While many companies have only recently jumped on the refugee support bandwagon, one company has been helping these vulnerable individuals for years. Chobani is thriving with refugees and has been doing so for many years.

Launched in 2007 by Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, Chobani quickly became one of the most popular yogurt brands in the United States. It is now the top Greek yogurt brand in the country. Chobani earns over one billion dollars in sales annually. The company is valued at several billion dollars.

Chobani has humble roots, starting with less than 10 employees. Since then, it has grown to include about 2,000 employees — more than 300 of whom are refugees. Ulukaya started hiring refugees in 2008, well before support for refugees became publicly called for.

Early on, Ulukaya turned to refugee resettlement centers to build his workforce. The company provided the new employees with transportation and translators. Chobani is thriving with refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and several other countries.

Ulukaya attributes his empathy for refugees to his Kurdish background. The Kurds are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group that resides in Kurdistan, a region that covers parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Throughout history, the Kurds have endured tremendous oppression. They have attempted, without success, to establish independent states in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. As a Kurd, Ulukaya understands many of the struggles that refugees face.

He is clearly passionate about serving refugees. The CEO of Chobani is a strong proponent of not only donating money to support refugees but also of helping them rebuild their lives through employment. In 2015, he pledged to donate the majority of his personal fortune to the refugee crisis. At the same time, he started the Tent Foundation, with the mission to improve the lives of the 65 forcibly displaced persons in the world. For Ulukaya, it is not enough that Chobani is thriving with refugees; he also aims to mobilize other businesses in employing refugees. Cisco and IBM are among the companies that have committed to helping refugees.

Though the refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, with more and more businesses joining together in support of refugees, there is hope that the millions of forcibly displaced persons will be able to rebuild their lives.

Rebecca Yu

Photo: Flickr

Amnesty International
On May 4, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Shalil Shetty met with the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistani Regional Government, or KRG, to discuss the humanitarian crisis in the region and collaborate to prevent human rights abuses by all parties.

This meeting, taking place in Kurdish Iraq, came just months after Amnesty International published a report in January accusing the KRG of rights abuses. Amnesty International’s report earlier in the year accused Kurdish allied forces of demolishing Iraqi homes and preventing Arab Iraqis from returning to their communities after they were recaptured from the Islamic State.

The report argued that displacements without military justification could be considered a war crime, but also acknowledged that many of the territories had been disputed prior to the Islamic State, with many ethnically cleansed of Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Amnesty International also acknowledged that the alleged abuses were occurring in the context of an unprecedented security, humanitarian and financial crisis for the Kurdistani Regional Government. Still, they asserted that the government cannot allow that to justify turning a blind eye to abuses within its territories.

More than a million foreign refugees and internally displaced persons are currently seeking shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The KRG immediately responded to Amnesty International’s report, contending that it is the policy of its armed forces not to allow immediate return to recently recaptured territories for civilians of any ethnicity, due to proximity to continued conflict and due to the Islamic State’s tendency to leave IEDs behind when it withdraws.

In a further expression of concern for human rights, the KRG promised to conduct a full investigation into the reports compiled by Amnesty International. They granted AI and other rights groups full access to its territories in order to conduct their own independent investigations to ensure the protection of human rights.

Shetty thanked the KRG for its commitment to preventing abuses in the face of tremendous adversity, and acknowledged the long history of Kurdish cooperation with AI and other rights groups.

Hayden Smith

Photo: Flickr


Thousands of Displaced Iraqis Not Seen - The Borgen Project
Headlines covering Iraq focus on the brutal mass executions performed by the Islamic State (IRIS) or the thousands of refugees Kurdistan struggles to support. Lately, the news spotlight has shed its light on the plight of the Yezidis and their escape from the Sinjar mountains.

While coverage on these issues has been extensive and thorough, Iraq is an expansive country and there are thousands who are receiving little aid and whose stories remain unheard.

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) recently investigated the 70,000 displaced Iraqis hiding out in Karbala and Najaf, two holy Shia cities. While these Iraqis do receive some support, the little that they are receiving comes mostly from mosques and local associations and it is not enough.

Abdul Ghafour Ahmed is a 67-year-old man who fled his home in early June. He explains his family’s journey: “After ISIS swept through our village, we tried to go to Kurdistan, but they didn’t receive us for being from the Shiite sect. They were receiving only Kurds and Sunnis. We spent four days at the main border entrance to Kurdistan, but got nothing.”

So the family of nine found their way to the few other safe zones in the country. They are among the lucky ones. As the international community scrambles to provide aid to the thousands in Kurdistan’s refugee camps, there are thousands more stuck in homes.

Amirli is a city half-way between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. IRIS militants surround the city and have it under siege, leaving up to 20,000 people trapped inside.

The United Nations has been attempting to get food to the city, but it is not enough. A doctor volunteering in the area told IRIN, “People are dying…The children are malnourished.”

Zaid Al-Ali, a lawyer in Iraq, expresses the complaint he says everyone — from officials to the general population — has, that, “Kurdistan is getting preferential treatment compared to Baghdad.”

Out of Iraq’s 19 governorates, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a presence in 12 of them.

“We are getting everywhere we can within our security limitations,” Kieran Dwyer, chief of communications for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, defends the U.N.’s lack of aid to cities like Amirli. “This is Iraq, the security limitations are not arbitrarily or unnecessarily applied; it’s a dangerous place.”

The U.N. and other aid agencies have a delicate line to walk, struggling to determine how to get the most aid to the most people without putting themselves in unnecessary danger.

Conditions, Dwyer says, are unstable in Iraq and one minute an area could be secure and the next it may need to be evacuated, and vice versa. The ICRC has been able to finally get supplies to Anbar, the region where IRIS caused over half a million residents to flee. But more is needed.

– Julianne O’Connor

Sources: IRIN
Photo: Neuron Learning

Kurdistan Border
The recent turmoil taking place in Iraq has caused massive changes in the political, social and cultural landscape of the country. One interesting area that hasn’t been given very much attention is Kurdistan, located in the northernmost portion of the country.

The semi-autonomous region has remained very stable, which is particularly intriguing considering that the rest of the country is beginning to unravel. As a result, it has become a very desirable destination for Iraqi refugees suffering from the turmoil in their local communities; the number of Iraqis attempting to cross the Kurdistan border has grown.

When conflict first started to break out in Iraq, the Kurdistan borders were open for any Iraqi who needed shelter and security. In the immediate aftermath of ISIS taking Mosul, around 500,000 Iraqis made their way into Kurdistan. However, more recently the border has been significantly tightened as fewer and fewer people are able to cross into Kurdistan.

According to various NGOs working along the border, checkpoints have been increasingly closed off to migrants, leaving thousands waiting for days on end in the blazing heat. This wait is made even worse by a severe lack of information and limited access to food, water and shelter.

One major checkpoint, Khazair, does have a transit camp that is open to those waiting to get into Kurdistan. It offers some modicum of shelter and safety, but very little comfort. A recent report from REACH has indicated that just under half of the refugees were at the camp because they had been refused entry into Kurdistan.

Despite these less than ideal circumstances along the Kurdish border, there’s an even deeper layer to the process of entering the area. Various rights groups have brought attention to different levels of access offered to people and families based on their religious affiliation and ethnicity. Kurds, Christians, and those who have sponsors inside Kurdistan are able to cross with relative ease.

In comparison, Sunni and Shia Arabs have been regularly stopped and/or sent to temporary holding sites. As one senior aid worker from an NGO who chose to remain anonymous said, “The blocking of entry to people along ethnic lines is an issue and it needs to be looked at.”

This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the Kurdish Regional Government has no well-defined entry policy for their region. As Liene Viede, a public information officer for the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) explained: “There is no general and common access policy… According to the observations of our monitors, access policies applied at checkpoints are increasingly unpredictable.”

It remains to be seen how badly this discrimination is affecting the overall access to Kurdistan, or whether more complete or better defined regulations regarding border crossings are in the works. However, the lack of predictability and potential for conflict along ethnic lines is beginning to loom large in what is considered to be one of the most stable areas in the country.

Andre Gobbo

Sources: IRIN 1, REACH, IRIN 2
Photo: The Guardian

hope in iraq
Kurdistan is an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Eleven years ago, its capital Irbil was a quaint and frightened town, scarred from years of attacks by the Iraqi government. Today, it shines as an unexpected symbol of peace, tolerance and hope in Iraq in a region torn apart by sectarian violence.

Despite the recent sudden advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the city of Irbil has managed to avoid falling into the pit of chaos that has overwhelmed the rest of the country. As Iraqi military forces flee and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki bombs ISIS-controlled areas, Kurdistan has opened its doors to refugees and remained comparatively immune to the turmoil.

The region exercises remarkable religious tolerance, containing a large Christian community with nuns and a church in one of Irbil’s suburbs. Kurds and Arabs intermingle in Irbil’s cafes and beer gardens. But Kurdistan did not always look this way.

Reporter Luke Harding travelled to Kurdistan in 2003 to document the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He went to visit the region again recently, and found the town of Irbil “unrecognizable.”

“Shopping malls, five-star hotels and a strange tower with a flying saucer-shaped restaurant on the top have transformed the once-low skyline. On a gleaming three-lane boulevard, workers plant purple flowers. A Jaguar and Range Rover dealership stands on the waste ground from where I made my forlorn calls home,” he observes.

He recalls his first trip in 2003, when he had to be smuggled across the Iran border in order to get into the country. Eleven years later, he flies out of Irbil on Austrian Airlines.

The region has undergone a massive transformation, which Harding attributes to oil. After the ousting of Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan was freed from years of exclusion from the oil markets. Natural resources minister of Kurdistan Ashti Hawrami has worked hard to break into the market. He has managed to make deals with large oil companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

“For the past 80 years, the Iraqi state has been stealing Kurdish oil,” says Hemin Hawram, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party foreign relations committee. “[Baghdad] used it to buy weapons to bomb the Kurds.”

While Kurdistan has emerged as a leader in religious tolerance and a haven for displaced Iraqis after ISIS’s recent advances, the Iraqi government has taken issue with the manner in which Kurdistan has achieved economic success. Maliki has stopped funding Kurdistan because of claims that it is illegally exporting oil and that the region is profiting off oil that should belong to the Iraqi government.

The rescindment of funding from the government has added more weight to the burden that Kurdistan already shoulders with the influx of displaced Iraqis. Antonio Guterres, head of the U.N.’s refugee agency, has stressed the region’s need for support, imploring the international community “to provide massive support for the Iraqis displaced, for the Iraqi victims of this conflict, but also to provide massive support to the government and the people in Kurdistan,” especially in the wake of the loss of funding from Baghdad.

Guterres, while visiting a displaced Iraqi camp in Kurdistan, stated he was “humbled by the generosity and the solidarity of the government and of the people in Kurdistan in this very difficult moment.”

– Julianne O’Connor

Sources: The Guardian, Mail & Guardian, The Daily Star
Photo: The Guardian