The Road Home: The Faili Kurds

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 2004

It couldn't get any worse, but now there is some hope for tens of thousands of a little known Iraqi group.

By Marie-Hélène Verney

"It's the same God. We all love the same God, so why should our motherland turn its back on us?" Jasem Mohamed Salhek shakes his head and falls silent, lost in his memories and in contemplation of the nearby Zagros mountains, whose snow-capped peaks provide a majestic backdrop but also a formidable barrier between Jasem's current home in the Azna refugee camp in Iran and the homeland, Iraq, which disowned him a quarter century ago.

Jasem is a Faili Kurd whose forefathers once wielded formidable economic power in the Fertile Crescent, but who in the 1970s and 1980s fell victim to the tyranny of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Millions of civilians of all persuasions – Marsh Arabs, Kurds, Shia and Sunni Muslims – abandoned the country during that period or were forced to flee, but the fate of some 300,000 newly exiled Faili Kurds was particularly tragic. They lost not only their homes but also their homeland – officially stripped of their nationality and doomed like an estimated nine million other people around the world to be plunged into a twilight world of legal limbo as stateless persons.

Jasem and the Faili Kurds had enjoyed an ambiguous position in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The majority of the country's nearly four million Kurds are Sunni Muslims and live in northern Iraq. The Faili are Shia Muslims from the so-called Faili triangle in central Iraq which embraces Baghdad, and were the butt of discrimination and distrust for decades.

The 1924 Iraqi Nationality Law divided the population into three categories based on religion and ethnicity – effectively creating three classes of citizenship. The Shiite Kurds were systematically classified in the lowest category and repeatedly targeted by government officials who claimed that as followers of the Shia faith, they were in fact originally from Iran where the majority of the population is Shiite.

Despite this harassment, life in Iraq was good for Jasem and he had no doubts, either, about his origins. The owner of a textile factory, he had close dealings with other Failis who controlled Baghdad's legendary bazaar and as a result much of the country's economic wealth.

He was born in the capital, as were his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. In exile, he continues to brandish Iraqi documents. "Look," he says, pointing to a picture of a much younger man, "This is me. It says I was born in Baghdad." Carefully, he takes out a very old, crumbling piece of yellow paper with the photograph of an old man with a long white beard: his father's Iraqi identity card.


But Iraq's ruling Baath party did not agree with Jasem's claims. In 1978, the Ministry of Trade and Commerce informed him that in order to keep his factory, he needed to provide evidence of, and register, his Iraqi nationality. His entire livelihood was suddenly at stake

"The directive said that I should bring evidence that my grandfather, my father and myself were all born in Iraq," he remembers. "So I took the documents with me, and on all three it was: place of birth, Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad. But when I arrived at the ministry, they looked at my card and said: 'It says here you are Faili Kurd – are you a Faili Kurd?' I answered, yes, we are Faili, and the man said: 'Then you are not Iraqi'" and refused to register him.

In 1979, the story took another twist when Jasem's brother was ordered to do his military service in the Iraqi army. "They asked my brother to provide evidence that he was Iraqi, and my brother explained that he was indeed Iraqi, but also Faili," Jasem said. "The military authorities said, 'For you, it doesn't matter. You are Iraqi, and so you can serve in the army.'"

Meanwhile, Jasem was turned down again as the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran increased Saddam's fears that his own Shia population, especially the two million Failis, might be fomenting trouble against his Sunni-dominated government.

At 1 a.m. on April 4, 1980, the security services knocked on Jasem's door.

In subsequent questioning at security headquarters he was asked, "Where are you from?"

"I am from Baghdad."

"How can you say you are from Baghdad? It says here on your card that you are Faili Kurd."

"It says I am Faili, but it also says I was born in Baghdad. I am an Iraqi."

"How can you be an Iraqi? You are not an Iraqi. You are from Iran."

His wife, children, brothers and sisters were rounded up and all were pushed aboard trucks and driven through the night into an uncertain future. "The truck stopped. They shouted at us to get off and then told us to walk," Jasem now recalls. "We were in front of high mountains and I guessed it was the Iranian border. I asked 'How can I cross the mountains with my small children?'"

If they did not walk, they would be shot, the soldiers said, adding, "Go and see [Iranian religious leader] Khomeini. You are a Shia, so go and live with the Iranians."

On the other side of the border, bemused Iranian soldiers met them and after a few days of living in tents, they were transported by truck to Lorestan Province and the Azna refugee camp. Twenty-four years later, Azna is still their home.

They have been treated well, but when asked to describe his twenty-four years in exile, all Jasem can say is that he wants to go back. It's as if he had spent the last quarter of a century living for nothing else than to see his homeland again.


At the beginning of 2003, there were more than 200,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran, 1,300 living in Azna, of whom 65 percent are Faili Kurds. Many of them are under 20 years of age, were born in the camp and have known no other home.

For them, Iraq has taken on the status of a mythical land. On the walls of a school for both boys and girls, there are drawings of Baghdad and its bazaar, a place the children have never seen but have heard so much about, it is more familiar than the nearby city of Azna.

But the children are not the only ones stuck between memories of the past and dreams for the future. Jasem's son, Asam, has spent 24 of his 30 years in the camp. He was six when he was taken on the forced march across the mountains into Iran and remembers life in Baghdad very clearly.

"We lived in a big house with a large garden," he said. "I remember that my father had a red bicycle and sometimes he would put me on the back and take me to the factory with him, to show me all the clothes."

Asam, like his father and many of the other Faili Kurds here, has no doubts that he wants to go back. "It is my country," he says. "I am an Iraqi. Is it my fault if my ancestors several centuries ago came from Iran?"


Most of the world's refugees share Asam's sentiments about 'going home' and for UNHCR, voluntary repatriation is the 'preferred' solution. But this seemingly simple idea is often fraught with difficulties ranging from the need to rebuild schools and clinics in destroyed villages, the threat of land mines and the difficult problems of reintegrating with people who had 'stayed behind.'

Overcoming the problem of statelessness is particularly tricky. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines that "Everyone has the right to a nationality" but there may be as many as nine million stateless persons worldwide.

The U.N. refugee agency recently approached as many as 192 countries to try for the first time to build a comprehensive picture on the problem which will help it and governments to tackle the problem.

For the Faili Kurds in Iran, the initial signs are hopeful. Late last year at a meeting in the Jordanian capital of Amman, UNHCR outlined the need to establish a dialogue with the new Iraqi authorities to address the issue of statelessness and give urgent consideration to those like the Faili Kurds who had lost their nationality. The Iraqis indicated that the Faili would indeed be allowed to return.

Back in Azna, 20-year-old Zeinab who was born in the camp, tells a visitor: "The story is the same for all the Faili Kurds. You just need to change the names and it is the same story; the expulsion, the forced march, the loss of nationality."

Last year, Zeinab married Asam and moved two houses further down the last row of small houses in Azna. She is now five months pregnant. Her dream is that her child will be born not as a refugee, but at home, in Baghdad, and that he will never have to hear that he is not an Iraqi.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 134: "Dreams, Fears and Euphoria: The Long Road Home" (March 2004).