Syrian troops usually came before dawn, rounding up young Kurdish men to force them into an army they did not see as their own and into a fight for a government that treated them as outsiders.
When they came, Syrian law student Ahmed slipped out, leaving his family and crossing the border in April into Iraqi Kurdistan to join thousands of Syrian Kurds now living among their Iraqi brethren in a refugee camp or homes of relatives.
As Syria’s crisis escalates, Syria’s Kurdish provinces have been spared most of the violence. But increasingly, Syrian Kurds say they are fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan to escape from growing economic hardship, kidnappings and instability.
More than 7,000 Syrians have crossed the border and found their way to Kurdistan, where local authorities and international agencies have set up a camp on a dusty plain. Diggers are already preparing land for more.
“Army convoys would come at around 4 am, asking for ID papers. When they surrounded my house I knew I couldn’t go back,” said Ahmed, who like many others at the camp asked that only his first name be used for fears of reprisals on family.
Some are soldiers escaping orders to fire on protesters or fellow Kurdish deserters, others are families who faced an increasing struggle to find gas and food, or students who wanted no part in fighting for President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria’s Kurds have long suffered discrimination under Assad and many see in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan a place where they can find work and easily settle with common roots and language as Syria falls apart.
While Syrian towns such as Homs face the brunt of Assad’s crackdown after more than 16 months of protests and fighting, activists from the Kurdish region say Syrian Kurds – a million out of Syria’s 21 million population – now cautiously see a chance to edge closer to rights similar to Kurdistan’s model.
Iraqi Kurdistan, autonomous since 1991, has its own provincial government and armed forces, though it still relies on the Baghdad central government for its budget.
Demands from Syria’s Kurdish region, which has faced repression of rights such as teaching in Kurdish, will be decisive for the Syrian National Council (SNC), the mainly Arab opposition to Assad, led since June by Abdelbasset Sida, a Kurd.
Numbers of Syrians fleeing into Iraq are still small compared with the refugees crossing into Turkey and into Lebanon, where the United Nations said up to 30,000 refugees may have crossed the frontier in the past week.
At Camp Domiz, where rows of tents are divided between single males and families, newly arrived refugees talk of Assad’s departure, and offer a view of Syria splintering into separate regions as the violence there grows.
“I am sure Assad will leave now. In the past the military were strong, but there are too many defections now,” said Hamo, a Kurdish Syrian soldier who fled the army and into Kurdistan after 10 months in Homs.
For Iraq, Syria’s crisis is particularly sensitive. Baghdad’s Shi’ite-led government is close to Iran, Assad’s ally in the region, and has taken a more moderate position than Sunni Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But Kurdish parties in Syria’s opposition to Assad have been supported by Iraq’s Kurdistan to encourage them to put aside differences and present a united front to fight for Kurdish rights.
Kurdish SNC members have had open disputes with others in the group over Kurdish rights – on July 4 a Kurdish group walked out of an opposition meeting in Cairo amid scuffles and fistfights – and whether a post-Assad Syria would be built around a federal structure similar to that in Iraq.
The role played by Syria’s Kurds in any post-Assad Syria will be important for neighboring Turkey and Iran, where large Kurdish populations have long sought more independence.
For many Kurdish refugees that kinship drove them across Syria into Iraqi Kurdistan instead of seeking refuge in Lebanon or Turkey, where they believed they would face more restrictions.
Eight months fighting in the crackdown on protesters was enough for soldier Bilent to escape across Syria for Kurdistan. He said he paid a $200 bribe to an officer to get a leave of absence, visit his family and leave.
“There was a rule. When they gave orders if I didn’t follow and shoot, then they would shoot me,” he said sitting among 20 other Syrian army deserters near the camp. “I’ll be here until Assad leaves and then I’ll go back.”
For families at the camp, food shortages, dwindling supplies of gas for cooking and the threat of violence were enough to push them to abandon their homes and escape over Iraq’s border.
Many already see Iraq as their new home, seeking jobs in nearby towns, and fixing tents with air conditioners in preparation for the long wait.
“Even if Assad falls we won’t go back, there is no life left in Syria. It is better to stay here,” said Wansan, who paid smugglers to ferry her and her three children into Iraq to follow her husband three weeks ago.
At a half-built mosque near Camp Domiz, sentiment running through the settlement is clear. Pale blue graffiti across the mosque’s unfinished grey concrete walls reads: “Out with Bashar al-Assad.”