Many families from the province of Anbar lost everything when the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of their hometowns and cities. Many, fearing the IS group and its draconian ideology, fled the province for other parts of the country, where they became dependent on humanitarian aid or lived in camps for the displaced.
But for some now returning home, the last three years have not been wasted. Some locals in Anbar found good jobs, new opportunities, and new ideas in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and they are hoping to bring these back home with them.
One example is Mazen al-Alwani. The 39-year-old used to work part-time for a small restaurant in Fallujah before he was displaced. But while in Iraqi Kurdistan, he managed to start his own small business.
Although he was initially hesitant to return, al-Alwani finally made the decision because he believes the people of Anbar will be interested in trying something different; he plans to serve Kurdish specialities, with their special spices, alongside more typical Anbar dishes.
Starting a new business is risky in Anbar, especially because the city has yet to fully recover from the military operations here, al-Alwani concedes.
“In order to keep my business running, my wife and I will work from home to prepare the food and then deliver the dishes to our customers,” he explains his business plan.
Al-Alwani already has one fan. “I can now enjoy tasty mountain [Kurdish] food without having to travel,” says Amjad al-Qubaisi, a 39-year-old local. “Many people have returned from the north with what they have learned in Kurdistan. And Kurdish dishes on the Arab table are not the only thing,” he adds. “There is more trade in fabrics, Kurdish clothing, nuts and new and used office furniture too. Kurdish herbs have also become sought after and there is a big demand for them here.”
Many Anbar returnees seem keen to keep up the culture and customs they learned up north. And that’s not just limited to Kurdish food.
Ayham al-Abadi particularly liked the “family cafes” he saw in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, the city he lived in as a displaced person. Most cafes and tea houses in Iraq are for male customers, who come there to chat, smoke and drink tea. Iraqi women are not generally invited. But in generally-less conservative Iraqi Kurdistan there are so-called family cafes, where wives can join their husbands and bring the kids too.
Al-Abadi says Anbar doesn’t have anything where families can spend time together like that, inside the city.
“I was fascinated with what I saw in Sulaymaniyah,” al-Abadi told NIQASH. “I have decided to start a new business that can provide Fallujah’s people with a modern facility that has a Kurdish touch and a Kurdish flavour, including the food, facilities and drinks.”
Al-Abadi knows it could be tricky given the more conservative, religious, and tribal nature of society in Fallujah. “But I was encouraged by what I saw in Iraqi Kurdistan, when I saw so many families going to these coffee shops and where they and their children could have such a great time.”
“We saw respect and sophistication in Iraqi Kurdistan,” agrees Omar al-Jubaili, another local who has recently returned to Anbar. “It’s great to see some of that happening in my hometown. The memories we have from there will stay alive and indeed, some of the culture has become an important part of our daily lives now.”
“I’ve heard a lot of people around here talking about new dreams and possibilities after they came back home,” al-Jubaili continues. “I would definitely say that the people I have heard are just a drop in the ocean. There are many more. And these changes won’t just be about opening restaurants and cafes. I believe they will impact on many other things too.”