed us."
Unlike many host communities around the world that place tight restrictions on the jobs available to refugees, Syrians living in Erbil and elsewhere in KRI are free to work, provided they hold recognized qualifications if necessary.
“The city welcomed us,” Mohammed explained. “They made it easy to issue residency permits… [and] allowed everyone to work.”
The Kurdistan region is host to virtually all of the 250,000 Syrian refugees currently living in Iraq. Around half of these live in Erbil province, with many gravitating to its eponymous capital, the region’s largest city and a bustling economic hub that radiates outwards from the ancient and imposing citadel perched at its centre.
Around 60 per cent of the world’s 25.4 million refugees live not in camps but in cities and urban areas across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Mayors, local authorities, social enterprises and citizen groups are on the frontlines of the global refugee response, fostering social cohesion and protecting and assisting the forcibly displaced men, women and children in their midst.
Erbil is part of a growing global network of municipalities that are opting to embrace refugees and the opportunities they bring. From Sao Paulo to Vienna, these Cities of Light are giving hope to the world’s most vulnerable by offering sanctuary and the chance to become part of the social fabric.
On 18 and 19 December, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi will host the eleventh High Commissioner’s Dialogue event in Geneva, which this year focusses on the role of cities in protecting the urban displaced.
"They brought new cultures, new ideas, enriching the city in different ways."
The long-serving Governor of Erbil Province, Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, said the decision to welcome Syrian refugees was driven primarily by humanitarian concerns. But by allowing them to move and work freely, the city and its people had benefited in ways that would not have been the case had they been restricted only to camps.
“Those in the camps live off the assistance they receive, but those outside rely on themselves,” he said. “There are no restrictions or constraints on refugees’ labour. They are just like any other citizen living in Erbil.”
“These are skilled people who worked in various fields in Syria,” he continued. “They were an added value to our talents, they brought new cultures, new ideas, enriching the city in different ways. I thought it was positive. True there was competition, but there was no resistance from the local population.”
The city’s open approach was partly forged by its long experience of hosting large numbers of new arrivals. As well as welcoming more than 120,000 Syrian refugees, Erbil province is also home to more than 600,000 Iraqis displaced from other parts of the country during years of violence and insecurity.
An obvious beneficiary of this approach, Dr. Mohammed Issa says Erbil’s open policies have been of far more benefit to him than any traditional humanitarian assistance. He has been able to support himself and his family, without the loss of identity and status that so many refugees around the world experience.
“Aid does not need to be material,” he said. “If you don’t help me financially but allow me to move and work freely, I will be doing well. If I couldn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to live here, I would have to go back to Syria.”