Interviews Stories from Kurdistan

Cultivating Support for Kurdistan in D.C. and Beyond

Rebeen Pasha, moderating panel on Kurdistan

The Kurdish Project recently sat down with Rebeen Pasha, co-founder and chair of American Friends of Kurdistan, and a Kurd born in Iraq. We spoke with Rebeen about the future of youth in Kurdistan, the economic outlook of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and his efforts to bridge the relationship between Americans and Kurdistanis.

Comments reflect only the opinion of Rebeen Pasha, and do not reflect Johns Hopkins University SAIS or CTR

Cultivating Support for Kurdistan in D.C. and Beyond:

An interview with Rebeen Pasha

The Kurdish Project: Tell us about the project that you introduced this week at the event “Kurdistan – Re-Inventing Itself” and the panel held at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.?

Rebeen Pasha: It is a project that the Mediterranean Basin initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS at Johns Hopkins University launched to work on youth engagement and conflict resolution, promotion of economic partnerships, and overall support for people of Kurdistan.

For us, we see a lot of promise in Kurdistan, for its own people, but we recognize that there must be investment to bolster tomorrow’s leaders—in governance, civil society, and private sector. Leadership development is the only way, internally at least, that you will see a grassroots shift from crises that Kurdistan is currently experiencing to a brighter future.

The spirit of entrepreneurship is critical to reinspire hope, connect people from all backgrounds to work together, and give them the tools and skills to start their own business or be better at doing business. And I’m proud to join the Mediterranean Basin Initiative as a WYLN Senior Fellow to spearhead this new project.

TKP: Who attended the panel at SAIS to help you launch the project?

RP: We were honored to host distinguished guests from Kurdistan at SAIS to speak about the nexus of challenges facing Kurdistan from a political and civil society perspective. We had a rich conversation about the role of civil society, Kurdistan’s needs, and discussion of windows of opportunities.

Rebeen Pasha speaks with Hewrin Hawrami and Abdul Salam Medeni.

Rebeen Pasha speaks with Hewrin Hawrami and Abdul Salam Medeni.

Wednesday’s panel, was an all-Kurdish panel, with representatives from political parties, civil society, and if you count me in the mix, the diaspora as well. The list of speakers and panelists included:

  • Mr. Hemin Hawrami, the Head of Foreign Relations Office for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, delivered the keynote address.
  • Mr. Abdul Salam Medeni, Executive Director of the Rwanga Foundation, joined us in our conversation representing one of the largest civil society organizations in Kurdistan dedicated to education.
  • Dr. Sasha Toperich, director of the Mediterranean Basin initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. — and a long-time friend of Kurdistan — opened the event.

We were originally scheduled to be joined by the Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Qubad Talabani as the Distinguished Keynote speaker, but he has been quite busy with economic reform priorities, and we wish him and Kurdistan success. We were also scheduled to be joined by Mr. Awat Mustafa, Head of Projects at the Barzani Family Foundation.

TKP: Speaking of the diaspora, you are the founder and chair of newly formed non-for-profit organization “American Friends of Kurdistan.” Can you tell us more about it?

RP: American Friends of Kurdistan ( is a new organization I co-founded with Lionel Johnson, a friend of Kurdistan, business executive, and former VP for Middle East and Turkey at the US Chamber of Commerce.

We aim to promote specifically what we at the SAIS event hoped to achieve – to facilitate dialogue and forums to strengthen learning, collaboration, and exchange between Kurds and Americans, and create a long-lasting people-to-people friendship that is in the best interests of both US and Kurdistan.

Friends of Kurdistan Logo

Friends of Kurdistan Logo

Kurdistan has been and remains, in many ways, the United States’ most reliable friend and partner in the region. And Kurdistan’s sustainable development and success is critical not only for its own citizens, but the region’s stability, and global security.

We already went on a business delegation to Kurdistan in December, representing American Friends of Kurdistan. The trip was headed by the U.S.-Kurdistan Business Council.

TKP: You grew up in Kurdistan, and have quite the personal story. And then you worked with UN in Iraq and USAID Middle East Bureau as Senior Advisor. Can you tell us more about this journey? And how you see Kurdistan today?

RP: I was indeed born and raised in Kurdistan. I came to the US as a refugee after my father was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

As you can imagine, growing up in Kurdistan, and through many wars, defined my life and passion and wanting to rebuild Kurdistan and work in international development.

Rebeen Pasha speaks at an event about Kurdistan reinventing itself at Johns Hopkins SAIS

Promoting youth leadership and entrepreneurship is the top priority list of my (our) activities in supporting Kurdistan.

And I’m also a proud American, and I believe the ability to bridge cultures and share best practices is critical, especially for Americans in a globalized world. I spent over a decade in international development, systems and management capacity building, throughout the world with NGOs, private sector, US Government, and also went back with the United Nations for two years in Iraq working on local development and the UN Development Assistance Framework.

I was at USAID Middle East Bureau when ISIS took over Mosul and threatened Erbil —though thankfully no advances or threat actually manifested itself into KRG, and the international community has been supporting that fight since. But it occurred to me — at that moment — that the time was now to do something different to help build security and the future, not just for Kurdistan’s sake, but the whole region as well.

After brainstorming and planning with experts in the region and globally, entrepreneurs, business and government leaders, I launched the Middle East Young Entrepreneurs’ Dreams (, to inspire youth and build a new generation of entrepreneurs.

The program has a three-dimensional approach of providing a new vision of “dreaming entrepreneurially” for younger generation, creating supportive networks and linking people with each and resources, and developing the best entrepreneurs as well as providing skills needed for the economy, because not everyone wants to form their own small or medium enterprise, but they may need the skills to be part of a team to work for one, or a corporation.

This is the future of Kurdistan and the whole region. Today’s youth are yearning to be a part of the economy, and we should all nurture that. I’ve met a lot of innovators and entrepreneurs — recently at a lecture and discussion I led at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani for Global Entrepreneurship Week — and there are so many opportunities to harness that there and elsewhere in Erbil, Dohuk, Kirkuk, Halabja and throughout the region, and for the displaced population from rest of Iraq and Syria, and provide them and host communities opportunities and bridges to both work and live together.

That’s why I think now is the critical time to invest in Kurdistan and the region, and specifically youth and economic and leadership development. The place is an oasis of stability, and a nascent growing democracy, but it needs help to assist in building institutions, create partnerships with private sector and civil society, and expand global networks and connections, and to equip them with the skills to build stronger civil society and public institutions, more responsive governance, and strong and responsible private sector so that people in the region are ready for the next phase after ISIS.

That’s an investment in regional stability and strengthening the economy of the entire region.

TKP: How would you make the case for focusing on youth and private sector in Kurdistan now, given everything else going on?

RP: Kurdistan, not unlike the rest of Iraq and the Middle East, has a large youth subset of the population, almost 2/3rds in fact, under the age of 30. Many of them don’t have jobs, or are graduating with skills that are not a match for the job market.

Another issue is that the majority of employment currently is in the public sector, which including teachers and the Peshmerga, is around 1.4 million employees, in a region of under 6 million people. Compare this to the U.S., which slightly more than twice that figure in civil service, and a population 50 times of Kurdistan.

According to the KRG Ministry of Planning, about one million youth will enter the workforce by 2020. This is alarming if there’s no jobs for them or if they are relying on employment in the public sector.

Economic reform, and diversification of the economy, and youth have already been stressed — this past week in fact — by both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister of KRG and the people as urgent priorities for Kurdistan. I’m glad this has finally gotten the attention of KRG and many others in the development circles: the public sector employment is neither economically sound nor sustainable. The system needs to be improved, regardless of political, security, and geopolitical factors.

Rebeen Pasha, Hewrin Hawrami, and Abdul Salam Medeni at Johns Hopkins SAIS

Rebeen Pasha, Hewrin Hawrami, and Abdul Salam Medeni at Johns Hopkins SAIS

But in addition to the recent political will and window of opportunity to strengthen Kurdistan, there are three reasons for investing in youth engagement in the economy.

First, you have a huge untapped potential of skilled labor force that can grow the private sector, the economy, and contribute to global commerce. It will be absolutely critical to invest in the skilled workforce now so that the private sector can grow, and by that I mean both local small and medium enterprises as well as foreign businesses working in the region. Both of them need skilled workforce, and both can provide solutions and economic growth.

Secondly, creating equitable opportunities for employment in the private sector will be essential economic growth and a backbone of rebuilding a nation and promoting reconciliation, democracy, and advancing human rights.

Last but not least, there is a critical element of stability in this equation, and an opportunity for Kurdistan to also turn youth disenfranchisement around, and prevent the despair that that can lead to destabilization, migration, and potentially violent extremism — no place is immune from that threat, unfortunately.

I know there are a lot of urgent crises on the table, but we must also plan strategically, not just for Kurdistan’s future, but also to harness windows of opportunity in Kurdistan to provide better space for democracy, inclusive economic growth that creates a stronger middle class and gives equal opportunity to women and girls, and peacebuilding within the whole region.

TKP: Thank you for your time, Rebeen!

RP: Thank you!

Learn more about American Friends of Kurdistan here.

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