Migrant Lives

With The Desperate Christian Refugees Flooding Iraq's Kurdistan

Assyrian Christian families who have fled ISIS and have taken refuge in the Mar Matta Monastery in northern Iraq.
Assyrian Christian families who have fled ISIS and have taken refuge in the Mar Matta Monastery in northern Iraq.
Jacques Follorou

SAJE — Father Kriakosmi, the priest of the village Saje outside Dohuk, doesn't complain about the inconveniences caused by masses of displaced people arriving here. As he undoes the top button of his black shirt, revealing his white collar, it's not a sign of fatigue or defeat, simply a reaction to the suffocating heat in this northern part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

He opened his church and his school to accommodate the Christians, most of them Chaldeans like him, who came from towns and villages conquered by ISIS terror groups south of Dohuk, such as Mosul, Qaraqosh, Tel Keppe and Alqosh. "We don't welcome just Christians," he insists. "This morning, 150 Yazidi families settled in the village."

Following Father Kriakosmi's example, local authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region have opened schools and public buildings to the displaced, while others are sheltering under bridges or inside unfinished construction sites. In the Dohuk province alone, there are now more than 400,000 refugees, most of them Christians and Yazidis.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 700,000 people displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, scattered across hundreds of different sites. The UN, which provides them with aid, is building three extra camps there this week.

In Saje, houses under construction have also been requisitioned to accommodate the newcomers. Four Yazidi families consisting of about 30 people have moved into one of them. A large carpet adorns the entrance to the house, which otherwise consists of just bare concrete walls and a roof.

Desperation for the displaced

Garbage litters the floors, and the deprivation of these farm families from a village near Sinjar is plain to see on the faces of the women and children. The men try to appear strong. But then one of them has to carry his sister, who fainted from the heat and lack of water, to a car that will drive her to a health center.

Father Kriakosmi organizes assistance for these refugees with the help of someone who himself has had to flee his home with his family — Moin Basim Slem Ajaj, a former member of Mosul's council, who is carrying the list of people eligible for food supplies and other products when they arrive.

Ajaj, a former Iraqi army engineer, speaks a little English and is the embodiment of educated Iraqi society. People like he and his wife, a social researcher, are among the country's progressive elite.

He says that day the Islamist militias entered Mosul, the governor had already left with his delegation four or five hours before. "They had left us alone," Ajaj says. "We knew they were close but not that they would be here so quickly." He says that the army defected in two hours, after the first rumors about the Islamists approaching reached Mosul's council. "And the Arab population provided no help whatsoever to the minorities targeted by the Islamists," he adds.

Faced directly with ISIS members, he was forced to hand over his $4,000 life savings and one of his two cars. "Then they hit me and ordered me to leave instantly, to abandon my house. We used to live in 180 square meters. Now there's four of us in ten square meters, but Father Kriakosmi was generous enough to give us shelter."

In Tel Keppe, where they first sought refuge, and in Alqosh, the same scenes were repeating themselves. "At night, young people would run through the streets shouting that Daesh ISIS in Arabic was coming, and so each time we had to flee, with women and children, leaving what little things we had behind," Ajaj explains. Before they left Mosul, ISIS members offered him a deal. "I could stay if I converted or if I paid. At the end of the day, even if Christians wanted to pay, they couldn't go on living in Mosul."

Installed in Saje for now and with no idea how long they will stay, Christian refugees try to live one day at a time. "We don't understand anything about this war," says Murad, a large man. "We could be forced to flee again if Daesh keeps gaining ground. They're very close, and all they want is to wipe us off the map."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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