At first, no one in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil would drink the bitter coffee at Syrian refugee Abdussamad Abdulqadir’s cafe. But now it’s a hit, part of a growing cultural exchange.

Since conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, many ethnic Kurds living in the country’s northeast fled across the border to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Despite their similar ethnic origins, the two communities speak distinct dialects and have different cultural habits, but in recent years they have traded customs.

When Abdulqadir fled his northeast Syrian hometown of Qamishli six years ago, he settled in Arbil and opened a cafe in its bustling market.

During his opening week, he sent free cups of coffee to neighbouring shopkeepers to win new customers, but they complained it was undrinkably bitter.

With persistence and charm refugee and cafe owner Abdussamad Abdulqadir gradually converted his nei...

“Business was bad,” the 45-year-old told AFP, saying Iraqi Kurds typically prefer instant coffee or tea so sugary it resembles syrup.

With persistence and charm, Abdulqadir first converted his neighbours to drinking coffee with sugar — then, eventually, to the original bitter drink.

He now has so much business that he opened a second quaint cafe in the market.

“Now I sell between 200 and 300 cups of coffee every day and 90 percent of my customers are Iraqi Kurds who drink the coffee without sugar,” he said proudly.

– More vibrant –

The changes go beyond caffeine, with restaurants adopting Syrian food, architects fusing Iraqi and Syrian styles and even musical and linguistic exchanges.

An Iraqi Kurdish woman prepares Syrian coffee in a shop in Arbil's central bazar

Jumana Turki, who has lived with her Syrian Kurdish husband in Arbil since 2014, said it used to surprise her how few women she would see in public in Arbil after dark.

But now women — Syrian and Iraqi Kurds — are shopping and even working in markets and shopping malls until late.

“This was the impact of Syrian refugees because in Syria, it was normal for women to work in markets and be out at night,” said Turki, who holds a master degree in sociology.

Around the world, communities faced with an influx of newcomers often react with xenophobia, because of an instinctive fear that change would mar the host culture.

Kurds in northern Iraq have carved out an autonomous enclave where they speak the Sorani Kurdish dialect, have their own television channels and government bodies.

They, too, initially rejected Syrian Kurdish customs, but the slow integration in recent years “has deconstructed that historical rejection,” said Hawzhen Ahmed, an Arbil-based academic who holds a doctorate in cultural studies.

Around 300,000 Syrian refugees — most of them Kurds — now live in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the threat of a Turkish offensive last year pushing thousands into displacement camps in the north.

“Syrian refugees have proved the historical argument that host cultures become more vibrant and enjoyable when mixed with different traditions and norms,” Ahmed told AFP.

– ‘Strong empathy’ –

Integration is a two-way street, said Hussein Dewani, a Syrian musician and schoolteacher in Arbil since 2012.

“Iraqi Kurds helped us revive our Kurdish language since they speak a more pure Kurdish than Syrian Kurds, whose dialect was banned in Syria,” Dewani said.

This Syrian Kurdish man sells sweets at a shop in Arbil

Syria’s government had long prohibited Kurds from speaking their language or celebrating their festivals and had even refused Syrian nationality for the community, worried they would threaten the state with calls for independence.

But in Iraqi Kurdistan, radio channels, government statements and street signs are mostly in Kurdish.

Dewani said he has picked up the Sorani dialect of the region but also taught his colleagues some of the Kurmanji dialect used in Syria.

“When I arrived, I heard some Kurdish words which I used to hear from my grandmother and they were all lost generation after generation,” he recalled.

Dewani, also from Qamishli, has decorated his Arbil apartment with musical instruments including guitars and the daf, a frame drum.

He learned to play the daf in his new hometown, which he said hosts some of the best drum musicians and instructors.

The 33-year-old said the well-developed Iraqi Kurdish music culture had also seeped into Syrian Kurdish music, and that Syrian Kurds were now wearing more traditional attire that resembled their counterparts in Arbil.

Empathy and shared norms have blossomed in recent years, said Rodi Hassan, a Syrian physician working in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Hassan arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2008, three years before Syria’s uprising began, to study medicine.

“When I arrived, we had very little information about each other, and it was all stereotypes,” he told AFP.

“But now it is completely different. There is a strong empathy, friendship and intermarriage between us,” he said.

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