Every Friday, Indian, Nepalese and Bengali nationals gather in the public park in the centre of Sulaymaniyah, one of the two big cities in the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Here they gather together and prepare traditional meals – some of the food is sold so that the foreigners can make some extra money and other snacks are eaten communally, a chance for the outsiders to get together and speak their own languages.
The cooks park carts and equipment alongside the road that runs by the park. Passers-by can smell the spices and hear the crackle of boiling oil and are attracted by the hot, exotic fare.
Anuj, who only wished to give his first name, came to Iraqi Kurdistan about three years ago to work as a cleaner with a private business here. He makes about US$300 a month, barely enough to support himself. But when he comes to cook food at the park every weekend - he specialises in pasta - he is able to make about another US$300.
Yorkan is working with Anuj – she is also from Nepal and is selling home-made biscuits, flavoured with Nepalese spices she brought from home, in small bags for about IQD5,000 (around US$4.40) per batch. Yorkan’s three children are still in Nepal – two daughters are at university and a son is in high school – and she sends nearly all the money she earns back home to pay for their education. “With the US$300 I am able to send back, I can pay for rent, my children’s schooling, their food and clothing,” Yorkan told NIQASH. “I can also afford to support my parents in Nepal.”
“This place reminds me so much of home,” says Aron, a young Nepalese man eating dumplings – his eyes fill with tears and he falls silent.
But Yorkan is lucky. Her employer gives her Fridays off so she can work on her culinary sideline. Many of the other foreign workers here in Iraqi Kurdistan only get one day off every month; they wouldn’t be able to do what Yorkan does, so instead, they simply come to the park to relax with their country people.
In recent years, Iraqi Kurdistan has seen more foreign workers arriving in search of better paid employment opportunities. Special companies arrange the entry of the workers and usually they find jobs in areas like cleaning, child care and labouring.
The companies that bring the workers in set up contracts. A standard two-year contract might see the company receive around US$3,000 for its services. The worker, who is obligated to stay for the entire term of the contract, would then receive about US$300 per month and that amount is paid to them directly. The company pays the worker’s travel costs and the employer keeps the employee’s passport.
Obviously this can lead to problems when there are issues between the parties to the contract. There are no local outlets where an employee can go for legal help in these situations so often foreign workers are virtually held hostage in Iraqi Kurdistan. And then after two years working in Iraqi Kurdistan, the workers often face bigger problems should they want to stay on; they don’t have many rights.
For several months now, some of the foreigners making extra money selling their home-made snacks have also had another issue. At the end of last year the municipal authorities in Sulaymaniyah told them they must all gather in one place so as to avoid causing a public nuisance. They have done this, moving all the carts to the park, but they also fear that eventually they will be forced to close down altogether.
Nothing more has happened on this front. So for now, the foreigners in Iraqi Kurdistan are more concerned about making a profit and sharing a meal. It’s possible to buy a meal for around IQD5,000 (about US$4.40). And next to Anuj’s food cart there is another cart where a young Nepalese couple is serving dumplings, also called momos. This cart is surrounded by Iraqi Kurdish locals, all of whom wanted a taste of the spicy snacks.
“This place reminds me so much of home,” says Aron, a young Nepalese man who’s also eating dumplings – his eyes fill with tears and he falls silent, and concentrates on his food.
A little bit further down the road, there are several carts belonging to Bengali traders. They are selling different dishes and sweets, fried balls of sweet dough for IQD250 (US$0.21) each. Other carts are selling spiced eggs, chicken wings and fried rice dishes.
When local children come to the Bengali carts, the cooks give them the sweets for free. Asked why, they say they’re trying to introduce this style of sweets, which is actually quite similar to some Kurdish and Arab dishes, to the locals.
Sulaymaniyah local, Bhaman Khalid, 30, is standing at one of the carts selling vegetable-filled pastries, flavoured with cumin. His three children are also getting the snacks. This is the first time that Iraqi Kurdish people can easily taste food like this from southern Asia and Khalid says he had not been expecting that food made by the foreign workers would be so delicious.
Anuj points out that he and the others need to be careful with their flavouring because the locals don’t like foods to be too spicy. Also, with some of the foreigners there is a language barrier and they can communicate only haltingly about their sales. But others have a firm grasp on the Kurdish language and speak eloquently about the snacks they’re selling.
Because of the low prices and the good tastes, the foreign workers are now competing with local Iraqi Kurdish food sellers.
Kiwan, 23, sells falafel and other sandwiches near the park where the foreign workers get together. But Kiwan, who also only wanted to give his first name, wasn’t too worried about the competition. “God gives every person his share, according to His will,” he said.