The Kurdish Project sat down with Kawa Onatli, founder of Egerin, a Kurdish-language search engine. Mr. Onatli spoke his background and his work providing Kurdish-language resources online.
The Kurdish Project: Thanks for sitting down to speak with us! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Kawa Onatli: My name is Kawa Onatli and I am 38 years old. I was born in a city called Batman, which is in the Kurdish region in Turkey, also known to Kurds as ‘Bakur’, which means ‘Northern Kurdistan’.
I moved to Sweden with my family when I was nine years old. My father was involved in the Kurdish political movement in the late 70’s and beginning of the 80’s. Because of that he was in prison for one year and when he came out he was judged again for 12 years of imprisonment so we had to flee from Turkey.
I received my master’s degree in business and administration (MBA) from Umeå University here in Sweden 2003, and in 2006 I got interested in working with technology and computers, so I took online courses in computer science. I am married and have two sons which takes up much of my free time.
TKP: What do you do for work, and can you explain your company, Egerin, to our mainly American audience?
KO: After my MBA degree, I started to work as a business controller at Stockholm railroads but soon realized that I was more of an entrepreneur than an employer so after one year I quit my job and started a bookkeeping business.
I spent a few years developing it to the point it ran itself, turning it into a near-passive income stream, which it remains today. I love starting up new projects and products, so since 2006 I have been working as a consultant where I help businesses and people to creating new business and products and taking them to the market.
I founded Egerin in 2014 with the intent of benefitting my nation. The global Kurdish population of 40 million has rising levels of internet access and increasing amounts of Kurdish content, but even though the content exists, it still difficult for Kurds to find the content they want in their own language.
The Kurdish content dispersed across the web been ignored by, and is likely to remain ignored by, the major search engines and other major web services.
Egerin.com is a Kurdish tech startup filling this gap by providing a Kurdish language web search engine, including general web search, news search and aggregator, and so on to organize Kurdish information that exists online but offer as well other online services in Kurdish.
Egerin is on the cusp of changing millions of lives because it is the only site offering quality internet services to Kurds. Egerin is a true gift to Kurds all around the world.
Egerin levels the playing field for the Kurdish culture and opens the door to new opportunities. We have a duty and a responsibility to preserve and enhance future opportunities and the quality of life for all cultures.
TKP: How does Egerin benefit the Kurds?
KO: The benefits are many. Firstly, Egerin is more than just an opportunistic first mover into the Kurdish market: we are deeply committed to improving the lives of the Kurdish community by helping people find information and educational and cultural resources that will help individuals and contribute to the preservation and development of Kurdish language and culture. It will be the heart of the Kurdish internet.
Until I founded Egerin, Kurds had limited internet access in their own language. The need for Egerin is relevant and stable. Current statistics show that the growth rate for Kurds is stable. The interesting caveat to this fact is that the Kurdish population in Turkey is growing more rapidly than the rest of the culture. Egerin opens up a myriad of opportunities that wasn’t present before for this group to learn, expand and excel in the next generation.
Opportunities for Kurds in Kurdistan encompass many sectors, including oil, gas, electricity, agricultural and service industries. The Kurdistan Regional Government has made efforts to promote foreign ventures for Kurds. Increased internet access profoundly enhances these ventures. At the same time, improved internet access broadens the scope of new methods of income and investment.
Right now, because Kurds have little access to the world’s information superhighway, they don’t play a significant role in the market share of current products other cultures are utilizing every day.
As Egerin expands, the market share will vastly increase and provide Kurds with more education, training and products to increase their quality of life.
Initially, by being introduced to the internet marketing world, Kurds will assimilate slowly as there will be a steep learning curve. However, as Egerin grows, and Kurds adjust, the window of opportunity will vastly multiply. As Egerin establishes itself, it will inspire many young Kurds to get into the technology field and start their own tech start-ups. Egerin will also be able to provide many jobs in the future for many talented and ambitious Kurds.
TKP: Can Americans use Egerin or is it only for Kurds?
KO: Our main focus is on Kurds and the Kurdish Language and our own search engine is built to index content in the Kurdish Language only, but many Kurds use and speak other languages too and we want them to be able to use Egerin to search for everything.
We don’t have the money and resources right now to be able to index the hole web so we are partnering with Bing to get results for queries in English and other languages. So yes, Americans can use Egerin for searching. We also have other services that Americans can use. We have a news search engine and aggregator were we also crawl and aggregate news around the web about Kurds in the English language.
We also have a Kurdish – English dictionary and soon we will release two new services that will also be in English. A local search and discovery service where you will be able to search and find Kurdish businesses and places in Kurdistan and around the world. And a books search service, where you can find Kurdish books, and books about Kurds in other languages.
TKP: How is the internet and the digital age benefiting and bringing Kurds together?
KO: I think the internet has benefited Kurds a lot. For Kurds the Internet is a very inexpensive and extremely useful means for communication and organizing amongst themselves as well as informing others of the Kurdish issue.
Before the Internet, it was impossible before to know what was happening in the Kurdish parts of the world, and to get news that was reliable. Now with the internet and social media that has changed.
The internet has, in a way, become as a home for the world’s largest stateless nation.
Here Kurds can unite, discuss, communicate with other parts of Kurdistan and speak in their own language freely and get news that was being censured and not shown. The openness of the internet has eliminated the borders that have being built between the Kurds. That is the reason we’re talking with investors, because it such an important piece of keeping the Kurdish people connected and with Egerin we want to take this to another level.
TKP: Besides existential threats like ISIS, what challenges do Kurds face in terms of nationalism or unity?
I think the challenges Kurds face when it comes to unity is mostly internal challenges. There are different Kurdish societies because Kurds have been divided between four countries with no tolerance for expressions of national autonomy within their borders. These societies are filled with differences of politics and ideology, social class and dialect.
TKP: Why are you proud to be Kurdish?
I am proud of being Kurdish because Kurds never give up from wanting our rights and Kurds stand for justice and freedom and fight fearlessly for that.
TKP: What is one thing that people should know about the Kurds?
KO: One of the most identifiable characteristics of Kurdish society is hospitability and warm greetings and the Kurdish culture has a longstanding history of being a self-disciplined, hardworking culture. I think if Kurds have access to the right tools and resources they can achieve great things.
TKP: Can you tell us about the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden?
KO: There are 80,000 to 100,000 Kurds living in Sweden. Most of them are from the Kurdish regions in Turkey. You can also say that Sweden is the home of Kurdish language and literature. The highest level of Kurdish literary production can be found in Sweden and the Kurdish language was developed mostly through the effort of Kurdish writers and translators living in Sweden. Another thing is that the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden is very organized and while they have integrated well in the Swedish society they haven’t abandon their Kurdish identity.
TKP: What should foreign governments do to help the Kurds?
KO: I think that the foreign governments can do a lot and have a lot of influence over Turkey, Iraq and also Syria but they are still ignoring the Kurds and doesn’t fully support the Kurds in their fight for justice and equal rights. This doesn’t have to be military but they can force these countries to peace talks and to sit down and give what is there rights.
TKP: What can individuals do to help the Kurds?
KO: The first thing is that they could show solidarity with Kurds and really volunteer in Kurdish regions or just visit the Kurdish regions to know the Kurds and listen to them and understand the problems they have. I think also individuals and businessmen should invest in Kurdish businesses. It would be a win-win situation. The Kurdish people are a very hard working, ambitious and innovative people which would gain the investors and for the Kurds it would be an economic lift and diversity. Economy and business is one the biggest cornerstones in lifting a nation. With stronger Kurdish businesses I think the Kurdish situation can be on a whole new and better level.[To learn more about Egerin, visit the search engine here]