Despite turmoil at home, Kurdish students remain resilient

Akre-Kurdish New Year (Nawroz). Kurds take to the mountains in Akre celebrating the Kurdish New Year

Kurdistan is a vibrant region, both rare and rich in history, that captures the Middle East in picture-perfect resolution. Its geographical make-up is comprised of the countries Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan and Armenia. This also makes the Kurdish population distinct, both ethnically and linguistically. An estimated 20 million Kurds associate with Islam, Christianity and Judaism across the region. Perhaps what makes Kurdistan most unique is their strict, unyielding position to keep their native tongue rooted in their diverse culture.


The people of this growing and fascinating world have continued to defy the odds. As the dust of war settles, the Kurdish flag stands actively waving, proudly shouting, “Kurdistan, the rebirth.” Today some of our very own Kurdish students, just like that flag, stand tall and more resilient than ever, misunderstood, yet deeply passionate. Saad Salim, a Valpo graduate student from Kurdistan said, “We are eager to talk because we’re viewed as evil.”


We have, far too long, been emotionally disconnected from this region, and now I want to give them a voice.      


The title of this article reads, “The Irrepressible State,” however, Kurdistan does not meet the requirements to be its own state. While its lack of sovereignty may restrict its political borders on a map, there is no question these lines aren’t present. Rather it is the “state” of resiliency and a “state” of tenacity which erects the borders of the region. These characteristics are the very reason why after 2,000 years the push and fight for independence is stronger than it has ever been before.


Knowing that the U.S. was able to aid a region suppressed and battered by years of hate and brutality by eradicating a tyrannous leader makes the Kurdistan people so grateful to be here in Valpo, and likewise, Americans happy to be in Kurdistan.


Following World War I and the fallout of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds were promised the land that was taken from them, but opposition from Turkey quickly halted this agreement. What Kurds and scholars alike have agreed upon was the immense amount of bloodshed that occurred under the dictator Saddam Hussein who had killed tens of thousands of Kurds in ghastly, bestial ways.


The most well-known event, Halabja in 1988, where Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill between 3,500 and 5,000 Kurds. Shara Saadi, 34, Valpo graduate student from Sulaymaniyah, recalls that day:


“I will never forget hearing the cries and screams. It is hard to see your relatives in those pictures and then I did. I saw the one of my uncle and my cousin. You can’t forget.”


Following the attacks from Hussein, war, terror, and extremism blanketed the region more than ever. It wasn’t until 2003 when the U.S. military sent American troops to the war-stricken area to take down Saddam Hussein and rebuild infrastructure. What seemed as a very controversial decision made by former President George Bush actually created a beacon of hope for the Kurds - a day that Saadi will never forget.


“When Saddam Hussein fell...I can’t forget that day,” she said, “People celebrated for three or four days because we were no longer threatened by Saddam’s government.”


April 9, 2003, was not only her birthday, but the birth of a new Kurdistan. A day for a new beginning that marked a change in a positive direction for the Kurdish people. As time marched forward, the Kurds did, too. Many Kurdish families began to rebuild and live their lives finally without fear of Hussein's regime.


As mentioned, the move was quite provocative and the media was ignited with criticism. However, what didn’t get as much air time was how incredibly grateful the men and women of Kurdistan were following Hussein’s fall. Contrary to popular belief, Kurds dislike the idea that Americans invaded the region. The arrival of the U. S. military prevented any further genocide.


“Sometimes Americans say that they invaded our country,” Salim Saad explained, “That’s not true. We now have more freedoms than ever before. We love America, we support Americans.”


The stories of American experiences give an interesting perspective of what the region is truly like. Saad recalled a story between an American professor that he was showing around and his encounter with a Kurdish taxi driver:


“One day my American teacher stopped me in the market and he said, ‘You’re crazy people!’ And I said, ‘Why, sir?’ ‘The other day, the taxi driver stopped and I talked to the taxi driver about my destination, and the taxi driver doesn’t speak English [too well], but he tried. He was trying to be very friendly to me, when we went to my destination, I tried to give him his money and he told me, ‘I don’t want your money, that’s your money. You sent your sons and your daughters your sisters your cousins to fight Saddam, and you liberated us from that dictatorship. We don’t want anything. We will pay you.’ They became friends and the taxi driver began to take English classes with the professor.”


The thought that a such practical norm of paying someone for a service, was viewed as an act of too much generosity, speaks so much about our global community. The Kurds we’ve spoken with are incredibly thankful for the one thing Americans often take for granted, life.


During any time of war, the need for tools to fight will rise to the top in a country’s budget. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) located in northern Iraq, serves as the ruling body over the Kurdish people. Similar to many other governments, the KRG consists of a unicameral parliament with 111 seats, a president, and a prime minister. Budget cuts in early 2014 created financial instability within the KRG. This directly impacted the money the government is able to give students to study in the U.S.


“A letter was sent to the university from a KRG office in Washington D.C. that said that funds for tuition would be here,” explained Shara. “It would just be delayed.”


People who live and work in Kurdistan also went months without a salary creating the conditions that much more difficult. During this time of economic turmoil, the Kurds began to work together, helping with all the basic necessities of life trying to keep a sense of normalcy.


“I wish you could go there [Kurdistan] and see how passionate people are,” Saad said. “It didn’t matter what you did or who you were, people joined hand in hand to ensure the safety of all.”


Waking up thousands of miles away from friends and family, not knowing if you might see them again, is something many people could not even imagine.


“Everyday when get up I check my phone for the news in Kurdistan,” said Shara. “Sometimes it’s a good situation especially when Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdistan military forces] advance to regain control of land that ISIS controlled.”


Shara says her sense of optimism is something that’s possible due to the support she’s found in the Valpo community.The Kurdish Student Organization, a branch of VISA, has created a support group for Valpo’s Kurdish students by hosting semesterly events that bring a little bit of Kurdistan right here to Valpo.


“The people of Valpo make me feel happy, and to help me,” said Saadi.


Shara Saadi echoed him, “We are from Kurdistan. We are all different people. We love America. Americans made it so I can be here, and this school makes me want to stay,”


The pride the Kurdish students have for their country is undoubtedly captivating and awe-inspiring. How can a country that has been oppressed for years, where the people have lived and witnessed genocide and brutality, be so optimistic?


Fakher Zalbari, a Valpo graduate student who served three years as a translator for the U.S. Military, attributes the optimism to the interest of the international community in eradicating ISIS and how strong Kurdistan stands. The relative stability that currently exists allows for the will to move forward.


“After the fall of Saddam there was an attitude change,” Zalbari said. “Now, other nations see ISIS as a global problem.”


Time will tell whether or not independence will be achieved in Kurdistan. The political and social reasons why or why not it should be independent goes beyond the scope of this conversation, but the idea that the Kurdish could one day live free and safe keeps the students here striving forward.


“When you come here [Valparaiso] you feel what freedom is like,” Saad explained, “We are free from a dictator in our life. It is time we can experience freedom.”


The joy of telling the stories of the people we meet everyday allows a chance for readers to see the world in a different light that hadn’t been turned on before. A professor once told me if she was able to make us think about a situation from a different perspective then she would have done her job. Likewise, if this article didn’t show you a glimpse into the culture of Kurdistan, then I failed you as a writer. I broke the imaginary, yet still very real contract that you and I both agreed to when you began to read.


None of this would have been possible without the assistance of Sherhang Sherwany who put me in contact with the amazing men and women you just read about.  


Contact Ricky Cody at


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