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VOL. 41 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 10, 2017

Happy in US, even as family members face ban

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Riger Hiroi, 36, an Iraqui by birth, splits his time between overseeing operations at Newroz Market and repairing computers and other technology at the same location.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

After paying way too much in taxes for my .51 acre of the land of the free, home of the brave, I decided to leave the taxman’s office at the Howard School complex behind and drive home via Nolensville Road and through our city’s bustling international cultural mishmash to see if I could find someone who could reassure me it’s great to be an American.

I decided that a great place to stop would be a Kurdish market. There is no shortage of them – just as there is no shortage of taco trucks – along this stretch. I just looked until I found one where I could ask what folks there are thinking about this immigration hoo-hah.

“Get back to where you once belonged,” seems to be the feeling of about half of our country and its leadership. Glad those folks weren’t in charge back when my grandparents arrived at Ellis Island early in the last century.

Inside Newroz Market, I encounter a young clerk who doesn’t do well with English and hollers for “Riger” to come take care of this pony-tailed, gray-haired old visitor in the Stones T-shirt and gray sport coat.

Riger Hiroi answers the clerk’s call and comes over to extend his hand and bright smile.

The 36-year-old, who moved here from Sioux Falls, South Dakota: “It was too cold up there. Climate here in Nashville is much more like at home.”

By “home,” he’s not talking about Sioux Falls, where the weather is wretched regardless of season, but “down in Kurdistan,” where he spent his childhood before the long trek to Turkey and finally to the U.S., the literal promised land, in 1991.

“I’ve been in Nashville about two years now,” says Riger, who not only helps tend to the market and talk with those, like me, who insist on English (Unfortunately, it’s the only language that makes any sense to me), he also repairs and programs computers at Media Tech Computers, which operates out of about a third of the market’s space.

“I didn’t go to college. I went right to work,” he adds, when asked how he became a computer wizard.

“I know that I just like seeing how things work. I used to take my mother’s vacuum cleaner apart and put it back together again.” He laughs while recalling the mischief that helped prep him for a career.

Nashville, of course, is a settlement hub, a place where there are more Kurds than anywhere in the U.S. Most are refugees from Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.

And Riger has chosen Music City as his home for the same basic reason that so many have:

“I have friends and relatives here,” he explains, as we stand back near a small deli area, where the best sandwiches in Music City are composed, according to one happily dining Nashville Cat.

After leaving Iraq, Riger, his mother and two of his brothers, went to Turkey, where they stayed while hoping for sponsors to get them to the States. Generous souls brought them to Minneapolis – “It’s cold there, too,” he says – where the family spent a few years before moving to South Dakota.

Nashville is sort of a mecca (not to be confused with Islam’s holy Mecca in Saudi Arabia) for Kurdish immigrants.

“I had cousins over here. Had a lot of people from my country here. Two uncles and cousins. I got a lot of family around,” Riger says.

More want to join them, of course, but “It’s hard from Iraq to come here. It’s not that easy getting travel in,” he says.

Kurdistan really no longer is home, he adds. It’s his homeland, of course, but he’s been a proud citizen of the United States, a regular Yankee Doodle dandy, since 2010.

“I’m American,” he points out. “I mean for me, I like the quality of America. I like the laws. In my country (Iraq) they don’t have that much good laws.

“Here they treat everybody equal when it comes to crimes and the law. Everybody is equal and everybody should be equal.”

Well, he does acknowledge that not always has he been greeted so openly and freely. “For us, over here, some cities treat you differently.

“When I used to live in South Dakota, the population for immigrants was probably 5 percent.” He says that unfamiliarity caused some discomfort (likely from both “sides”), but “I never had any problem since I moved to Nashville.”

He cracks one of the frequent smiles that punctuate our afternoon at the market and computer-repair store owned by Mehdi Misto. The dual storefront is basically right there at the foot of Elysian Fields, in the same basic area where Doc Garrett dispensed medication and advice back when I first moved to Nashville all those years ago.

Mehdi, the boss, is in the market today, but he defers the speaking and question-answering to Riger.

“He’s the talker,” says the boss, as he steps outside of the Media Tech Computers front door to help unload a truck that’s carrying stuff to restock market shelves and crannies.

Don’t know this for sure, but I’d guess there was a lot of tea in that truckload. It seems like half the market is filled with various teas. There’s even a massive box of loose leaves of almost black tea from Sri Lanka, the country that was Ceylon when I was learning geography back in the ‘50s.

And besides the plethora of tea types, there are these huge, likely 3-or-more gallon, aluminum tea kettles on one shelf. Smaller tools of tea preparation are nearby.

I’m a coffee drinker (35 years ago or so, when I was associate editor and columnist at The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper in Clarksville, my boss, the late Tony Durr, dubbed me “The Caffeine Kid” for my 40-cups-a-day habit. I’ve since slowed down). I really don’t like tea except when I’m hot and it’s cold, but with so many international varieties here, I’ll bet even I’d find something I liked if I kept sampling the different varieties.

Riger doesn’t know why his people – folks from one of the seven Islamic nations President Trump has been seeking to freeze out for more extreme vetting – are unwanted, or at least not welcomed by Donald and his boosters.

The latest version of the plan excludes Iraq from the ban.

Riger knows many American died fighting for his people and against Saddam’s violent and vicious tendencies. Remember, even though American liberators were unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Saddam (before he lost his game of hangman) killed thousands of Kurds by having his guys drop chemical bombs in Kurdish Halabja.

Now our troops are helping Iraqis battle the vile thugs of Isis. American GIs are dying, “but we’re getting killed all over, too, by Isis,” Riger adds.

Newroz Market, with its attached Media Tech computer repair shop, serves the Middle Eastern food needs of Kurds, Arabians, Americans or anyone looking for something either traditional or new.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The talk of immigrant-bans irks him some. He understands fear, but “I can’t understand (bans). It’s like if one Christian goes to a country and does some bad things and they ban all of Christianity.” (It should be noted that there are a lot of Christian Kurds …. Perhaps they don’t socialize with their Islamic brethren, but “everybody knows each other. If you are Kurdish, you are Kurdish.”)

He shrugs, then notes the difficulty of keeping in contact with family In Kurdistan.

“If you go, you can’t get back,” he says, noting a lot of legal immigrants have kinfolk they’d like to see back in the “old country,” but they are frightened that they’ll be stopped on one end of the trip or the other.

Then again, he smiles brightly when talking about the fact, “I enjoy being a citizen of the United States. It makes it easier to travel. They look at your passport and see you are an American, and they don’t hassle you. They let you go.”

He notes that his store is not just frequented by Kurds. “The customers come from all over the place. Kurds, Americans, Arabians, all over.”

He adds that he’s serving as sort of the spokesman for the market because of his ease with English, the language with which he has navigated his life since landing in America’s North Country.

Sure, he does help at the market, but his main job is on the other side of a short wall. “I repair computers. I fix their programs.”

While he credits his own curiosity, reading and studying for most of his skill, he did get some high-tech exposure when he worked for IBM in Minneapolis and then Gateway in Sioux Fall.

“I can’t say I’m the smartest, but I get around. I do my studying and learn everything.” There is no ire, only calm explanation, after he’s asked about his feelings toward Trump, with his isolationist calls for immigrant bans.

“Well him personally, we think of him the way you think of a kid. He says whatever comes out of his mouth.”

Riger emphasizes that he is not a representative of the entire Kurdish population who have done so much to make Nashville richer. (My wife, who worked as a substitute elementary school teacher here for awhile, absolutely loves the Kurdish kids, saying they are the most polite and best-behaved.)

Riger points out not all Kurds are against Trump’s efforts to make America great again by cutting off Islamic immigrants (and walling off Mexicans).

“Some are OK with the immigration ban,” he says, of the manner in which Trump and his cronies wanted to treat the huddled masses yearning to breathe free after escaping the seven predominately Islamic nations.

“Some (Kurds) are OK with it. It just depends. They talk about it when they get together,” he points out.

He says there are those who think enough Kurdish people have moved here, and they don’t want any more.

Other Kurds don’t mind the immigration ban, because they, like many native-born Americans, are frightened of what they don’t know.

“A lot of people think it’s good to stop Syria, because Syria might bring terrorists to the United States.

“Our people are mad about it …. There’s two sides to everything.”

When he returns to his computer repair station, I ask the owner for permission to shoot pictures and talk to customers.

”House of Shawarma” food is a hit with all varieties of customers. Newroz Market has a variety of food options and a sandwich shop.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“The only thing is if they tell you to stop, you stop,” Mehdi says.

One extremely Caucasian customer steps from the store and I follow – at a non-threatening distance – as she walks across the asphalt to her car.

“I’m a pastry chef,” says Katie Fair, adding that she was glad to talk with me “Because you look like a nice guy.” (That appearance has served me well over the decades.)

Helping with the buildup for a restaurant where Eastern Europe will be the menu focus, she’s finished her first-ever visit to Newroz Market. But she says it won’t be her last. She reaches into her sack and pulls out a plastic container of Labneh (a kind of Middle Eastern, yogurty, cream cheese.)

“I really have never used it, but one of my bosses said I should try it instead of cream cheese in some of my pastries.”

The 30-year-old all-American says the talk of banning these immigrants makes her “mad.”

“I think it’s absolutely terrible. That’s the antithesis of what America is,” she says, adding that she’s “never had a bad experience” with any folks from the Middle East. To her, Riger and his workers are, quite simply, Americans.

“It doesn’t matter where you came from,” she adds, as she takes her Labneh back to her car for the drive to the under-construction restaurant in Germantown.

I go back into the store and wander the aisles, examining the labels of the goods. Seems like Sri Lanka is a big provider of staples for a Middle Eastern diet.

I follow Jason Smith, a 37-year-old strategic management consultant who studied at Vanderbilt, who is toting a sack of sandwiches from the market’s deli.

“I’m half and half,” he says, noting that his parents were Korean and Japanese.

“I’m a first generation American,” he says, adding the main reason he has come this day is because “the eatery there in the back has gotten perfect reviews on Yelp. That’s the largest internet food app.”

(I know what Yelp is, but understood his need to define it to this relic from the Sputnik generation.)

The product of education at both Hume-Fogg high school and Vandy, Jason notes the fuss over immigration is caused by “a lack of self-realization. They are, for the most part, one or two generations removed from their forebears who did immigrate.

“It’s all about self-realization,” he repeats. “You can’t change the mind of someone who doesn’t want it to be changed.”

Is there any way to fix this? “I don’t know,” he says, but adds that becoming an American citizen is “like winning the lottery” for immigrants he knows.

The grandson of Italian immigrants, I believe some screening is perhaps necessary, since my grandparents did their time on Ellis Island before being released into New York City and eventually settling down in an Italian-speaking section of Buffalo, New York.

While my dad and aunts and uncles learned to speak and to assimilate once they got into schools, they were raised in an Italian-speaking household. They were victims of far-flung misunderstanding and discrimination.

Just as not all Italians are gangsters (though “The Godfather” is my favorite movie), a fraction’s fraction of Middle Eastern immigrants are the ones causing the terror and subsequent fear and loathing.

I decide to go back to the “House of Shawarma” deli, to speak with Matt Ridenour, a 34-year-old musician who fashions jazzy guitar concoctions while playing clubs here and touring Europe.

The young man from Idaho, who goes by the professional name of “Matty Ride,” is one who skips right past the “terrorism” discussion and gets right to the real point. It’s about the food, man.

“I eat here all the time,” he says. “One of my friends used to work here and make sandwiches, and I just started coming. I really like the one with the spinach.”

He’s the one who tells me the best sandwiches in Nashville come from the booth at the rear of the Kurdish market.

What’s he think about the heralded and controversial ban plan?

“I think if it were 50 years earlier, my family wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.”

Riger found reason for hope when he listened to Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress a week or so back.

“It’s getting a little bit better what he’s saying,” he adds. “But he’s still not there yet when it comes to understanding what Muslims are like.

“Not all Muslims are alike. You go to different countries and there are different ways they say their prayers.

“We are not all the same. Everybody here wants their freedom.”

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