US–Kurdish Relations

Who are the Kurds, and why are they in Nashville?

Nashville Kurds

The following article was originally published in the Tennessean.

They are biologists, professors, lawyers and grocers. The man helping from behind the counter at a T-Mobile store in Green Hills or the mother waiting for her son to board the bus to middle school. They are our neighbors.

Nashville has more Kurdish residents than any other city in the U.S., with a population of about 15,000.

They live mostly in South Nashville, near Little Kurdistan off Elysian Fields Court, where many of them shop for black tea and baklava at Newroz Market or giant stacks of fresh flat bread baked in a brick oven behind Azadi International Food Market.

The Metro Nashville Police Department employs one Kurdish police officer and is training another. And Nawzad Hawrami, who manages the Salahadeen Center — the city’s predominantly Kurdish mosque — serves on Mayor Megan Barry’s New Americans Advisory Council.

They are interested in education, jobs, economic growth and foreign policy.

“We celebrate together, the stores, fresh bread — it feels good to have culture here,” said Mohammad Berwari, a former translator for the U.S. military who came to Nashville because of the Kurdish community here.

Who are Nashville’s Kurds?

► A new life in Nashville: One Kurdish family is making the most of their opportunities here

► The refugee: A Kurdish resident on American amnesia

►  The translator: He worked for the U.S. military and put life on line before moving to Nashville

► The professor: From Kurdish refugee who spoke no English to distinguished TSU faculty

► The ethnobotanist: Kurd on a mission to preserve her culture

Most of those who live in Nashville are from Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, though some are also from the Kurdish region of Iran. They are predominantly Muslim, although there are also Jews, Christians, Yazidis and many who are more secular in practice.

Now, the community is on edge. The U.S. reached a deal with the Iraqi government to accept Iraqi nationals who have been ordered deported from the U.S.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have detained members of the Kurdish community in Nashville, and Barry has written to ICE, raising objections to the tactics agents use in the community. She accused ICE agents of undermining public safety by failing to distinguish themselves from local police.

Life in 2 worlds

Nashville’s Kurds are inextricably linked to communities outside the U.S. even as they embrace Middle Tennessee, a place they began calling home in the 1970s to escape war and hardship in their homelands.

Kurdish immigrants largely arrived in Nashville in three main waves. Initially, it was to escape the first and second Kurdish-Iraqi wars in the 1970s. These residents are the community’s elders.

Then in the 1990s, they arrived as refugees when Saddam Hussein destroyed their villages as part of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds.

And now, Kurdish immigrants are moving to Nashville as the result of the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State, often after working for the U.S. government in some capacity.

The Kurds are widely known for their role in the fight against ISIS. The peshmerga, a military force based in Kurdistan, and other Kurdish forces are U.S. allies and have been spearheading fights against the terrorist group.

This is all partly why when President Donald Trump earlier this year issued an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and shutting down the refugee resettlement program, the American Kurds were among those in the nation with the most to lose.

Some worried they would not be able to visit their families or travel abroad. Others met with lawyers to discuss efforts for family to join them in the U.S.

One family of five was deported back to Iraq partway through their journey to Nashville, even though they had special immigrant visas and had undergone years of scrutiny.

“Every single family in Nashville has a loved one in the Middle East,” said Remziya Suleyman, a longtime advocate who grew up in Nashville and most recently served as the director of congressional and academic affairs for the Kurdistan Regional Government Representation in the U.S.

“There’s not really a disconnect for us.”

The rise and fall of a Nashville gang

But their time in Nashville hasn’t always been easy.

Many of the children of those second-wave immigrants either arrived when they were very young or else were born in Nashville.

A group of young men formed the first Kurdish street gang in the early 2000s. It’s a time many in the Kurdish community still cringe to recall.

“Some of these kids, I remember when they came to this country,” said Kirmanj Gundi, a Tennessee State University professor, who first immigrated to Nashville in the 1970s. “They were models of respect and good behavior.”

Gundi said that at home, families were strict, but at school, kids were picking up bad habits. They became secretive and began getting into trouble.

From at least 2006 to 2012, police identified some 24 Kurdish Pride Gang members whom Metro police ultimately sued, formally declaring them a public nuisance and prohibiting them from meeting in specific public locations in the Paragon Mills area.

While the Metro Gang Unit spent countless hours on the case, identifying people associated with the gang and fostering relationships with the Kurds, the Nashville criminal justice system didn’t dismantle the gang alone.

“The community stepped in and said, ‘This is not who we are,’ ” Suleyman said.

The Kurdish community worked to become more involved at school and to develop a relationship with police, she said.

The Salahadeen Center hosted officers who taught families what signs to look for that might indicate their kids were in trouble, Hawrami said. He personally spoke to the young men several times.

“This is a country of opportunity,” he said. “We explained to them that instead of bad things, we can do great things.”

Little Kurdistan

In early December, Hawrami stood at his desk in the mosque office, undoing the end of a roll of packaging tape to fasten a notice onto a collection box. Afternoon prayer was about to begin, and the Salahadeen Center was raising money for the Sevier County wildfire victims in East Tennessee.

“A country is like a body; when one limb hurts, we feel it,” he said. “As a community, we have to help.”

Kurdish leaders emphasize integration, but also stress the importance of taking care of one another just as neighborhoods, villages and families do in Iraq and other parts of the world.

“We have to keep that unity wherever we go,” Hawrami said.

Though Nashville has long been a welcoming home to the Kurds, several members of the community reported a noticeable difference across the Davidson County line, especially for those Kurdish women who both practice Islam and choose to wear a hijab.

Little Kurdistan provides the community with a place to feel safe and unremarkable.

The markets import brands from abroad so people can buy food that tastes like home. It acts as both a gathering place for the existing community and a buffer against the culture shock newcomers suffer as it draws more Kurdish immigrants to reunite with family and friends in Middle Tennessee.

“Nashville, you know, is the best,” Hawrami said. “We are here to stay.”

Tennessee State University professor Kirmanj Gundi speaks about his journey to the U.S. Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean

A nation without a state

Why don’t the Kurds have their own nation?

After World War I, the Kurds were divided by the newly formed borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, despite having been promised their own nation.

“The Allies got together and drew up the map to favor themselves,” said Michael Gunter, a scholar on Kurdish culture and history and a political science professor at Tennessee Tech University. “You can always tell the borders are artificial when they are straight lines.”

What about Kurdistan?

Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. It has its own government and police but is still under Iraqi control. The region doesn’t encompass the total area historically inhabited by the Kurdish people. 

Today, they are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own sovereign state, according to the Foreign Policy Journal.

How many live in the U.S.?

Gunter estimated there are about 40,000 Kurds in the U.S., a small fraction of the approximate 30 million Kurdish people living in more than 50 countries around the world. Germany, for example, counts at least 600,000, according to the Fondation Institut Kurde de Paris.

And what about Nashville?

Nashville has the largest Kurdish community in the U.S. with about 15,000 residents.

When did they begin arriving in Middle Tennessee?

Three main waves immigrated to Nashville, though many Kurdish-Americans have been born here. The first wave began in the 1970s to study and to escape the first and second Kurdish-Iraqi wars. 

The second wave arrived in the 1990s as refugees when Saddam Hussein destroyed their villages as part of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds. Some 2,000 villages were destroyed and tens of thousands of non-combatant Iraqi Kurds were killed in the campaign between 1987 and 1989, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. 

As many as 5,000 civilians were killed with chemical weapons in just one incident known as the Halabja Massacre, or Bloody Friday, according to a Human Rights Watch report. 

The third and most recent wave has been moving to Nashville as the result of the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State, often after working for the U.S. government in some capacity. Those who provide translation services for the military are often promised special immigrant visas, especially when threats are made on their lives and the lives of their families as a direct result of that work. They are typically college educated or highly skilled. 

This article was originally published in the Tennessean.

Leave a Comment