Syrian Kurds of all persuasions, from soldiers who did not want to kill their own countrymen to those seeking to escape the violence, have found refuge across the border in Kurdistan in north Iraq.
Most had to be smuggled across the border, avoiding Syrian security forces, after facing what they said was discrimination and oppression in Syria.
But they say they have been welcomed by Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, which hosts the Domiz refugee camp in Dohuk province, where some 1,500 of them are now housed.
Abu Samir, a 56-year-old from Qamishli in northeast Syria, left his hometown for Iraqi Kurdistan in order to protect his son, a soldier who had deserted from the Syrian army.
“Either he kills women, boys and children or he himself would be killed,” Abu Samir told AFP. “He did not kill and he escaped.”
Abu Samir then had a choice.
“Either I hand him over to authorities and they kill him in front of me, or we escape together.”
He chose the latter option, travelling by vehicle with seven other family members until they were near the border, then sneaking past guards to cross by night.
“The Kurdistan region welcomed us and we are grateful,” Abu Samir said.
“Because I am Kurdish, I preferred the Kurdistan region and I am comfortable here,” he said. “I do not consider myself a refugee. I feel that I am among my family here, I do not feel I am a stranger.”
“The situation of Kurds in Syria is desperate and there is racism,” he said.
Kurds are mainly spread across four countries — Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. While Iraq’s Kurdistan region is autonomous, there is no independent Kurdish state.
Abu Samir and his family now live in the Domiz camp, with its dirt roads and long lines of dusty tents set up on concrete pads.
It is home to some 1,500 Syrians who have sought shelter in Kurdistan, according to Claire Bourgeois, Iraq representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The number of people there now looks set to rise, at least temporarily, with Bourgeois saying a new Kurdistan government policy requires Syrian refugees elsewhere in the region to move to Domiz.
Mohammed Abdullah Hammo, a refugee official from the Kurdistan interior ministry, said the regional government wants all the refugees to be registered in Dohuk, although they could later live elsewhere.
The United Nations says that more than 86,000 Syrians have fled to surrounding countries to escape a brutal crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on an uprising against his rule, although only around 5,400 have ended up in Iraq.
International organisations such as the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration, local NGOs and the Kurdistan government are assisting the refugees in Domiz, most of whom are Syrian Kurds.
Kurdistan currently provides electricity and food for the camp, though the World Food Programme will provide aid from next month, Bourgeois said.
Some areas of the camp are strewn with rubbish, but conditions are generally good for a refugee camp, and better than the slums where many Iraqis who were forced from their homes by threats or violence still live.
Life in Domiz is also far preferable to what awaited the refugees had they stayed in Syria, they say.
Jamal, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was a sergeant in the Syrian army stationed in Hama, a city that has been the site of frequent protests against Assad and clashes between rebels and government forces.
The orders “were for us to open fire on people in demonstrations,” he said, adding that anyone who violated them “would be immediately executed or detained, and no one will know where he is.”
Jamal did not return to Hama after going on leave in April, instead heading to his home town of Malkiya near the border with Kurdistan.
He described the journey as “scary,” with numerous checkpoints along the way. To get through without a pass, he pleaded that his mother and father were sick, and eventually got home.
A smuggler then helped him and nine others across the border at night to the safety of Kurdistan.
“I do not have the soul and conscience to kill my brothers in the street,” Jamal said. “I cannot kill a woman or old man, I could not bear that, and I came here.”
A 21-year-old university student from Qamishli, who asked not to be identified, said he was a protester and had been detained and beaten.
“I went to the demonstrations demanding freedom and against the miserable regime,” he said.
“The Syrian regime detained me once or twice, they threatened me and they beat me several times,” he said, also alleging that Syrian forces had fired on a funeral in Qamishli.
Despite tight security measures in Qamishli, he was able to escape, and paid a smuggler $400 to bring him to Kurdistan with a group of about 20 people.
He found a job at a cafe in Kurdistan’s capital Arbil, but he said the wages were poor given the long hours.
“I want to live in a democratic country and I want rights like any other Syrian citizen,” he said. “I will stay in Kurdistan until the fall of the regime.”