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VOL. 43 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 18, 2019

Nashville’s Kurds feel betrayed by ‘very good’ America

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Nashville Kurds take to the streets to protest President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria, opening the door for the Turkish invasion to push Kurds out of the region.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

Cevahir Mustafa and her friend, Jameela Khoshaba, welcome the guy with long, white hair who walks up to the driver’s side of their black SUV after they leave Mazi International Market in downtown Little Kurdistan.

Across the world, their relatives and heritage are under violent and murderous attack. They worry. But they also celebrate the city that embraced them as citizens long ago.

“Nashville very good,” says Cevahir, 47, who moved here in 1991 after spending two years in a Turkish refugee camp where she was planted after fleeing Saddam’s murderous intent aimed at her and the rest of Northern Iraq’s gentle Kurds.

“My family here. Mama, three brothers, a sister …” she continues a litany of the many members of her family, direct and extended, who have settled in Nashville after being forced to flee Kurdistan – a country that doesn’t exist, but should, and whose “borders” are inside the so-called “legitimate” boundaries of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“America is very good,” says Jameela, 56, Cevahir’s best friend, as she leans toward me from the passenger seat. “I love Americans. Every people good.”

Jameela and Cevahir co-dissect and interpret my questions in their native Kurdish before responding in somewhat broken, very proud English in a cordial attempt to converse with the American who leans against the open car window. It is interesting how they banter back and forth in their native tongue to compose answers in the language of their adopted and beloved homeland.

Like Cevahir, Jameela took a refugee’s route to get here, arriving in Nashville “Thanksgiving 1995,” giving this friendly pilgrim an extra reason to celebrate that day with her fellow Americans.

The day before this visit to downtown Little Kurdistan, tucked in a multiethnic stretch of Nashville where Elysian Fields rolls downhill and across Nolensville Road, I had been immersed in a smiling and welcoming group of more than 500 other Kurdish Americans – along with several pockets of born in the U.S. patriots sympathetic to their cause – lining more than a block of Broadway.

“Thank you for being here with us,” I had been told more than a dozen times by the demonstrators, some in traditional Kurdish attire, others in Nashville Friday casual office attire, blue scrubs or jeans and T-shirts. Many were cloaked in flags, Kurdish and occasionally Old Glory.

Kurdish flags flew brightly into the gloomy day when the international news was gloomier still. The American president had days before tweeted out his directive that pulled American troops out of the Kurdish section of Syria, basically saying it was OK for the Turkish president to unleash his own version of shock and awe in preparation for ethnic cleansing.

Air, artillery and missile attacks on the Kurdistan section of Syria sent the native people seeking sanctuary out of harm’s way, many fleeing into the mountains.

“No Friends but the Mountains” – an old Kurdish saying that proclaims their always threatened, edge-of-cliff outpost on the world map – was one of the most popular placards among the throng of demonstrators.

Back in the Middle East, many more of their cousins and kin continue to flee what appears to be the outset of another likely genocide – unfortunately the Kurdish tribes have been mortal underdogs too often in history – by going to the Kurdistan section of Northern Iraq.

Ironically, that land where they sought sanctuary was the same one where Saddam’s mustard gas mass murders of Kurds served as one of the reasons the Americans had taken part in the overthrow and eventual broadcast-live-in-our-living rooms execution of Saddam.

Of course, America’s biggest reason for getting rid of old “Sa-Damn,” as the senior Bush called him, was oil, just as it is in most Mideast struggles. But I’m talking about people in this column.

Threatened, starved, gassed and murdered often in the past, the Kurds in Syria became the bull’s-eye of this latest bloodbath after President Trump committed to a business deal with Turkey’s dictator and got the Americans out of the line of fire (and defense of our comrades), and by our absence tacitly allowing the Turkish genocide in Syrian Kurdistan.

This story grabbed headlines and sparked Congressional tut-tutting while the president did his jive-and-chuckle Twitter dance about what actually had happened. On all sides – except for the Kurds, of course – it simply amounts to the old “I don’t want to get involved” excuse people use when ignoring crimes occurring in front of them.

Congressional lip-service is almost as responsible as Trump for what is happening, many Kurdish-Americans told me during the demonstration.

To those of us who call Nashville home, what’s happening is much more than six minutes on the nightly news.

Nashville is home to at least 15,000 Kurds, the largest single population of perhaps the kindest, most-polite and gentle people I’ve had the pleasure to meet over my many years in this city. Approximately 40,000 Kurds live in America, but Nashville is by far the largest concentration, so our neighborhoods are their neighborhoods.

Other than the drunken bachelorettes who passed by the demonstration, most Nashvillians driving past during the four hours I spent with my neighbors at the Estes Kefauver Federal Building honked their horns and hoisted hearty thumbs’-ups to the demonstrators.

And some of the Friday passersby on the highway were Kurds, their flags sticking out of sunroofs and side windows, fists shooting “No. 1” signals to the heavens as they were greeted with cheers from their curbside friends.

One party bus was even overtaken by young Kurds, who wave their flags from the windows and chant their feelings about Trump and about the Turks, but mostly yell words of support for Kurdistan, while Florida Georgia Line, Pistol Annies, Blake and the boys played on the loudspeakers.

There even are a couple of black T-shirts with the most vile and guttural carnal expletive directed at the American president who abandoned their Syrian tribemates.

But surprisingly, most of the chants at the curbside were not directed at the orange-haired fellow who had brokered the business deal with the Turkish president. Instead the chants were of the “Stand by Kurdistan” and “Up with America” variety – for this is their country by choice and for most of them not because they were born here.

“We are scared of Turkish people,” says Mohammed Torabian, 62, who works at a Nashville car dealership. He’s in this crowd with definite purpose, he adds. “We are here to try to ask Congress and Trump to not leave alone the Kurdish people.”

“I’m really upset with (Trump),” adds the native of Iran’s section of Kurdistan. “When he need help, him use Kurdish people to fight ISIS. Now he leaves the Kurdish people alone against ISIS, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and also Russia, which is one of the policymakers for the Turkish government.”

Not all the demonstrators are Kurdish. Nashville house painter Tom Simpson, for example, arrived by bicycle from his Green Hills home to show his support. “I made friends with the Kurds by eating at their great ethnic restaurants in South Nashville,” he explains his loyalties.

“I’m disappointed in Donald Trump. He has turned his back on the Kurdish,” he says. “They are our allies.”

When I ask if he supported Trump in the 2016 elections, he tries to shrug it off. “I am a hard-core libertarian,” he says. “If I did vote for him, I wouldn’t admit it. I wish you hadn’t asked me.”

The day before the rally, I befriended Silav Ibrahim, 32, who has spent the last six years working in humanitarian aid in Kurdistan.

“I don’t know what to say,” this beautiful soul tells me. “I do feel betrayed, like every other Kurd. Every Kurd has the right to feel betrayed.

“I am really sad,” says this young woman who has called Nashville home since she was 4, after her family fled the wrath of Saddam.

“Kurds are very fond of America,” she says. “They see America as an ally and a friend. The Kurdish people sacrificed and put their lives on the line for America.”

She – like many of the Kurds I spoke with at the rally, as well as the next day in Little Kurdistan – points to the fact that the people who feel so abandoned now were the main allies of America in the cornering and defeating of ISIS in Northern Syria.

Those same Kurds now are forced to leave their posts guarding the 11,000 ISIS prisoners in order to save their families. The threat of ISIS fighters being set free has been shrugged off by Trump, basically saying that is more something Europe should worry about.

By the first of this week, news footage showed ISIS prisoners fleeing unguarded captivity and disappearing into the desert, where they likely will reload their twisted terror plans.

Silav tells me that on the first day of attacks by Turkey, she had been on the phone with one of her friends who had fled Syria and made it to the Iraqi border.

Silav Ibrahim, center, one of the rally organizers, tries to make sure the demonstrators do not block traffic during the rally Oct. 11 in front of the Estes Kefauver Federal Building.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

“She said ‘all we heard was bombs going off, people fleeing and running. People had to leave,’” Silav says.

“This is a big shock to all of us. I can’t believe this is happening to the Kurds. I hope this isn’t as bad as everyone is predicting.

“This is not the first time the Kurds have endured this. We are hoping it wouldn’t have gotten to this and that the United States would have stuck behind the promises to us this time.”

Tabeer Sindi, 34, secretary of the Tennessee Kurdish Community Council, who also helped organize the rally, lost his father – a Peshmarga (Kurdish freedom fighter) commander – to Saddam’s mustard gas back in 1988. Thirteen of his dad’s troops also died in that gas attack.

Tabeer’s family eventually made it to Nashville. But from what he sees on the news, history is repeating itself, or at least is getting very close to it.

“Genocide hasn’t happened yet in Syria, but if Trump and their people don’t stop Turkey, genocide is on its way… It’s not only a threat to the Kurdish, but it’s a threat to the international community for the U.S.

“Our (the U.S.) leaving leaves Russia and Iran to fill the void.”

“Down with Tyranny,” chants the crowd, led by man with a bullhorn. “Stand with the Kurds. No to Turkish Invasion.”

The stream of chants then erupts into a unified “U.S.A. … U.S.A. … U.S.A. …” basically like what you hear when watching the Olympics on television. It’s significant, because it loudly and in unison demonstrates allegiance to their America, despite the disappointment and pending genocide.

“U.S.A. Support Your Kurdish Allies,” reads a sign held up by 75-year-old Vietnam veteran Grant Houston. He shrugs off an interview politely, then lifts his sign again.

“I am Kurdish,” says Mustafa Elmas, 32, who works in health care information technology in Nashville. “It’s touching me. I’m not eating. I’m not sleeping. I am from Turkistan. My mother, my father, my siblings all are on the Turkish border.

“It makes me feel devastated. I cannot do anything.”

He adds that on this day he did have a phone call from his father, Omer, in Turkistan. “He told me to do something, and then the phone hung up. That is the first time he has asked me to do anything. It really speaks of the seriousness of the situation.”

Construction worker Jotyar Hussein, 34, brought his son, Haval, 5, to the rally, which really was a family affair filled with multiple generations of American Kurds.

Jotyar put down hammer and nails and took the day off, because “lives are more important than money.”

The situation in Syria “is inhumane. It’s not right. Turkey bullying people who want to live in peace.”

His son declines to be interviewed. “He’s shy,” says Jotyar. However, every time Haval is questioned, he responds by raising his Kurdish flag and pounding his tiny fist into the air.

“U.S.A. Protect Us. Stand by Your Word,” the guy with the bullhorn yells, leading a righteous response by the gathered.

“If You Don’t Want Refugees, Stop Creating Them,” reads a sign lifted into the air by one of the responders.

Muhammad Barwari, “70-something,” an educator who came from Northern Iraq’s Kurdistan long ago, says he is angry with the president, but not his fellow Americans.

“I salute American people. But Trump’s administration, he left Kurds behind. I feel shame. That’s not American values.”

He is joined by his wife Sabiha, grandchildren Zeen, 10, and Arene, 6, and daughter Iwaz, 37, a physician assistant here in Nashville.

“We are here to come and show our support, and how upset we are that the president has allowed this to happen,” says Iwaz, as a “Resistance is Life, Silence is Death” sign travels past.

Ghazi Ahmed, 55, who came over from Knoxville – where he has lived since his days of working with American and Kurdish special forces troops in Kurdistan – says he’s here for one reason: “To send a message” to the U.S. president and Congress.

Walter Jon, who manages Mazi International Market for his son, changed his first name from “Walid” in order to sound more American. He says he loves being in the middle of a large Kurdish community in Nashville.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

I am joined by an old friend, Father Joseph Breen, the semi-retired priest who is here “to show these people the Catholic Church is behind them.

“The Kurds in Syria are in danger,” says this great man of the cloth. “This is immoral and dangerous for America … I am greatly ashamed of what Trump has done. Such great harm on the Kurds who did so much to fight ISIS … Turkey is playing a dirty game.”

Silav, the organizer I’d interviewed the day before, spots me in the crowd. She comes to me, sadness in her eyes, restates how much her people are needing help before their borderless country dies.

“Civilians are going to die, hundreds of thousands will be displaced. … Hopefully (demonstrations like this) will stop Trump. Stop Turkey,” says this lovely person with the large, sad, brown eyes.

“Long Live Kurdistan,” yells the man with the bullhorn, his words loudly echoing across Broadway as some of the younger demonstrators toss multicolored, harmless smoke bombs. “Long Live the U.S.A.”

It is that last sentiment that carries me the next day into downtown Little Kurdistan, which is not far from where I live. These people literally are my neighbors. And they especially are Americans, who came here pursuing home of the brave, land of the free dreams. Like my own ethnic grandparents two generations ago.

And, despite what’s going on in Syria, these people hold strong that allegiance.

“Here is very good,” says Jameela, as we continue our conversation outside the market. She adds that back in her native land. “We don’t have light, we don’t have anything. And Saddam killed too much women.

“I am citizen of U.S., and I’m happy,” she adds.

Her friend, Cevahir, rescues her smartphone from her purse and shows me a picture of her beautiful 28-year-old daughter, Sipel Ahmed.

“She was born 1991, before we came here from Turkey (refugee camps). She starve. They didn’t take care of her. She was very, very skinny. No eat. Very sick. We came here and she was in General Hospital (for months). Came out with clean body. Now she very, very good.

“Another daughter, Nopl Omer, 29, is police,” she says, showing off another picture of a beautiful and accomplished woman, a Kurdish-American who spends her life protecting the rest of us.

Another thing these neighbors of mine point out is that religion, used to divide so often in the rest of the world, does not separate the Kurdish.

“I am Orthodox Christian,” says Jameel, who wears a large cross pendant. Cevahir is Islamic.

Such cross-religion friendships are not uncommon. “Normal,” Jameel says. “We together every way. We are like sisters.”

Mazi International Market is perhaps best-known for its massive mural depicting Kurdish life that runs the length of an outside wall. Inside the store, Walter Jon, 52, tells me, “I’m a Cowboy man,” because before he moved here five years ago to run this market for his son, he lived in Dallas for 20 years.

“It’s the history,” he says of his allegiance to the Cowboys rather than the much-less-glorious history of the tepid Titans.

He wouldn’t mind moving back to Texas someday, but right now he’s happy being with his family and in a countryside where “you see a lot of trees. In Texas it’s all flat. No trees.”

The best thing about being in Nashville is that there are so many Kurdish, according to Walter, who changed his name from “Walid” so he would seem more American.

“If you have a big party, a wedding or a funeral, you have big people there,” says this man who speaks Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, English and Spanish, all of which come in handy when dealing with clientele.

“If somebody die or have a wedding, you have a lot of people there when you live here in Nashville.”

As for the current crisis, “I cannot do nothing about it. What are you going to do? I love (America). I stay here.”

Outside on this late afternoon, Salah Osman, 51, talks with some pals outside the Salahadeen Center of Nashville, an Islamic religious and community center, where, he says, “I’m a preacher.”

“We have five daily prayers,” he says. “We try to back our culture. We teach our manners (to young people) and talk about how to be good citizens” of the U.S.

I ask again about the role of religion in uniting or dividing the Kurdish.

“We have all different kind. No matter what religion you belong to, we are a tribe, we have our culture.”

He says that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Yazidi and more make up the worship culture among his native people.

He adds that he’s been in Nashville since 2000, but he left Iraq in 1991, with stops in the mountains and then in Turkish refugee camps.

“I see that people here in Nashville don’t have discrimination like in Iraq,” he points out. “Nashville is a good place, wonderful people.

“The businesses that Kurdish people bring here, they are hard workers, brings a different flavor to Nashville. And many more Kurdish people come here because of all of the stores here and they open businesses, too.

“All this brings taxes to the county and to the city and it helps Nashville. Helps the economy.”

It is as an American, not as a Kurd, that he addresses the strife in Syria. “It is something that is disappointing as an American,” he says. “As a citizen, we have to protect people or we will not have any friends outside our country.

“We have to be side-and-side with them (the Syrian Kurds). They help our military ... We shouldn’t leave them.

“It is not the America we know.”

His friend Akran Hasan, 45, listens to the preacher and nods. The chef and co-owner of House of Kabob, he says the preacher speaks for him, too.

“I think it’s very bad,” he says of the situation in Syria.

“It’s crazy what Trump did. Everyone say he sell Kurds for one hotel in Istanbul.”

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