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Kurdish Syrians Flee To Iraq


Turkish troops are occupying northeastern Syria, and hundreds of civilians have fled to neighboring Iraq. They are Syrian Kurds. They are looking for refuge. And NPR's Jane Arraf was there when they arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: A Kurdish security official checks the names of passengers as a convoy of minibuses pulls into a refugee camp just over the border in Iraq. These are some of the first refugees to arrive since the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria when U.S. forces withdrew. They've come from an area where Kurdish Syrian forces - U.S. partners - broke away from the Syrian regime in 2012 and created a Kurdish-led, secular, autonomous region, a region known as Rojava that seems doomed by the Turkish onslaught.


ARRAF: There are babies - lots of babies - children leaning out the windows like they're on an adventure, worried-looking older people, young men who have fled because they will be forced into military service with the Syrian army if it retakes control.

NAJAH RASO: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: And on one bus, a Kurdish schoolteacher, Najah Raso, with her 14-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old son. Raso wears a burgundy headscarf and a fleecy pink top. Her daughter and son wear T-shirts.

RASO: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: She says they didn't bring much with them - her daughter's musical instrument and a laptop with DVDs of an English language course. "We brought our ambitions," she says.

The family had been displaced within Syria six times since the conflict began eight years ago.

RASO: (Through interpreter) We'd go back and forth from one area to another. If there was a strike in one area, we'd move to another area. And then, when that was over, we would go back to our dreams, to our lives.

ARRAF: When the shelling started in this latest stage of the conflict, she decided to leave with her children. Her husband stayed, hoping to join them later. In less than a week, as the U.S. troops left and Turks advanced, the dream that Rojava would survive as an autonomous Kurdish region of Syria came crashing down.

RASO: (Through interpreter) I love Rojava, but I'm afraid not just for me but for my daughter. When the Turkish airstrikes started a few days ago, she was terrified. We didn't believe we would see the sun rise.

ARRAF: Her daughter, Solin, who's 14, cries as her mother describes the terror of the shelling. She's carrying a padded case holding her tanbur, a stringed instrument with a long, thin neck - a Kurdish version of a lute. When we ask about it, her mother asks her to play something. Solin says, no, there's no room on the bus. Her mother pulls out the instrument anyway and hands it to her. Play anything about love, she tells her.

SOLIN: (Playing tanbur).

ARRAF: Solin takes the instrument. And as her fingers move over the strings, she's transformed. But the young girl doesn't play about love. Instead, it's a song called "We Carry A Refugee Tent On Our Shoulders."

Most of the people on the minibuses have been displaced within Syria, but now they've reached another country. Now they're refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Everyone is taken off the buses and into a large hangar.

They've been taken into this hangar where the floor has been laid with long, plastic tablecloths. They're all sitting down to rice and stew. A week ago, they had homes, jobs. Today, they're refugees.

Raso and her family are waiting for a tent assignment. Solin wants to be a doctor. And she wants to continue the English studies she began before the fighting started.

SOLIN: I want to speak English.


SOLIN: Because it is - I love this language.

ARRAF: As her mother says, they've come with their ambitions. The first - to live in safety. Jane Arraf, NPR News, at the Bardarash refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABAJI'S "AMOUR INFINI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.