Kurdish refugees in Nebraska hope to shed light on turmoil back home through education, political activism

Story, aggregated content and video by Zach Hammack, NewsNetNebraska.

Aso Ali stands at the front of a brightly-lit classroom, gesturing at a list of words on a whiteboard.

It’s a warm, November Sunday in Lincoln, but for Kurdish refugees learning English, Sunday is not a day off.

“Try again,” Ali tells a non-English speaking student who is struggling with a part of a lesson in learning the language.

Kurdish volunteer teacher Aso Ali stands at the front of a classroom as he teaches English to Kurdish refugees in Lincoln.

“Correct,” he tells another student, who has picked the correct preposition.

Ali, a Kurdish refugee and political science doctoral student, teaches weekly lessons at Loren Eiseley Library in northwest Lincoln to a group of around 20 to 30 other Kurdish refugees, most of them adult men.

He does it for free.

Ali considers it a “mission,” during a time when Kurdish refugees who fled violence attempt to learn English to successfully transition into an American life.

“Without knowing English, you almost have no prospect in the future to making a living, to integrate with the American people and join the market and the life in this country,” Ali said.

But Ali said integration and education is more important than ever as Kurds hope to shed light on violence rocking northern Iraq in the past months following a Kurdish secession referendum, in which those living in the U.S. have lamented the country’s inaction.

The Kurdish are an ethnic group of over 30 million people in areas of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey that comprise a region known as Kurdistan. Many fled to the U.S. in the 90s, fleeing persecution at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Many more have come in recent years to pursue education and economic opportunity, as the so-called Islamic state, or ISIS, grew in Iraq and Syria.

Around 1,200 Kurds live in Nebraska, a fraction of the nearly 17,000 nationwide.

But making their voices heard about current conflicts in their homeland a half a world away starts with language, Ali said.

“That’s the core concern that we have,” said Ali.

Lacey Studnicka, a program development officer at Lutheran Family Services, says current events back home are on the minds of the refugees she works with.

Lutheran Family Services is a refugee resettlement agency that helps refugees find homes in Nebraska within 90 days after they move to the U.S.

“They always have that hope of returning, so for many of them, they are paying close attention,” said Studnicka, who has been with the agency for 15 years.

According to Lutheran Family Services, 90 percent of refugees in Lincoln are from Iraq, whether they are Kurds, Arabs or Yazidis. But with President Donald Trump’s recent travel ban, the organization has seen less refugees move to the U.S.

“With that travel ban, we need all the help we can get,” she said.

Finding a new home

The Kurdish people have been persecuted as long as Naser Yahya can remember.

From early religious persecution to the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds have been at the center of violence, said Yahya, who was a university lecturer in northern Iraq before seeking asylum in the U.S. in 2012.

“They have been treated and persecuted unfairly, since the amount of their natural rights, like self-determination, freedom, liberty [aren’t protected],” said Yahya. “So they are under persecution until today.”

“That’s why the Kurdish people here have this sense of supporting one another,” later added Yahya.

Naser Yahya (right) talks to a Kurdish student during an English class at Loren Eiseley Library.

Yahya is one of the hundreds of Kurdish refugees who have found a home in Lincoln over the years, but transitioning into that new home hasn’t always been easy for some, Yahya said.

“There’s a degree of cultural shock, with the unfamiliarity with the system here,” he said. “The schools, the banks, the community are unfamiliar, so these people are in some sort need for help especially at the beginning when they arrive.”

In order to facilitate these needs, Yahya helped the Kurdish community in Lincoln form the Kurdish Community Organization, a non-profit recently approved by the state.

The organization aims to address problems facing Kurds in Nebraska, while also drawing attention to the political turmoil in northern Iraq. Holding classes in English for men, women and children is one of the missions of the non-profit.

“The goal is to support these vulnerable groups,” Yahya said.

The group has also been instrumental in organizing rallies this year, in hopes of drawing support from Nebraskans and the U.S. government to political endeavors back home.

But resources to fund a space for the non-profit has left Yahya and other Kurds without a permanent place to go, forced to hold activities and classes in libraries and churches around the city.

Which is unfortunate, Yahya said, because he believes the Kurds are vital part of the Lincoln community and need support.

“By integrating them into this community, we are diversifying the American community at large,” he said.

A Plea for Help

Although hundreds of Kurds now call Nebraska home, the ripples of conflict back home can still be felt.

In September, Kurds around the world voted in an online referendum, seeking an independent state in Iraq. 92% voted in favor of it.

But the Iraqi government stifled thoughts of secession, reclaiming the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in October with the help of a Iranian-backed and U.S.-trained army, according to Khalid Abdullah, a Kurdish refugee and political organizer.

The violence forces thousands of Kurds from the region, leaving dozens of civilians killed and infrastructure torn a part by bombings.

In Nebraska, the Kurdish community was shocked by the news, Abdullah said, and organized a rally at the State Capitol.

Nearly 200 Kurds came to the rally, calling on elected officials to stop the violence and defend the referendum.

Kurdish refugee and Lincoln resident Saeed Namet has seen this violence before. In 1991, a bombing attack orchestrated by Hussein’s regime killed his son during the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War.

Kurdish refugee Saeed Namet, who came to the U.S. in 1996, lost his son in a bombing attack in northern Iraq in 1991.

Since then, he has committed himself to calling the attention of Americans to the persecution Kurds face.

“There is still the same treatment,” said Namet, through a translator. “We want our independence, but others must recognize these political issues.”

Namet is one of the dozens of refugees hoping to learn English to better tell their story and advocate for Kurdish rights.

Ali believes this advocacy is important, because he said the issues facing Kurds in Iraq are primarily about human rights.

“The Iraq [state] has been in trouble for a long time and the government proved time and again that it’s not functionally well,” said Ali. “It cannot impose the rule of law. And as a consequence of those failures, a lot of communities – minorities, ethnic and religious – suffer [because] of that, in the past and today.”

Dreams of Self-Determination 

An independent Kurdistan is a dream for many Kurdish refugees like Bashar Kalim, who came to the U.S. in 2011.

Kalim helped families in Nebraska cast their ballot in the online vote back in September.

“Kurds here in Nebraska have always wanted an independent state back home,” Kalim said.

The September referendum was held by the Kurdish Regional Government, a semi-autonomous ruling body established in 1992. The government vowed to negotiate with their Iraqi counterpart when the vote passed.

But despite the outcome of the referendum, Kurds faced backlash from the U.S. and other major powers, who felt the vote distracted from the issue of fighting ISIS in the Middle East.

When Iraqi forces invaded Kirkuk, those same powers did nothing to prevent it, Yahya said, and the U.S. military doubled down on its criticism.

“You have to ask the question, ‘why don’t we have an independent nation like the Turks, Persians, Arabs,” he said.

Ultimately, the Kurdish want self-determination, Ali believes.

“My philosophy is that the life of people is much more important than physical borders,” Ali said. “If no one will help you, you have to have a plan B and that’s independence.”

Starting with Education

While the dream of a free Kurdish state has been put on hold for now, those in the burgeoning Kurdish community in Nebraska hope that through education, this dream can be realized.

Educational opportunities like the classes offered by Ali, are a step in this direction, he believes.

“My students are making progress,” Ali said. “They have that enthusiasm to learn the language…by learning the language they cannot only integrate but better the society…in addition to the fact that they join the public life at large and cultural and political climate.”

Studnicka said Kurds and other refugees drive Nebraska’s economy.

“They really sort of ignite the economic engine, because most start working right away,” she said.

85 percent of refugees find employment in the first 60 days, said Studnicka.

Yahya said this will benefit Nebraska if the Kurds can integrate more fully into the American way of life, since they bring a unique, cultural perspective.

And to the hundreds of Kurds who consider Lincoln their permanent home, bringing that perspective to their new home is as important as the dreams of those still living in Iraq.

“This is a friendly city,” Yahya said. “We’re happy here.”

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