ERBIL, Iraq — Two years after fleeing from her home in Damascus, 22-year-old Rahaf Abdullah is working at a gleaming mall in Iraq’s Kurdish region, selling sweets to local women who largely refuse to take such jobs.
While the mall job is a rite of passage for teenagers in America, in Iraq’s conservative and relatively well-off Kurdish region the idea of women working — particularly in menial or retail jobs — is frowned upon. That has created opportunities for some of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis who have sought refuge here.
“The Kurdish girls are a bit conservative — no, a lot conservative,” Abdullah said as she organised boxes of Middle Eastern sweets made of spun sugar, fruit, pistachio nuts and honey. “Their logic is that the women never have to work, they only have to go to school and then return home.”
Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed more than 220,000 people and created nearly 4 million refugees, according to the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are languishing in camps, relying on international aid or struggling to support themselves in host countries where jobs are scarce.
But in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where a quarter of a million Syrians are living among 5 million Iraqis, refugee women like Abdullah have found decent work.
She gets paid around $500 a month — five times what she says she would make in Damascus — to work at Family Mall, a vast shopping mall in the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. Down the gleaming corridor from her sweets shop are stores selling familiar Western brands like Timberland and Clarks, and a branch of the French hypermarket chain Carrefour.
The mall was built in 2010 when the region was booming on promises of oil wealth that have yet to be realised. The Kurdish region has struggled to fully exploit its resources because of longstanding disputes with the central government in Baghdad, and since last summer Kurdish forces have been battling the Daesh group, which came within 35 kilometres of Erbil last August.
But the crisis has yet to erode traditional notions of gender roles. Here, as in other conservative parts of the region, the mingling of men and women outside of the home is seen as indecent.
“I don’t have any intention of working. We Iraqis are conservative and can’t be in places like malls,” said Tara Qusay, a well-dressed 20-year-old from Baghdad who was vacationing in Erbil. “It’s about culture and tradition. The man won’t allow his wife to work and a father won’t allow the daughters to work.”
The thought of working actually intrigues young Alan Peshtiwan and her two friends, all ERBIL residents, as they stroll through the mall. None wear the conservative headscarf, but that doesn’t mean their families would approve of them working.
“Society and some families don’t allow us to work,” she said. “Otherwise we would love to.”
Refugees from Syria, which was largely secular before the civil war, do not face similar constraints.
Amira Mohammed, 21, said she had little trouble finding a job in Erbil after she left her home in the war-battered northern Syrian city of Aleppo two years ago. Her hair pulled tightly back into a top knot sporting a yellow bow, she now works in a high-end cosmetics and handbag shop.
“For them, work is shameful, but for us it’s normal, so very few Iraqi women work,” she said.
Nabil Al Ethari, an economist and head of the Development Iraq organisation, acknowledges the cultural barriers, but worries that Iraq has caught some of the “oil disease” found elsewhere in the region.
“Unfortunately, like many other oil-rich countries, we have no respect for work, we always expect the easy money — and that goes for men and women,” he said. “This makes the local worker a very weak competitor to any foreigner coming from a neighbouring country… For them, work is a top priority.”