Sitting on some of the world's largest untapped oil and natural gas reserves, the region is experiencing a surge in investment and construction. Five-star hotels are dotting the skyline and luxury condo complexes with names like "American village" are opening on the outskirts of the city.
The last six months have seen Iraq become Syria-lite. Jihadists move across the porous Iraq-Syrian border with impunity, fueling the sectarian violence. Al-Jazeera reported that Iraq has suffered more than 5,000 deaths this year alone. The Kurdish north, long considered the success story of Iraq, has not been spared. On September 29, a coordinated attack of car bombs and gunfire hit Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region.
When Ismail Sheikho recalls his days at the Silopi refugee camp in Turkey--for Iraqi Kurds escaping Saddam Hussein’s 1992 crackdown--he remembers waiting all day just to hear the 15-minute Kurdish news broadcast of the Voice of America (VOA). “I bought a radio back then just to listen to the news,” says Sheikho, remembering that at the time the VOA was just about the only international broadcaster offering a Kurdish service.
There is a sense of optimism, cultivated with newly planted rosebushes and flowerbeds, in this capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. For a region that has seen decades of strife, Kurdistan is emerging as "the other Iraq," a place where progress is marked by the opening of new shopping malls and the pouring of concrete at countless construction sites. While other parts of Iraq remain volatile, Kurdistan is furthering both public and private sector investment.
For two weeks, American Voices offered performing arts lessons to 300 Iraqis from across the country. Classes were taught in the areas of jazz, piano, classical symphony, theater and hip hop & breakdance. I was essentially the Assistant Director of the YES Academy, and a veritable public diplomacy camp counselor. We also held smaller mini-YES Academies for close to a week in both Baghdad and Kirkuk -- the latter of which I ran as well.
Washington’s close Kurdish allies cracked down hard. After 62 days of street protests, 10 people were dead. The carefully crafted image of Kurdistan as a democratic island in an ocean of regional dictatorship was in tatters.
“Five million Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan have become a beacon of light for the 35 million Kurds who live in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. That beacon of light is keeping us awake at night and is filling our hearts with hope.”
-Kani Xulam, Director of the American-Kurdish Information Network
In this video, we visit one of the showcases of that Turkish penetration across the border into Iraq’s semi autonomous Kurdish region, at the glitziest shopping mall in the Kurdish enclave.