Awaiting Peace, but Not a Paycheck
Rudy, with his gift for languages, found work at the front desk of a hotel. Nusheen got a job making sandwiches. And Simav, who was forced to put law school on hold when her family fled Syria, is selling cosmetics.
Thousands of Syrian refugees, fleeing violence at home, have joined the labour market in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Working in construction, retail, agriculture and hospitality, Syrians are entering the region's economy with their skills, work ethic and cuisine. Yet few plan to build a permanent life here; instead, they describe their work as a way to get by until it's safe to return home.
In many other places, refugees don't have the same right to work. UNHCR is urging governments to ease labour restrictions, which can cause hardship for refugees living in urban settings – especially those whose struggle to support their families as savings run out.
It's early afternoon and Rudy, 26, still has a few hours before his night shift begins on the front desk at a midrange hotel in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region. He's wearing distressed jeans and a fitted plaid shirt and although he's not yet in uniform you can tell today's a work day; he's freshly shaven, and his hair is immaculately gelled into place.
After graduating from university in Damascus, Rudy moved back home to Qamishli, in north-eastern Syria, where the only work he could find was at a mobile-phone shop. As the conflict dragged on and conditions worsened, he moved to Iraq's Kurdistan region in search of stability and employment. "We didn't have electricity for two years," he says. "After that, I just felt like I can't bear this anymore."
All of Rudy's co-workers are Syrian, and most live in prefab trailers on the hotel grounds. Hanging out between shifts, the young men admit they rarely interact with Iraqis, apart from greeting guests at the front desk.
While attending school in Damascus, Rudy spent his days studying and chatting with friends late into the night at cafes. "It was the most beautiful place," he reminisces. "I was like, wow, all these different people are here living together, and there were no problems – that was the greatest thing."
"It's not the chance I dreamed of. It's just work to work."
Rudy, like many Syrian workers here, says he came to Erbil not only to escape violence, but also to help provide for his family back home, where four years of deadly conflict have ground the economy to a halt. Rudy is one of the few in his family of 12 earning a regular income. The others all stayed behind in Syria. His parents were too old to make the journey to Iraq, and his siblings are all married with young children, making it more difficult to uproot themselves.
A few hours later I find Rudy behind the reception desk in the hotel's sleek marble lobby. Now in his uniform, wearing a suit jacket and tie, he says he's proud of what he has achieved as a refugee in a foreign country. "This is the best position," he says of his role at the front desk. "It's because I'm good with languages." But he admits it's a compromise. "It's not the chance I dreamed of," he explains. "It's just work to work."
Rudy dreams of becoming a high school English teacher, and making use of his degree in English literature. "My certificate," he says, referring to his university diploma, "has just become a piece of paper on the wall." He's waiting to see which way the tide will turn in Syria. "Yesterday I was talking about this to my friend," he says, laughing and shaking his head, "and I was like, how did I get here? Honestly, it's like a dream."
The Vegetable Market
Ronak, 29, worked as a carpenter in Qamishli until he was detained in 2012 for lacking proper documentation. After his release, he feared for his safety and quickly fled to Iraq. Unable to find a job in carpentry, he first worked as a labourer on construction sites in Erbil before moving to Sulaymaniyah, where he found employment at a wholesale vegetable market.
Together with his brother-in-law Muas, 22, Ronak loads and unloads trucks six days a week for shifts that can last 10 hours. "Thank God the work is good here," he says as he waits for the truck he's working on to pull up to the tomato seller. "It's so much better than in Syria. Here we have opportunities."
Ronak brings home about US $100 a week, helping to support his wife and two daughters. But work like this is seasonal. "I hope I can keep this job," he says with a big smile, "but in the summertime business gets much quieter, and I might need to look for something else."
The Cosmetics Counter
Simav, 22, was studying law in Qamishli when violence in Syria forced her family to flee to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in February 2015. Now she works at a make-up counter in one of Erbil's upscale shopping malls. "At the beginning it was difficult," she says, when asked how she's adapting to Iraqi culture. "The language here is a little different from the Kurdish we speak in Syria, and even the lifestyle here was new."
Simav gracefully shows customers around the store, pointing out new products that have arrived for summer, but privately she admits this is not the life she dreamed of back home. "My life feels like it's just stopped at this point," she says. "All I do is work eight hours a day and then I go home." In Syria, Simav led a life full of study, family gatherings and evenings out with friends.
Simav had never worked in retail before coming to Iraq. "I never thought I would be selling cosmetics," she says, smiling. "But here I learned about it quickly. As soon as we became refugees, we could only depend on ourselves."
"Even if it takes 10 years of working here first, I'll finish my law degree."
While the hours are long and the pay is low, Simav says she's grateful for the work because it gives her a way to fill time while she waits for the situation in Syria to improve. "Right now I'm just waiting to be able to finish my education," she says. "I swear, even if it takes 10 years of working here first, I'll finish my law degree."
The Electrical Project
Beside a busy street in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a work crew – almost all of them Syrian – dig trenches to lay internet cables for a telecom company. Wearing a colourful scarf tucked into his neon yellow vest, 17-year-old Ali patiently cuts plastic tubing and shovels dirt over newly laid lines. He works from six in the morning until six at night, earning about US $600 a month. After fleeing Hassakeh province for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq eight months ago, Ali spent two months searching for work before he found this job in construction. Back in Syria, he worked in agriculture. "I preferred that," he says, standing on the side of a busy street not far from Erbil airport. "With agriculture, you have lots of space, clean air and none of this noise."
One of the benefits of construction work, Ali says, is that it comes with housing, allowing him to save more money. Along with two other workers, he lives in a trailer beside the company's headquarters in another part of town. "We're doing this work because we need the money," he says. Like many Syrian workers there, he's supporting family back home. "It's not like we're looking for comfort."
The Sandwich Shop
At a Syrian sandwich shop in Sulaymaniyah, Nusheen, 27, is hard at work assembling chicken and beef shawarmas as customers line up on the sidewalk during the lunchtime rush. Originally from Qamishli, he now lives in Arbat refugee camp. He makes the 40-minute commute into the city by bus each morning, and returns the same way each evening. Without the money he makes here, about US $400 a month, he says he'd be unable to support his wife and two children. "Iraqis, they respect us for our cooking," Nusheen says. "When people see Syrians working here, they know the food will be different and good."
Nusheen fled Syria two years ago. Back then, he says, there wasn't a single Syrian restaurant in Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq's second-largest city and its cultural capital, and Syrian ingredients were unavailable in local shops. But lately Syrian restaurants and sandwich shops – known for their fresh ingredients, novel spices and quality service – have been popping up in the city centre. Hoping to draw more customers, some restaurants have adopted Syrian names regardless of the food they serve.
"When people see Syrians working here, they know the food will be different and good."
Nasr, 35, says he'd prefer to open his own sandwich shop, but for now he's thankful to find work in this one, owned by an Iraqi, because it helps him support his three children and his pregnant wife. "Honestly, my monthly wages only last until the 15th of the month," he says. After that, he borrows from friends and family to get by, meaning he's constantly in debt, despite working a full-time job. Although he lives outside the city in Arbat camp, where he receives some food and rent-free shelter, Nasr says he needs income to cover the "extras" – clothing for his family, school supplies and snacks for his children, and minor luxuries like a heater for the winter months.