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Letters of the Diaspora from San Diego, California: Activist and Community Organizer, Luqman Barwari

 

Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 5, September 2009 - by Vahal A. Abdulrahman

 

“Immigration is not simply a tradition in America, it is the essence of America,” said Mr. Luqman Barwari as we talked about the Kurdish-American community. Mr. Barwari, a resident of Southern California, has his roots in Iraqi Kurdistan, the land he fled in 1975. Building a new life in the United States, he not only mastered the English language very quickly, but went on to earn a number of higher degrees. He currently works at one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies as a scientist focusing on molecular biology.


There are roughly 50,000 Iraqi Kurds living in the United States, most of whom have come during one of three waves of immigration. The first wave occurred following the 1975 Algiers Agreement, which led to the end of the Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish revolt in Iraq. The second wave occurred in the aftermath of the Anfal campaign, which ended in 1988, and 1991 uprising following Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait. The third and most recent wave included when the staff and families of Kurdistan-based NGOs that left the region in 1996 following the stalemate that halted the Kurdish factional war of the mid-1990’s. Collectively, this community of Kurdish-Americans is scattered on both coasts of the United States, which the biggest concentration of Kurds in America being found in Nashville, Tennessee, a city otherwise known for its contributions to American music.

 

Kurdish activist and community organizer, Luqman Barwari, in Hasankeyf © Kurdish Herald 2009

 

There are other Kurdish communities of considerable size throughout the United States, one of which is in Southern California, namely in San Diego, where some 10,000 people there identify themselves as Kurds. Not too far from San Diego lives Mr. Barwari; a long-time community leader who recently spoke to me at length about the situation of Kurdish-Americans, their activism and overall advancement and integration, using California’s San Diego County as a model.

 

The 10,000-person community of Kurds in San Diego is mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan; that is also true of most of the other communities of Kurds in the United States. In San Diego, the Kurds have settled there over the past three decades, almost all as refugees, fleeing the various campaigns of terror conducted by the Ba’ath regime against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr. Barwari tells me that the vast majority of this community are naturalized US citizens. Their sense of belonging to the host country, Iraq, was shattered by the genocidal policies of the previous Iraqi regime, hence making the choice to become American citizens much easier, Mr. Barwari added.

 

Unfortunately with that citizenship comes very little progress, insofar as the Kurds of Southern California are concerned. Mr. Barwari stated that the number of the community members who are part of California’s professional workforce is so small that it is almost “insignificant.” Their participation in higher education is only slightly better, but by no means sufficient given the opportunities that America has to offer. Economically, Mr. Barwari says, the Kurds in this area take advantage of the social benefits that the state of California that he described as a “welfare state,” offers for her residents. With that dependence on state benefits comes high percentages of unemployment among the community, especially in professional fields. That said, the new generation of Kurds, the daughters and sons of those who had once fled genocide are now becoming more and more aware of the opportunities of America. Unlike their parents, Mr. Barwari tells me, they are attending institutions of higher education, working hard to pursue professional careers and advancing their lives while at the same time remaining ever more culturally Kurdish. Mr. Barwari praised the efforts of emerging Kurdish youth organizations whose members and leaders work together for the pursuit of a better, more organized Kurdish-American community that can work for the improvement of both America and the Kurdistan. Mr. Barwari, himself, actively advises members of the national Kurdish American Youth Organization (KAYO).

 

When I asked Mr. Barwari to tell me of those long-gone days of living in Kurdistan, my question instantly reminded him of Iraqi Air Force jets hovering over their village in Barwari Balla region along the Turkish border. Even today, he remembers how the five-year-old Luqman would see the planes arrive, bomb, and then disappeared into the endless sky. What a childhood, what a world!

 

He still remembers that night when his father deserted the Iraqi army and decided to become a peshmerga and flee to the sub-district of Galala where the Kurdish leadership was headquartered at the time. That ten-day journey from their village on the Turkish border to Gallala on the Iranian border, like so much else from his childhood, has accompanied him to America and still lives with him today. In 1975, the 10 year old Luqman would find himself a refugee in Iranian camps where cold, hunger and death were part of the daily package that once seemed to be the fate of the Kurdish nation. At the age of 12, Luqman found himself relocated involuntarily to Qom in southwestern Iran, where he worked as a child laborer in factories doing 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week, for a full four years!

 

Ironically, these not-so-pleasant memories link the successful family man, US citizen, and accomplished scientist, Luqman Barwari, to Kurdistan. He is currently working with Dohuk University to help them develop a molecular biology laboratory. He makes frequent trips to Kurdistan and has helped raise funds for humanitarian efforts, most notably for the victims of floods in Diyarbakir in the fall of 2006 through a nationwide campaign effort with KAYO. Mr. Barwari is also very concerned for Kurdish music; he often invites Europe-based Kurdish musicians to hold concerts and attend community events. His pan-Kurdish sentiments and appreciation for Kurdish culture have brought him to Diyarbakir for the world’s largest Newroz celebration a number of times. He also is an active member of the Kurdish National Congress of North America.

 

Like so many active Kurdish intellectuals, Mr. Barwari dreams of the emergence of a powerful Kurdish community in America where effective grass-roots lobbying can pressure policymakers to keep the Kurds in their minds. Mr. Barwari, despite the rough road to success and countless disappointments along the way, is optimistic that the new generation of Kurdish-Americans will emerge as a force of which all Americans and Kurds can be proud.

 

 

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