Just 55 Miles From ISIS Control, American Expats Carry On Life As Usual

Feb 16, 2015
Originally published on February 23, 2015 1:15 pm
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Two big cities in northern Iraq are just 55 miles apart - Mosul and Erbil. Mosul is under the control of the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. Erbil remains free, controlled by the Kurds, and Americans are welcome there. And the city has a large population of them. For those Americans, life goes on pretty much as normal, despite the proximity of ISIS. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: They say this place has the best buffalo wings and the best Philly cheese steaks in all of Iraqi Kurdistan. This is the T-Bar in Erbil. There are neon Budweiser signs on the wall, sports on the TV screens. In fact, the one thing that makes it different from most American sports bars nowadays is that at this bar everybody is smoking.

RYAN MCCARTHY: My name is Ryan McCarthy and I'm from the great state of New Jersey.

SHAPIRO: And how long have you lived in the great state of Kurdistan?

MCCARTHY: (Laughter) I've lived in Erbil for a year and a half.

SHAPIRO: He's an English teacher here, and like almost all of the Americans at this bar, he says living in Erbil does not feel like living adjacent to a war zone.

MCCARTHY: Look - there's a very large U.S. Consulate here with a lot of military members. Erbil was not going to fall without a hell of a fight.

SHAPIRO: And what's it like now, knowing that not too far down the road is a city that is totally controlled by ISIS?

MCCARTHY: I mean that's true. I mean, it's life on a border town. I mean I suppose you can ask people in South Korea who live right next to North Korea if they feel the same way.

JIMMIE COLLINS: Number four.

SHAPIRO: Every Monday night at T-Bar is quiz night. Players pitch in $5 and the money goes to a charity that helps refugees in Erbil.

COLLINS: What was the name of the third musketeer?

SHAPIRO: The woman reading the questions is a Texan named Jimmie Collins.

COLLINS: I very, very rarely remember that I'm so close to a warzone.

SHAPIRO: She works for an oil supply company, and she says her colleagues on site are much closer to Mosul, which is under ISIS control.

COLLINS: They can hear what's going on when they're on-site.

SHAPIRO: You mean hear rumors, or like, hear explosions?

COLLINS: No, they can hear the airstrikes. They don't see anything, but they can hear it.

SHAPIRO: The crowd at this bar is not entirely expats, and some of the locals are happy if the Americans here may be a bit sheltered from what's going on.

PAYAM NAQSHBANDI: Of course, like, generally, a business point of view - we don't want, let's say the expat communities, to be scared about what's happening.

SHAPIRO: Payam Naqshbandi was born and raised here in northern Iraq. He studied in the U.S.

NAQSHBANDI: As Kurds, we have our own local channels, and of course, we check it every day.

SHAPIRO: He says if expats heard the same things he hears, they might not be so relaxed. For example, the bar manager here, Ayas Murathadji, belongs to the Yazidi religious minority. Last summer when thousands of Yazidis were surrounded by ISIS trapped and starving on Mount Sinjar, he came here to work, serving coronas and burgers like any other night.

AYAS MURATHADJI: But what can you do? What can you do? I'm always - when I go to home, I'm sad. But it's - the work. You must work.

SHAPIRO: He's grateful for this bar. He says before he started here he didn't know any English. He learned how to speak the language from his American customers, and from talking with him, the Americans learned a little bit about what it means to be Yazidi. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Erbil, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.