Stories from Kurdistan

My Kurdistan Winner Shares How Photography Project Shaped Kurdish Identity

Kurdish identity

The following story about Kurdish identity is a winner of the My Kurdistan Story Contest, in the 18 & Over Age Group. It was written by Alan, a 21-year-old student at Stanford University. Learn more about Alan’s work to share the stories of refugee children around the world.

A few weeks before this summer, I found myself at a crossroads, needing to make a big life decision. It was one of those crossroads many students face sometime throughout their time at college or at least think about it from time to time; one of those times when you question everything you’ve done so far and ask yourself whether you should steer your direction in life to something new, something less conventional; whether to follow what your heart is telling you and put effort into something new, or simply follow what the system has laid out and reach your hand for that hefty paycheck.

Embarking on a Passion Project to Tell the Stories of Refugee Children

To provide a bit of background, I’m a rising engineering senior at Stanford University, and as much as I feel that I’ve learned and achieved through my major, there was something lacking that I still haven’t quite gotten to the core. It’s like when you’re in a relationship and everything is going well according to the books, but it just isn’t. As vague as it may sound, I just didn’t have a “spark” with my engineering degree. So I decided to take matters to my own hands and embark on an adventure.

I said goodbye to my engineering internship and started working towards doing a project of my own on a cause I felt passionate about. I decided to do a photography project on the refugee children across Europe and the Middle East, sharing their photos and stories and provide insight into their lives and the issues they face. I talked to a few people I knew in the countries I was planning on visiting and figured out the logistics. Right after, I started a crowdfunding campaign, through which friends and other kind souls I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet, made this project a reality. I was very excited about the experience I was about to have — to be walking into the unknown and learn a lot from everyone I was about to meet, and try to give back to them in any way I can. It was there. The spark was there this time.

For years, a Kurdish Identity Wrapped Up in Fear, Confusion

Fast forward to the end of summer, I often sit and think about all the people I met and imagine what they’ve seen. I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve gotten a brutally honest and firsthand exposure into the life of the refugees and their issues. I’ve gained a lot of perspective on the essence of a satisfactory life. I’ve learnt how transient one’s life can be, and how it’s very few things we come across in life that stay with us through transience. Additionally, one thing I learnt, without expecting so, was a new side of my identity — my identity as a Kurd. As humans, we often tend to attach ourselves to a set of identities, identities ranging from a wide spectrum in nature, but we usually never question them or try to understand what that identity really entails. That is usually the case with race and religion. The fact that we’re born into X, and that our parents or people in our immediate community are X is often enough for us to be X. I don’t think it’s that simple for a Kurdish person, or at least, it wasn’t for me. I think fitting into an identity, as a Kurd, has always been a challenge, increasingly so the more you go back in time where Kurds usually lived in spaces and communities where your sense of nationality was extremely criticized and oppressed, often violently. During my childhood, I spent a lot of time pondering on such topics. It was hard to comprehend how I had a flag, a national anthem, a long history, and everything else that defines one’s nationality, but I was unable to publicly express myself.

It didn’t make sense to me that I couldn’t go out in public and wave my flag and sing my national anthem in the four “parts” of Kurdistan without fearing for the safety of my parents. It didn’t make sense to me how the Kurdish language was banned and the children in my country weren’t given the right to learn their mother tongue.

Where was this hate coming from? What have the Kurds done to deserve all this wrong-doing? Could it be that we’re the good guys and everyone else isn’t, or maybe it’s the other way around?

Erbil a Symbol of Coexistence, Tolerance

With time, I obtained a better sense of the world — how racial alienations and oppression of minorities has historically stemmed out of the thirst of geopolitics. So the question naturally rose on how I should treat people under those governments that simply refuse us our most basic rights. Basically, do I respond back to the hate instigated on me with hate? I think I found the answer within the Kurdistan region. I grew up most of my life in Erbil and it, along with the whole region, proved to be a symbol for coexistence and tolerance in my eyes. Shabaks, Yazidis, Kldanis, Christians, Muslims and people from other faiths live a prosperous life. Over the past decade, the region has also attracted a large number of people from all walks of life from all over the world, they all live alongside each other without letting religion or any uncontrollable factor affect each other. I’ve always taken pride in that and considered it a key value in being Kurdish. This summer, through my project, I saw a new side to that coexistence and grew a much deeper appreciation for what it means to be Kurdish.

Through this photography project, I met many people from different geographies, beliefs and life experiences. Yet, their life experiences had become similar over the past few years. They were all victims of war and in need for stability and a shelter. I met a Sunni 17 year old boy from Mosul who admittedly swam across the Mosul dam to escape ISIS and made it to Debagah Camp, while he lost some of his traveling companions to ISIS snipers. I met Shi’a Iraqi girl smiling and playing with her doll outside the door of their tent, shouting to her family that someone with a camera is here when she saw me. I met two Yazidi brothers who had recently been reunited with their mom and sister after being forced into ISIS training camps at the age of 6 and 9. I met a Christian boy from Mosul that didn’t have to fear for his life anymore. I met a group of Kurdish and Arab children from Syria playing soccer on the dirt worriless of bombs and destruction. The list goes on.

Tolerance, Freedom of belief, Optimism for the Future

It was beautiful to see that Kurdistan, a place I call home, has been able to become a home to so many others. Despite our tragic and bloody history where thousands of innocent lives had been lost to unimaginable crimes simply because of our identity, 182,000 buried alive during Anfal Genocide or 5,000 killed during Halabja Chemical bombings to name a few, we’ve been to stay humane and always lend a helping hand to those in need. I think Kurds can empathize to those in misery and in need of help because every generation has grown up similarly to an extent and knows how terrible that state of being feels.

I believe being Kurdish is bigger than simply having a flag or a historical geographical presence. Rather, it is taking up a set of values that promote tolerance, freedom of belief, and a sense of resilient optimism towards the future.

My name is Alan and this is my story. This is the story of the youth in my country. This is a story guided by compassion and peace in search of freedom and a country that feels like home – an independent greater Kurdistan with its current borders destroyed, away from war and discrimination.


Learn more about Alan’s photography project, R4Refuge.

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