The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

The Kurdish Immigrant Experience and a Growing American Community

 

Kurdish Herald Vol. 2 Issue 1, February 2010 -

by Hero Karimi

 

“It’s a source of pride for a lot of Nashvillians, you hear it all the time: ‘We have the largest Kurdish population in the country.’ It’s funny how they recognize that. It’s almost like a sports team,” says Meryl Taylor, manager of the Metro Services Refugee Program (Jubera:2005).

 

Nashville has always been labeled as the music city, but it now appears that the city has another role. After Nashville Public Television began airing their 2008 documentary program entitled “Next Door Neighbors”, Nashville also became known as “the new destination city,” as it has embraced countless refugees and immigrants, and now represents ethnic groups from all over the world. The Kurdish lifestyle as portrayed through the documentary reveals a hardworking and grateful group of people that proudly show off their successes in American society.

 

 

In the spring of last year, The Tennessean emphasized the increasing popularity that the state had as an immigration destination. A reporter at The Tennessean, Chris Echegaray, points out that the state has gained nearly 200,000 foreign-born residents since the beginning of 1990. In particular, Middle Tennessee stands out, where one group has distinguished itself so thoroughly in Nashville that parts of the city are commonly referred to by the name of their homeland. “Little Kurdistan” represents the nation’s largest Kurdish population, and according to the director of Kurdish Achievers, Mwafac Mohammed, the population is estimated to be up to 11,000.

 

Producer at NPT, Will Pedigo, acknowledges Nashville’s Kurds as a significant part of the Kurdish Diaspora, and adds that the community here represents the Kurdish capital of North America. Most of the Kurdish population in Nashville consists of Kurds from Iraq. In conversations with members of the national Kurdish American Youth Organization, they point out that other states with major Kurdish populations, in addition to Tennessee, are California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia.

 

NPT's Next Door Neighbors Program: "Little Kurdistan, USA"

 

The history of the growing Kurdish communities in the U.S. goes back to 1976, when the first of four waves of Kurdish refugee resettlements came directly to Nashville. At the time, the Catholic Charities of Tennessee was responsible for the refugee and immigration services and the Diocese of Nashville hired Bill Sinclair as a refugee resettlement caseworker. Drew Jubera points out that it was a “happy accident” that the first wave to arrive in the 1970s happened to come to Nashville. Proximity to the army base, Fort Campbell, where they were received, and a booming economy led them to establish their community in Nashville. These Kurds were fleeing a failed revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan. The revolutionary attempt had begun in 1961, although the Kurdish rebellion – initially supported by the United States and the Iranian regime – began in March 1974. However, when Saddam Hussein entered into an agreement with the Shah of Iran at the expense of the Kurdish rebels, foreign support came to an abrupt end and the Kurdish population was left vulnerable to the vengeance of the Iraqi regime. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people sought exile in neighboring countries, while some were brought to the United States.

 

A number of Kurds from Iraqi Kurdistan continued to arrive in the year that followed, though the greater part of the second wave that came in 1979 were Kurds from Kurdistan of Iran. These Kurds escaped because of their opposition to the theocratic system that would follow the Iranian revolution that, under the auspice of Ayatollah Khomeini, endeavored to overthrow the Shah and replace his government with an Islamic Republic.


Kurdish refugees had to flee Saddam's attacks and live in temporary camps in the mountains

 

The third wave took place between 1991 and 1992, and is assumed to be the largest of the four waves. This wave included Kurds who desperately fled the genocidal campaign, known as Anfal, imposed by the dictator Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s. The intention of this campaign was a calculated extermination of the Kurdish people by the Ba’athist regime under Saddam Hussein. The regime destroyed over 4000 Kurdish villages and killed an estimated 182,000 Kurds.

 

In the book, Iraq’s Crime of Genocide: The Anfal campaign against the Kurds, Human Rights Watch documents, “Although women and children vanished in certain clearly defined areas, adult males who were captured disappeared in masses. It is apparent that a principal purpose of Anfal was to exterminate all adult males of military service age captured.” (Human Rights Watch: 1195, 96).

 

Yet again, tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians crossed the borders to the neighboring countries to seek protection and shelter in refugee camps. At the same time, thousands of Kurdish people were relocated to the U.S.

 

The last major wave to Nashville was in the period between 1996 and 1997. A terrible civil war raged between Iraqi Kurdistan's two major political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in which the former invited Saddam’s forces into the region to counter the latter’s support from Iran. After arriving in the region, Iraqi forces began targeting hundreds of individuals accused of working against Saddam's regime. Many members of US agencies withdrew from the region, and every person with a history of assisting the Americans in the region was instantly in grave danger. At a request by the U.S. government, the International Organization for Migration carried out an evacuation, which Seattle Times writer, Eric Talmadge, designated as one of the biggest evacuations of threatened U.S. allies in recent times. Because these Kurds had been working for Western humanitarian organizations, Hussein saw them as a threat. Kurdish refugees crossed the Turkish border where they were evacuated to Guam – a military outpost in the Western Pacific – and later resettled in the U.S.

Although the four waves have had certain similarities, there have been essential diversities as they have each come from different geographical areas and living circumstances. Will Pedigo asserts that being from different regions within Kurdistan has resulted in miscellaneous social backgrounds, tribal connections and also religious beliefs. In Nashville, each wave fled very distinct situations and has therefore had different perceptions in how they have experienced their journey there. Furthermore, even though most Kurdish people follow Sunni Islam, there are also minorities of Shi’a Muslims, Jews, Christians, Alevis, Yezidis, Yarsans, Zoroastrians, Babis and followers of different Sufi and Mystic orders, some of which even have formed their own subcommunities in the U.S.

 

The path upon arrival has not been an easy one for the Kurdish immigrants, and many refugees struggle to this day with the suffering and traumas they have experienced due to aggressive and hostile governments in their occupied homelands. The main countries in which Kurds live - Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey - are often perceived by Kurds with a sense of enmity. Although these countries have had a long and sometimes bloody history between each other, they have always managed to forge agreements when it comes to their policies regarding the Kurds. One may say that Kurds’ motives to emigrate to the U.S. have been very unlike other minorities that have come to the country. It has rarely been simply an escape from poverty and a search for the American dream. Rather, it has been a desperate attempt to survive in a region of the world where the atrocities inflicted by the states are all too common. In the last 30 years, Kurds have struggled to build a new haven in Nashville, and director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities of Tennessee Holly Johnson says “they have changed Nashville.”

 

House of Kabob serves traditional Kurdish cuisines and is one of many Kurdish-owned businesses in Nashville
Photo Courtesy Ayrin Torabian © Kurdish Herald 2010

 

NPT’s portrayal of the Kurdish community has contributed to a growing awareness of Kurdish-Americans in the U.S., especially those who live in Nashville. “Little Kurdistan” represents the close-knit community and culture among the Kurds, a presence that is confirmed by the many Kurdish-owned businesses in Nashville. A large number of Kurds have therefore moved to Nashville from within the U.S. to be with friends and family, or just to be a part of the growing society. This phenomenon is ongoing, and the peace of mind in knowing that there are other Kurds in Nashville is crucial for those Kurds who choose to move there. Nick Aref is one of many Kurds who have moved, in his case from Arizona, to open a business in Nashville. The key reasons that led many Kurds to Nashville in the 1970s were, as Drew Jubera points out, the fact that “Nashville was viewed as a manageable, relatively affordable place to live, full of entry-level jobs for people who didn’t speak much English.”

 

Though many Kurds used to have professional jobs at home, they have had to adjust to their new situation and start off in low-paid and unwanted jobs, says Jubera. Despite an undesirable career start and other difficulties, most Kurds are often able to overcome these obstacles and establish their own successful businesses. Jubera points out that the Kurds’ in America are one of the immigrant groups that are consequently known for a successful integration and contribution to the American society.

 

Although most of the estimated 40,000 Kurds who now live in the U.S. have managed very well, it does not mean that they have not had their share of difficulties to overcome. As it is evident in “Next Door Neighbors,” the escape to the West has been driven by tragedies and immense losses. Many survivors from the Iraqi campaigns, especially the genocidal Anfal campaign, to this day struggle with major health problems, traumas and other psychological problems. Unfortunately for many, the emotional and psychosomatic scars from earlier abuse remain secluded and therefore untreated. These conditions are hard to break free of and affect many of the Kurdish immigrants, as they struggle to adapt to American society.


Another unfortunate event for Nashville’s Kurds is the breakthrough of the Kurdish Pride Gang in the recent years. KPG is thought to be America’s only Kurdish street gang, and has been linked to a series of high-profile crimes. The number of members is not accurately estimated, but they are believed to be made up of 20 to 30 teens and young adults (Emery:2007). The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department are uncertain of the gang’s foundation, but believes the gang is supposed to function as a Kurdish show-off to other ethnic gangs such as the Hispanic gangs Sureños 13 (Sur-13) and Mara Salvatrucha 13. The Metropolitan also point out that the KPG members’ backgrounds are surprising to everyone, because “they come from two-parent homes, […] from middle-class families with a strong work ethic, where education is important” (Emery:2007). Members of the Kurdish community have expressed concern and some have said that they are ashamed of the reputation these few associates have given the rest of the thousands of Kurds in the country.

 

Despite the social problems facing Kurds like other immigrant communities, there are still many who are keen on building a positive and cohesive Kurdish community in the U.S. The president of the Nashville Kurdish Forum, Tahir Hussain, believes that this may be easier to do for his community because of Nashville’s general culture as “the buckle” of the Bible Belt and its appeal to religious Kurds. The Christian congregations’ traditional family values and lifestyle are very compatible with the Kurds’ own conservative and family-oriented way of life. This has certainly helped to sustain the Kurdish culture among the many other difficulties they have had. Hussain explains that the shared values contribute to a sense of security, and though Kurds are members of different religions, they share the culture of family values (Jubera:2005).

 

NPT’s portrayal of the Kurdish community has contributed to a growing awareness of Kurdish-Americans in the U.S., especially those who live in Nashville. “Little Kurdistan” represents the close-knit community and culture among the Kurds, a presence that is confirmed by the many Kurdish-owned businesses in Nashville. A large number of Kurds have therefore moved to Nashville from within the U.S. to be with friends and family, or just to be a part of the growing society. This phenomenon is ongoing, and the peace of mind in knowing that there are other Kurds in Nashville is crucial for those Kurds who choose to move there. Nick Aref is one of many Kurds who have moved, in his case from Arizona, to open a business in Nashville. The key reasons that led many Kurds to Nashville in the 1970s were, as Drew Jubera points out, the fact that “Nashville was viewed as a manageable, relatively affordable place to live, full of entry-level jobs for people who didn’t speak much English.”

 

Though many Kurds used to have professional jobs at home, they have had to adjust to their new situation and start off in low-paid and unwanted jobs, says Jubera. Despite an undesirable career start and other difficulties, most Kurds are often able to overcome these obstacles and establish their own successful businesses. Jubera points out that the Kurds’ in America are one of the immigrant groups that are consequently known for a successful integration and contribution to the American society.

 


"Azadi" ("Freedom" in Kurdish) International Market is a small grocery store that is similar to the Kurdish shops in Kurdistan;

the shop sells traditional Kurdish-style bread and other items. Photo Courtesy Rebaz Qaradaghi © Kurdish Herald 2010

 

 

The president of the Nashville Kurdish Forum, Tahir Hussain, believes that this may be easier to do for his community because of Nashville’s general culture as “the buckle” of the Bible Belt and its appeal to religious Kurds. The Christian congregations’ traditional family values and lifestyle are very compatible with the Kurds’ own conservative and family-oriented way of life. This has certainly helped to sustain the Kurdish culture among the many other difficulties they have had. Hussain explains that the shared values contribute to a sense of security, and though Kurds are members of different religions, they share the culture of family values (Jubera:2005). In 1998, Muslim Kurds established the Salahadeen Center of Nashville to promote religious studies and education. The center has often served as a meeting ground for the Muslim community.

 

In recent years, various Kurdish organizations have propped up in and outside of Nashville and have regularly organized events that have been aimed to bring the Kurdish-American community together. A primary goal of these organizations has been to promote the interests of Kurdish-Americans and cultivate support among both Kurdish and non-Kurdish-Americans. “Next Door Neighbors” also illustrates how Kurdish-Americans have opted to take part in the American democratic process. Kurdish organizations have played a role in introducing the democratic process to newly naturalized Kurdish-Americans by initiating programs that are aimed at stimulating their involvement. The Nashville chapter of Kurdish American Youth Organization (KAYO) was awarded by the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition for promoting civic engagement in 2008. Furthermore, Kurds in Nashville took part in organizing a movement entitled “Kurds for Obama”, which was aimed at gathering support for then-candidates Barack Obama and Joe Biden. As refugees of former dictator-controlled states where they had no permission to partake in anything, Kurds have displayed a desire to participate in the growth of their new country.

 

 

By request from the Catholic Charities in Tennessee, the responsibility to ensure that the newly arrived Kurdish refugees would integrate in the new country was given to William Sinclair, the current Executive Director of Catholic Charities. This was the official beginning of Nashville's status as one of the largest refugee objectives in the southeast. NPT’s awareness and attention to the Kurdish community in Nashville have contributed to enlighten the Kurdish presence in Nashville, and the positive influence Kurdish-Americans have had throughout the many decades they have lived in the U.S.

 

“Next Door Neighbors” shows how Kurdish-Americans have always worked to preserve their culture and their customs, even when they live in a new “homeland.” Pedigo explains that it is clear that these Kurds are grateful for the opportunity they have been given for a new and better life. This is why the documentary focuses so much on what many would see as the ultimate Kurdish core values; education, strong family focus, and keeping ethnic identity intact. Most essential to Kurds’ integration in Nashville has been their desire to participate and be a part of their new communities, a characteristic they have brought with them from Kurdistan.

 

Members of the Kurdish American Youth Organization's Nashville Chapter participate in a program called "Feed the Children"

to deliver food, medicine, clothing to children and families who lack them. Photo Courtesy KAYO © Kurdish Herald 2010

 

Hero Karimi is currently a student in the Masters program in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

 

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