All Over the Map: American immigrant stories in unexpected places
NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Kasar Abdulla announced the news to her parents early in her college career: She was changing majors. Biology was out, and with it, a future as a doctor.
Gone were the parental dreams of a doctor’s paycheck and a profession that requires no explanation to friends and family. Instead, she chose sociology. The study of society.
At that point in her late teens, Kasar had lived in four distinct communities: the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq; a refugee camp in Turkey; a city in North Dakota; and, finally, Nashville, Tennessee. She needed to understand what had happened along the way, from violence to displacement to a new normal in the U.S. Sociology helped her make sense of it all.
“I was just more drawn into asking questions,” says Kasar, sitting in the cafeteria of a charter school where she now works as director of family engagement. “I had to come back and really explain to my community what I'm doing is really right, and it is important.”
The early years
Tennessee’s rolling green hills and climate—where fig trees and pomegranates could grow—felt like Kurdistan.
“We didn't choose to leave our home [in Iraqi Kurdistan]. We were sort of driven out. But we really did choose to come to Tennessee,” says Kasar, the youngest of nine children.
“It’s an agriculture state,” she explains. “It reminds us of home.”
The early years for her family, like for many refugee Kurds resettled in the U.S., were about surviving, when all you could bring from your old life needed to fit in a suitcase. Finding work. Getting the kids into school. Learning English. Repaying the government for the plane tickets from refugee camps. Then saving money for months or years to move the family to Nashville, where a growing Kurdish community was deepening its roots.
"We Kurds live as a tribe,” explains Salah Osman, the imam at the local Kurdish mosque. “We have that strong relationship... it's magnetic."
Like most refugees to the U.S., the Kurds were scattered across the country when they first arrived. Kasar’s family moved 1,100 miles southeast from Fargo, North Dakota, in 1996, in time for her to start high school in Nashville. There, like other refugees and undocumented immigrants, she had to figure out her place in a vibrant neighborhood at the southern end of this southern Bible Belt city with a booming foreign-born population.
Fleeing toward a new home
There are an estimated 35 million Kurds - predominantly Sunni Muslim, and mostly in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. A non-Arab ethnic minority with a separate language and cultural distinctions, they have repeatedly been the target of state violence. Iraq's Saddam Hussein was particularly brutal, unleashing chemical weapons that killed thousands of civilians at Halabja in 1988.
When the status quo became unbearable, when the violence got to be too much, millions of Kurds fled the region, resettling largely in Europe and the U.S., leaving behind families, homes, and the unfulfilled promises of a separate Kurdish nation.
“Pretty much all of the Kurds… have been through a lot before they came here,” says Tennessee State University professor Kirmanj Gundi, whose family was among the first wave of Kurds to be resettled in Nashville in the 1970s.
Tabeer Taabur, 30, secretary of the Tennessee Kurdish Community Council in Nashville, says the trauma gets passed down through generations of Kurds. He says he reassures his four children, “We live here. You're safe. There's nothing to worry about.” Although they were born in the U.S., he says his 4-year-old son sometimes asks to play peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters now battling Islamic State.
“We call here home,” Tabeer of Nashville, “but still have relatives in Kurdistan. We know people on the front line fighting the enemy.”
Building "Little Kurdistan"
Nolensville Pike arches like a bent bicycle spoke from the city center. If you’re cresting a hill on the drive south from the city center, Nashville’s skyline in your rearview mirror, you could stop off for a home-style flounder meal for $4.99 at Captain D's; but if you drive a little farther, approaching what is now embraced as Little Kurdistan, you can stop into Erbil Kabob. Or House of Kabob, Dunya Kabob, or Shish Kabob. If not, there’s Grassmere Grill & Kabob. The Kurdish community has assured that Nashville does not lack grilled meats.
As part of the federal government’s refugee program, Catholic Charities resettled a few Kurdish families in Nashville in the mid- to late-1970s. From there, momentum built in the state capital known for its music industry. Several waves of Kurdish refugees – mostly Iraqis – arrived through the 1990s. Now, about 15,000 of Nashville’s 634,000 residents are Kurds, comprising the largest Kurdish community in the country. A lot of Kurds who don’t live in Tennessee wish that they did.
“Kurds [are] coming from out of state just because we have everything here,” says Tabeer.
A constant flow of cars passes by the salons, bridal stores, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, and a hibachi grill with a “supreme buffet” along Nolensville Pike. The main mosque for the Kurdish community is across the multi-lane road from a gas station-turned-taco-and-seafood stand, at the intersection of Elysian Fields Road. In a multi-ethnic neighborhood strip mall, Kurd-owned grocers flank the Salahadeen Center behind a used car dealer that advertises in Spanish. Kurdish family homes line the Nolensville backstreets; though now, families are heading a bit farther south every year as they can afford bigger homes in quieter neighborhoods.
“This is my community. This is the community that raised me,” says Drost Kokoye from inside Salahadeen Center, in between the Friday prayer service in Kurdish and the one immediately after in English.
On a Friday afternoon in May, she is standing at a folding table in the front of the mosque to sign up a few more voters as the men file out from prayers, dropping their shoes to the ground with a clack, putting them on and shuffling off to work again. At the end of an hour, seven people have registered. But she’s done it so many times, a low number doesn’t bother her; that just means most of the eligible voters here have been reached.
“We’re in the center that I learned my Arabic alphabet, my Kurdish alphabet, along with having parent-teacher conferences and taking ACT courses,” says Drost, 25. “This is home, and building from home is where power starts.”
“Our parents’ generations were the ones that had to put down the structure and make ends meet, and put down these institutions that we have now. And we’re the ones that are growing on that,” she explains. “We’re more aware of the culture around us. We can kind of assimilate much more, but that means we can keep authentic to our Kurdish roots and bring that into the limelight as a positive, and not something that we need to walk away from.”
The media, pundits, experts and think tanks all talk about immigrant and refugee integration or assimilation. The framework around it makes the process like unlocking video game levels. The government measures it by job and education attainment, and English language acquisition. There isn’t really a measure for it though. No federal employee can account for the family divide between Drost’s mother, who cranks the radio to a country music station in her pick-up truck, and her three adult children, who choose hip-hop and rhythm and blues (R&B) and tease her over a dinner of stuffed grape leaves, grown in their Nashville backyard.
Drost, a law school student, plans to be a civil rights attorney. The way she sees it, she can tackle the social justice issues she cares about and, at the same time, make her parents proud of the work they put into raising her and her two siblings, from Iraqi Kurdistan, to Nashville.
“Advocacy from outside groups can go so far. But it really takes away the agency of the community itself,” she says. Kurdish-Americans need to participate civically to be heard, she says, and voting is a way to “take back the voice for ourselves.”
“We don’t have to look to somebody else to do that."
On a Tuesday afternoon in May, Drost runs into Shirzad Tayyar in a Nolensville Pike coffee shop as he’s meeting with another community organizer—a non Kurd.
Shirzad’s most recent triumph—in a series of jobs that keep him busy long past an eight-hour shift—is a tour of Little Kurdistan. Over several weekends, he took hundreds of tour participants to the mosque and to buy Kurdish bread, with "no real goal other than to show people the culture and what I know of it." He joked with them that, no, Kurds don’t have arranged marriages. "But we do make recommendations," he repeats, deadpan.
He and Drost are explaining to the organizer how the Kurdish community works, who the key decision-makers are, and how the board at the mosque is structured.
Shirzad is also headed to law school in the next few years. Like Drost, he says he plans to come back to Nashville after. Maybe get involved in politics. Drost tells him if he's eyeing a campaign down the line, he's got to get more involved at the mosque. They talk about how to do that when the average age of board members skews towards their parents’ generation.
In walks Mohamed-Shukri Hassan — Shuk to his friends like Drost — a towering young Somali-American known as a behind-the-scenes guy who helped the current Nashville mayor’s successful campaign and organized city taxi drivers.
“The cool thing about Nashville is the two [immigrant] communities that actually have a lot of voters [who] actually vote are the Somalis and the Kurdish community,” says Mohamed-Shukri.
Republican candidate Donald Trump - with his digs at Mexicans, women, immigrants and Muslims - has put a new face on some of the ideas they’ve been rallying against for years.
“Trump has a long list of people he went after,” Mohamed-Shukri says, explaining that it's "activated a lot of reaction” in both the Kurdish and Somali communities.
Mobilizing for Social Justice
If there was an "aha moment" for young activists across religions, ethnicities and citizenship status to unite in Nashville, it arrived with a series of proposed laws taking aim at the immigrant and Muslim communities. These included the anti-Sharia bill that would have criminalized parts of practicing Islam, English-only bills at the local and state levels, opposition to a mosque being built in nearby Murfreesboro, and the federal 287g immigration law enforcement program.
Community organizers pushed voter registration at their mosques on Fridays, spoke up in the media against the proposals, and urged community members to show up on election days. Sometimes it was as simple as convincing family that voting was important. When families are large and extended like among the Kurds, the effect multiplies quickly.
“We mobilized,” says Kasar. “The unique thing about Kurdish communities is they are passionate about being politically engaged.”
The Kurds in Nashville have slowly, over a generation, built up their resources communally, focusing on their Islamic center but slowly reaching into public service and civil society. They have worked hard alongside the city’s institutions—the schools and the police department and the mayor’s office—to be helpful and active, even when the only two anti-Muslim hate groups in Tennessee, as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, are in Nashville.
“We've passed that step to just look at ourselves as a Kurdish community. We're still a Kurdish community, but we're part of the Nashvillian community also,” says Salah Osman, the imam at Salahadeen Center. “I think especially the new generation; they start to understand that.”
Drost and Kasar are in that generation. They’ve worked together for years to ensure the neighborhood and its residents have a voice.
“It’s a reflection of the history of the Kurdish community even back home, where because we have never had our own[state], we have always had to go the extra mile to be heard. It’s nothing new for us to be in the margins,” says Drost.
They don't have it all figured out. There have been problems, and there are ongoing worries. They had a gang issue for a while that by all accounts has ended. They’ve had some teen runaways. In April, for the first time in anyone’s memory, one Kurdish teen fatally shot another.
The imam and other community leaders are pragmatic when something like the shooting happens. They collectively ask, “Is there a bigger problem? What can we do? How can we avoid this happening ever, ever again?” There’s a social committee at the mosque to intervene in crises; it's a traditional Kurdish system of active community members generally in their 40s and 50s, who provide counseling and advice, first to tackle problems internally but who reach out to the police, schools or local government when necessary. A Kurdish practice, refashioned to function in an American legal system.
“We try to educate our members that we are in this community. I say it from my heart that... [the rights] we have in this country, we didn't have it back home,” the imam says. “All the Americans, if you go back 200, 300 years, each one came from a different society but now they are American. And [over] time, we will be the same. We have to give as we take.”
A path to politics
Religion, family and civic engagement—they all require a simple plan for these young Kurds: Show up, and do the work. At the mosque to teach Sunday school. At the police station for work. At home for dinner with your parents and siblings whenever you can. At board meetings for non-profit organizations. At voting booths for elections, from school board to U.S. president. For your community in all its iterations: as Kurdish-Americans, as Muslims, as immigrants, and as Nashvillians in a city of foreign-born and U.S.-born, white and black, Hispanic and South Asian and East Asian and Arab and African and Kurd.
“At the beginning, I remember sometimes just getting really discouraged ... just the sheer numbers. We are a minority within a minority - can we really be impactful?” asks Kasar. “But over the 15 years, I've seen such a huge impact.”
In that time, she helped found the American Muslim Advisory Council, and also worked with the American Center for Outreach and TIRRC, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. The organizations bridge Muslim and foreign-born communities with the rest of Nashville, and advocate for minority rights.
“It's one of the more remarkable things I learned running for state Senate was about this community and what they were doing to organize,” says Jeff Yarbro, a legislator who represents the Nolensville Pike area. “It was sort of remarkable how intentional they are in their approach to politics.”
“Our elected officials actually know and recognize the Kurdish community,” explains Kasar. “So they're much more aware of their decision-making and the implications they have on the Kurdish community. And, on the other hand, the Kurdish community became much more empowered to be part of a system.”
There hasn’t been a Kurdish elected official yet. In 2014, Mwafaq Aljabbary—an Iraqi Kurd who resettled in Nashville in the 1990s—ran for the state legislature on the Republican ticket and lost, receiving only 346 votes out of nearly 5,000. The imam says many community members advised him against candidacy; although culturally conservative, mosque leaders believe the majority of the Kurdish community skews Democrat.
What the future sounds like
There is a balance of what you keep and what falls away; you are both present and past tense; the culture your family came with and this moment when a community is forming elsewhere, like Nashville. Each person, and the community as a whole, has to choose: What do we hang on to? What do we value most?
“You can’t pick and choose,” says Jiyayi Suleyman, the first Kurdish-American to join the Nashville Police Department. He's got a thick Southern accent and no plans to ever leave Nashville, where he's raising two young children with his wife. “I’m Kurdish, I’m born there. Got strong roots back there. But also, Tennessee is my home. You’ve gotta support the country who supported you. So I’m Tennessean-Kurdish-American.
There isn’t much data on the Kurdish population in Nashville. Some families are still struggling. Others are just arriving. But the Kurds feel they are doing well overall. And non-Kurds in places like the mayor’s office agree.
“They are a great example,” says Vanessa Lazon, director of community inclusion for the Nashville Mayor’s Office of New Americans. The city’s Kurdish residents “are not afraid. They’re not disenfranchised. [They] know very much they have these rights and responsibilities.”
For Drost, that means holding herself and her community accountable. When police killed two black men a day apart in July, in separate shootings far from Nashville, amid national ongoing tension over the disproportionate use of force against minorities, she took to her Facebook account to draw people to rallies in several Tennessee cities over the coming week.
“Black people are under attack. Nonblack people need to speak up and stand up to these attacks,” she wrote on July 7. “Here's your call to join that stance.”
“This call is especially to Tennessee Muslims,” she added, “and then everyone else.”