On the roads between the southern Iraqi province, Karbala, and its neighbouring provinces, hundreds of internally displaced people are trying to make a new life for themselves. The vast majority of them are Shiite Muslims who fled as the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State, approached their own neighbourhoods. There are thousands of them – but there are also a few hundred who are Sunni Muslims.
Most of the internal refugees have found shelter at various mosques in and around Karbala; none of these were designed to operate as refugee camps. Usually they act as hostels for visitors who make the pilgrimage to Karbala – a city possessing some of the holiest shrines and icons for Shiite Muslims and home to Shia Muslim’s spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – on religious occasions, and who might stay in the accommodation for only a few days at a time.
And it is not just the lodgings that are proving difficult for the country’s internally displaced Shiite Muslims. They’re also having trouble fitting into Karbala’s more conservative culture.
Recently al-Sistani’s spokesperson, Ahmad al-Safi, called upon the people of the city to treat the refugees in Karbala well and not to abuse them in any way, saying that when the danger subsides, they will doubtless return to their own home towns.
Nonetheless Karbala locals remain upset about some of the interlopers. The city has seen successive waves of migration southwards, as other Iraqis come in search of the economic opportunities and relative stability the city represents. Because of all of the different kinds of migrants into the city, locals often say that their way of life and culture is being threatened. In fact, at one stage local authorities enacted a law that is supposed to protect the sanctity of Karbala; the law outlaws parties, pornography and alcohol sales.
One of the problems with the refugees from other parts of Iraq is apparently the way that the women among them dress. Karbala isn’t used to seeing women in fashionable clothing or wearing a lot of makeup, locals say. The trend is likely to cause local youths to want to imitate them, they worry.
“The people of the city fear that the sanctity of their culture and city is being violated by the refugees,” says Jasim, a 56-year-old local man.
It’s true that there are bad feelings between the two groups. Layla Bashir, a refugee in Karbala, can attest to that; she says that a local shopkeeper told her she shouldn’t be wearing such indecent clothing and that she had too much make up on while she was out shopping recently.
She admits that her veil didn’t hide all of her hair – the more hair, or lower on the forehead, a veil is, the more pious the wearer. Nor, she says, was she wearing socks to cover her feet. But, she argues, she was far from “indecent”.
“The displaced women are not intentionally violating Karbala’s traditions,” Bashir told NIQASH. “They are just used to a certain style and a certain way of living in their own hometowns. The people of Karbala should give us time to adapt to their rules,” Bashir says.
Younger refugees are also a problem. Most of the mosque accommodation and hostels are found on the outskirts of Karbala’s cities, where there are not many real services offered. In particular, the children of the internal refugees have nothing much to do; many go in groups to nearby roads and watch cars going by. Or they are helping to provide for their families.
Some – like Ahmad Aziz and his friends Ali, Habib and Kathem – sell bottled water to cars at security checkpoints. They run to the drivers’ windows and offer them water while they wait to pass the checkpoint. They don’t make a lot of money but the young boys feel like they’re doing something useful, they say.
In fact there are a lot of younger people among the refugees here. Many of them have no chance of finding a job in their current situation. Karrar Nimeh, 22, tells NIQASH that he’s been to central Karbala many times, trying to find a job in a hotel or restaurant but he’s had no luck whatsoever.
“The employers prefer to give jobs to local people,” Nimeh suggests, arguing that he can’t think of any other reason why he would not be employed. “They don’t welcome the refugees.”
Abbas al-Saffi is a hotel administrator in Karbala and he has another reason for Nimeh’s problem.
“A lot of the young refugees don’t actually speak very good Arabic,” al-Saffi suggests. “A lot of them come from Tal Afar [where the population is mostly of the Turkmen ethnicity] near Mosul and they speak the Turkmen language. They also don’t have much experience in the hospitality field, or many skills, so that limits their opportunities in a field that requires a lot of interaction and courtesy between employees and customers.”
Additionally the flow of tourists that normally surges into Karbala has dwindled, thanks to fears about security in Iraq because of the Sunni Muslim extremists taking over northern areas of the country. Employees have been laid off by hoteliers and restaurant owners.
“It’s difficult for the young refugees to get work here,” admits Murtada Abdul Wahid, who owns a hotel in central Karbala.
In fact, Wahid says, he would not hire refugees at his hotel even if they were happy with lower wages, or if business picked up again. “They are strangers to this place and most employers don’t want to deal with them, because of fears about security,” he concludes.