NORTHERN IRAQ — The recent economic boom in northern Iraq has attracted thousands of migrant workers from South Asia and Africa as well as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. A group of Iraqi Kurdish photographers, moved by their own history as refugees and emigrants, has created a photography outreach project for the Syrian refugees and foreign laborers who have recently arrived.
On a Friday afternoon in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, Kurdish photographer Kamaran Najm is at work on a new project. He and his colleagues are offering portraits to immigrant laborers.
The Kurdish region of Iraq has seen an extraordinary economic boom since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and this has led to high levels of labor immigration. The government estimates there are about 48,000 foreign workers in the Kurdish region, most of whom do poorly paid, unskilled work.
But Kurdistan was not always like this. The violence and ensuing poverty of the 1980s and 90s drove many Kurds abroad, and it’s those memories that drive this project.
“There was a time during the 1990s and early 2000 where every single Kurdish family, if not one, several members of the family was abroad mostly for working and education, so it is a part of almost every single Kurdish family they had this feeling that one of them were out," said Kamaran Najm.
For many Kurdish workers sending photographs home was a way of showing that they were alive and well, and those photographs preserve treasured memories.
Bnar Sardar, another photographer working on the project, was a refugee in Iran, like many Kurds in the 1990s. At that time, photographs were a luxury her family couldn't afford, something she deeply regrets.
“When I am in Iran I have not photographs for there. I have no photograph when I was a child there. Until now I wish I had one photo when I was there," said Sardar.
Due to a decade of relative political stability, Iraqi Kurdistan is now a sanctuary for refugees and currently hosts over 200,000 displaced Syrians.
Earlier this year, Kamaran and his group of photographers went to the Arbat refugee camp to make portraits for the families living there.
“We offered them a nice, clean happy family portrait. And we printed right there and we put the date in the photograph and put it in an album and gave it to them," said Najm.
The success of the project encouraged the group to do it again with the foreign workers, many of whom are pleased with the results.
"This is a friend of mine who doesn't live with us anymore. He’s now working in another place, but with this photo I’ll be able to see him every morning and evening," said Bangladeshi worker Islam.
"This is a photo all of my Nepali friends. When I go back and show this to my family, I’ll be able to show them who my friends were from my time in Iraq," said Nepali worker Sushma.
Although the photographers and their subjects are divided by culture and ethnicity, they are unified by a common experience. Drawing on their very personal and painful past, this group of Iraqi photographers is attempting to give something back as their region becomes a home for those less fortunate.