Stories from Kurdistan

My Kurdistan Finalist on What It Means to Be a Kurd in Turkey

Kurd in Turkey

The following story was selected as a finalist as part of the My Kurdistan Story Contest. It was written by Pinar, who was born in Turkey and currently resides in Seattle, Washington. Learn more about the contest and its winners.

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

– Kofi Annan

They had been married only 4 years, but this was the end of everything; everything they had just started. My mother pressed my newly-born brother to her breast and my father held me tight. There we stood in front of a wall; waiting for the sound of the loaded gun, waiting for our unceremonious end – but no sound came. Cautiously, my father opened his eyes. The Turkish soldier had put his gun down; hesitantly and slowly. He looked at his comrade and said: “We were not able to find them at home. We will try again tomorrow”. They turned and left. We had survived.

Being born as a Kurd in Turkey meant facing severe suppression

My name is Pinar.* I was born as Eylem* in a small Kurdish town in Southeastern Turkey at a time when the suppression of Kurds was especially severe. Although “Eylem” is a Turkish name, my parents were forced to change it because it translates to “demonstration” in Turkish. The political message was as clear to my Kurdish parents as it was to the state official who was handling my birth certificate. It was seen as an affront to the Turkish state and so the suppression of my Kurdish identity begun from the cradle. We left Turkey when I was about 3 years old and immigrated to Germany. Our appeal for political asylum was accepted quickly when the doctoral examination of my father’s body proved the systemic torture he had suffered.

A passing view of my personal, my family’s and my people’s history reveals a story of suppression and violence. For centuries, Kurds have not been allowed to openly live and defend their identity as Kurdish people, let alone organize themselves in political groups. Approximately 30 years ago, speaking Kurdish in public was reason enough to be executed. Political engagement generally lead to arrest and so it happened that a number of family members “disappeared” or spent the rest of their lives in prison: I have uncles that are only distant memories, cousins who never got the chance to meet their fathers. To many people, especially those living in the West, this may be a difficult thought to fathom. However, to the Kurdish people, “disappearances” of family members and the denial of their identity has become almost part of being Kurdish. I was one of the “lucky” Kurdish children; my father was “only” tortured in a Turkish prison.

When I first started writing this essay, I thought and examined what it means to me to be Kurdish. A lot of negative memories and sentiments emerged. I thought about that time my brother was not allowed to play with his Turkish friend from kindergarten because his parents did not want their son to play with a Kurd. I thought about the day my 12-year-old brother came home from school and told me how some Turkish and Arab school children laughingly asked him to show where Kurdistan is on the map because they could not find it. I thought about that time someone asked me about my background and I told him that I was Kurdish. My Arab friend jumped into the conversation stating that, really, I was Turkish though. With sorrow, I retorted that I was indeed Kurdish. He kept laughing and repeating that, really, I was Turkish though. I thought about how one of my Turkish friends keeps saying that Kurds and Turks are the same.

Being Kurdish means continuing the struggle for peace and self-determination

What many of my Turkish friends fail to see, however, is that Kurds and Turks are only the same as long as we Kurds completely assimilate ourselves and take on a Turkish identity. I thought about that time my German friend blankly asked me why hate against Kurdish self-determination, let alone sovereignty, is so widespread and unapologetic among Turkish communities. I stood there, silent, not knowing where to start and what to answer. I could have given him a whole history lesson which may have been enough for him, but it would not have been enough for me. His question made it starkly apparent to me that really I did not know why. It is a question that I have been dwelling on ever since and I cannot seem to find an answer that makes sense to me. All I know is that being Kurdish seems to mean that owning our heritage and explicitly living our distinct culture also means having our existence denied and suppressed altogether. Being Kurdish means repeatedly having to prove that we are not Turkish, Arab or Persian because, somehow, people want to force us into these categories. Undoubtedly, thinking about what it means to be Kurdish is thinking about pain. It means remembering Halabja and Saddam’s gas attacks. It means remembering the massacre of our Alevi and Zaza brothers and sisters in Dersim as much as it means repeatedly seeing how our Ezidi women and children are kidnaped and raped while new mass graves around Mount Sinjar emerge each day. We have a hurtful past but that is not how I choose to end this essay, because to me, despite the pain of our past and present, being Kurdish, more importantly, means getting back up and continuing our struggle for self-determination and peace. I truly believe that our struggle for peace will always outweigh and outshine the pain of our past.

Our parents and grandparents were denied an education and persecuted for expressing their Kurdishness. Our brothers and sisters in Kurdistan are still suffering under the tyranny of blind nationalisms. Despite the fact that my parents were what we would call “bildungsfern” in German, a euphemism that would translate to “far from educated”, or perhaps because of that, my education was very important to them. They always pushed me to do well in school and supported me as much as they could, which was not always easy as their German was barely enough to ask for the way to the doctor. My brother and I had a relatively carefree childhood and enjoyed the privilege of getting an education in a country that we would call our home and that gave us so much more than the country we were born into. We would spend our summers in Stockholm with my beloved uncle Aslan Kaya who passed away a long time ago.

Like my dad, he came from a family of farmers and financed his studies by polishing shoes on the streets of Istanbul. My uncle loved to read books, and whenever we visited him, he would make me sit next to him and read Kurdish books with me. His love for books stuck with me and I spent the majority of my school breaks in the library looking for something new to read. My hunger for books was insatiable and I grabbed whatever I could find. By the age of 12, I was reading the biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Anne Frank. At first, I did not fully grasp the impact and historical significance of these people, but with time, I began to understand that the suppression and violence narrated in those books was very similar to what my family and my people were suffering.

To attain peace, we must push for education

The importance of education was emphasized by all of them and in Mandela’s words “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Changing our communities in positive and sustainable ways by means of educating ourselves and the people around us is a goal that I believe in and try to live out in my life. I believe it to be one of the most important, if not the most important, aspect of our struggle for peace. In a way, my educational path was predetermined through my Kurdish background. Long before I graduated from high school, it was clear to me that I would go on to study Political Science. In 2013, I graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Goettingen in Germany and went on to do my M.A. in International Studies with a focus on Peace, Violence and Security Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was and is my goal to understand the political, sociological and psychological mechanisms behind the persecution of people along ethnic and religious lines and, more importantly, find strategies to avoid repetitions of Auschwitz, Srebrenica and Sinjar. My studies enabled me to take a step back and scientifically approach and examine a conflict that I was essentially born into. Admittedly, this is a hard thing to do. The emotional aspects of the conflict and blind nationalisms often overshadow a level-headed and prudent approach to finding a solution to the so called ‘Kurdish question’. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes:

“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.”

As an ethnic group that has experienced this hate, we need to keep these words in mind. Being Kurdish, after all, also means to have an understanding for why it is so important to refrain from reactionary hate and the reproduction of these blind nationalisms that we have been suffering under. We have a long way to go but I am hopeful that my people, my family, will one day be able to free themselves from the chains of hate and blind nationalisms. One day, we will be able to freely express our Kurdishness, even with the blessing of our Turkish, Arab and Persian friends. The key is education, dialogue and respect for one another.

Continuing my education of the Kurdish diaspora

I will continue doing my part in our struggle for freedom and peace. This fall, I will start my doctorate at the University of Washington researching the Kurdish diaspora. I feel supported by my professors and am so grateful that they have given me the opportunity to continue learning, teaching and researching an issue that I feel very passionate about. However, having gone through the educational system in Germany and the U.S., one thing became very apparent to me: There are barely any professors working on the Kurdish issue, very limited opportunities to learn the Kurdish language at institutions of higher education and almost no Kurdish Studies departments. Of course, this is a reflection of the on-going oppression and denial of our Kurdish identities in the so called homeland states Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. However, the political landscape in so called host countries such as Germany, Sweden or the U.S. have opened avenues for democratic activism and long become home countries for a lot of Kurds. Kurds, like me, who are living in the diaspora, have been presented with remarkable resources.

We have been given a tremendous opportunity to not only educate ourselves but also the societies of which we are a part of and thereby influence key decision makers as well as opponents of our struggle. These new-found abilities to express and study our own heritage should not be taken for granted and continuously cherished and defended by all of us. I know that we do take advantage of these opportunities, I’ve seen my Kurdish brothers and sisters engage in all parts of society. I’ve seen them become doctors, lawyers, journalists or even soccer players and this is what makes me hopeful. Now, all of these hopes and realized dreams are also part of what it means to be Kurdish.


*Last name removed to protect privacy.

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