In the past the resort town of Shaqlawa, in northern Iraq, used to be crowded by tourists escaping the heat of the Iraqi summer. But this winter, the streets of Shaqlawa, which sits northeast of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, are just as crowded, but with a whole different crowd.
Displaced Iraqis from further south in the country have come to Shaqlawa seeking shelter from the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Previously the city had a population of around 25,000. Some say the population has doubled, whereas others suggest it has been increased by almost half again, with an extra 9,000 or so Iraqis making a new home here. Shaqlawa has always been diverse. Previously the town was mostly inhabited by Kurdish people and Assyrian Iraqis. But now there are many more Yazidis, Shabaks and other minorities as well as Arabs.
In fact, some of the locals now joke that the city should be called Shaq-lujah, a play on words that combines Shaqlawa with the name of another Iraqi city, Fallujah, that the Islamic State, or IS, group control. A lot of the Iraqi Arabs here have come from Fallujah and local shopkeepers now say that if you can't speak a little Arabic, you'll lose business.
Some neighbourhoods in Shaqlawa have developed distinct personalities, says Kaifi Anwar, director of civil defence in Shaqlawa who oversees refugees' affairs in the city. “In one neighbourhood there are some 350 Yazidi and Shabak people,” he told NIQASH.
Of course, the extra number of people here burdens Shaqlawa's municipal services and has also meant that there is not enough accommodation in the relatively small town.
“The increase in numbers of displaced here has created huge difficulties here,” Rizgar Hassan, the mayor of Shaqlawa, told NIQASH. “Especially with regard to services like waste collection and health care. If the government and international organisations don't help us, we won't be able to cope in the long run.”
Other locals say they are concerned about the change in demographics, which they fear would mean separation from Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish is no longer the dominant language heard on the streets and some long term residents say it feels as though Shaqlawa isn't really part of Iraqi Kurdistan anymore.
On the other hand, the new arrivals are also keeping local businesses running. The same is true in bigger cities like Sulaymaniyah, where locals say the influx of Arabs, who still get their salaries from the federal government in Baghdad, is the only thing keeping the city going. Iraqi Kurdistan itself is dealing with a financial crisis. In Shaqlawa some even believe that this Kurdish town is one of the only ones that has not been badly affected by the region's financial crisis.
“Most of the shoppers who come in here and buy are Arabs,” says Khoshnar Mohammed, a young man who owns a sweet shop in Shaqlawa.
“The influx of Arabs is a positive thing,” says Salman Rashad, who lives in Shaqlawa and works in construction; he has several Arabs working for him now. “The hotels are as full in winter as they usually are in summer. There isn't a single empty property here – everything is rented out. And if each displaced family spends a few hundred dollars on rent and on groceries and expenses, that means tens of thousands of dollars being spent in the city each month. It's reviving Shaqlawa's economy,” he told NIQASH enthusiastically.
It doesn't seem likely that the displaced Iraqis will be heading home any time soon either. Other developments in Shaqlawa are catering to that long term prospect. Five new schools have opened, with lessons in Arabic rather than Kurdish, so displaced families can send their children to school. Tertiary students still need to go to Erbil and Kirkuk to continue their studies in Arabic though.