The story below was submitted to The Kurdish Project by Gary Kent, the Director in the British Parliament of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Gary Kent has visited Kurdistan and Iraq over twenty times since 2006, and writes on Kurdish issues.
The Story of Salah and Andy
by Gary Kent
Diplomacy and international relations are made by people and not just states. The force of this was impressed on me on a trade mission to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region with a guy called Andy Parkinson. He was trying to win contracts for high-quality and counterfeit-proof paper for degree certificates and ballot forms. But it was much more than a commercial proposition — it was deeply personal.
The story behind Andy’s trip to Kurdistan started in a secondary school in the commuter suburb of Orpington near London in the 1970s. In Andy’s words, “I was bottom of the pecking order and often bullied. But at the start of my fourth year, a new boy arrived on the scene. No one knew where he was from – some said Iran and others said Iraq. He was wiry and strong but was immediately picked on by the bullies. Salah soon showed he could defend himself without becoming a bully himself. He obviously knew how to handle himself judging by the scars on his hands and he became my best friend. Being his friend meant I didn’t get bullied and I now realise that his friendship allowed me to meet my potential at school.”
Salah Rahman and Andy Parkinson
They spent many hours in Salah’s large basement bedroom and Andy gradually discovered his exotic life story. His name was Salah Rahman from Iraqi Kurdistan. He briefly met his father, Sami Abdul Rahman but didn’t then know that he had been a Kurdish Minister in the Iraqi government before Saddam turned on the Kurds in 1975 and the family fled to the mountains. Or that Sami was a renowned Peshmerga leader before becoming Deputy Prime Minister after the liberation of Iraq in 2003.
The family lived in Iran before seeking asylum in Britain. Salah’s mother, Fawzia, who was learning English, “tested my teenage grammar to extremes by asking not just for the correct answer but also why.”
Salah made a massive impact on Andy, who says “Salah was a wonderful friend. I learned so much from him about Kurdish cooking and culture, we laughed a lot and he changed my life completely. I cannot as a result stand how the lives and experiences of asylum seekers are so commonly ignored. I know from him about the sadness of exile and that those who settle here become great friends of the UK.”
But they lost touch as work took Andy to different parts of the country, and when Andy tried to get back in touch with him, he couldn’t find him on social media. Andy Googled Salah’s name and found that he and his father had been killed by an Al Qaeda bomb in the Kurdish capital of Erbil in February 2004.
Andy then made contact with his brother Sirwan and they made the journey to his grave in Duhok, near Mosul. Andy says “It was a moment of closure for a friend I loved and to whom I wish to repay a debt. Spending time with Sirwan reminded me of how charismatic, knowledgeable and honest the whole family is.”
Salah was only in Erbil to see his father and was murdered along with nearly 100 people in two simultaneous bombs. Andy says,
I know Salah and his father would have been great assets to his country, judging by the success of the younger sister and daughter, whom I used to see in the 1970s. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, then FT correspondent in Tokyo, dropped everything and volunteered for public service in Kurdistan. She became the face of Kurdistan in Britain for ten years and now flies the flag for Kurdistan as its Ambassador in America. Salah and the Rahmans had a profound influence on me and I am sure they will continue to be seen as beacons of a decent people who have been given a rotten hand by history but could yet prosper.”
After Andy visited Salah’s grave to pay his respects, he took part in the trade mission and met several ministers to pitch his company’s product. But, he said “my interest is not to take unfair advantage, but to help and I hope my knowledge will be of benefit. I would be great to give something back to the country of my dear and much missed friend. Just as he saved me as a teenager, I want to be able to say that I have honestly helped, in my small way, to rebuild Kurdistan which I know looks to Britain as an ally that has done so much to help Kurds like my friend Salah.”
Gary Kent is the Director in the British Parliament of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, has visited Kurdistan and Iraq over twenty times since 2006, and writes in a personal capacity. The APPG website is at appgkurdistan.org.uk and he tweets @garykent