Kurds in US struggle with distance amid Syria crisis abroad
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When President Donald Trump abruptly announced plans to withdraw American troops from northern Syria last month, Nashville’s city hall and a bridge below the downtown skyline lit up in the green, yellow and red of the Kurdish flag.
In the largest Kurdish community in the U.S., outraged protesters near Nashville’s federal courthouse draped themselves in the same colors and decried the deadly Turkish attacks that ensued in Syria. Chants of “I believe in Kurdistan” rang through the stands of a minor league soccer game
Feeling betrayed by the U.S. abroad is nothing new for the Kurds, one of the largest groups of people without a state, estimated at 25 million to 35 million worldwide. But the U.S. contingent, estimated at 40,000 — 15,000 in Nashville — has been shaken to see its homeland attacked by Turkey and its people pushed out of Syria.
Kurds have protested and prodded politicians, spurring some Trump-aligned officials to criticize the president’s decision. But many have felt largely helpless to aid their homeland as images of death and despair invade their social media feeds.
Yearning to do something constructive, Silav Ibrahim and other Nashville Kurds started collecting donations for Kurds who fled Syria to a camp in Iraq. Their initial efforts, coupled with donations from Kurds in Dallas, have yielded hundreds of boxes of clothes, medical supplies and more.
“We can’t do much,” Ibrahim said. “We can keep protesting and we will continue to do that. We will continue to write letters to our congressmen and women. But we wanted to really be able to at least collect something, do something where we can help those who are fleeing their homes.”
With their land divided among Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, the first wave of Kurds arrived in Nashville in the 1970s after the collapse of a Kurdish uprising in Iraq, according to the Tennessee Kurdish Community Council. More followed as refugees after the first Gulf War and the war in Iraq; others have since relocated because of conflict in Syria.
Abroad, Kurds have been U.S. allies against the Islamic State group for several years, losing 11,000 fighters in those efforts in Syria. Syrian Kurdish forces supported by about 1,000 American troops had held about a fourth of Syria's territory.
Trump initially ordered all troops out of Syria last month. Three days later, Turkey launched its offensive with heavy bombardment along the frontier. The Trump administration then decided to keep a force in place, which Trump said was to protect oil infrastructure.
Sekvan Benjamin Mohammed said he served as an interpreter and adviser to U.S. special forces during the Iraq War, among other deployments in the 2000s. He said Kurds deserve assurances that the U.S. has their backs in return.
“(Trump’s) allowing a group of innocent people being killed and gassed over an oil field,” said Mohammed, a 42-year-old who has multiple Nashville-area businesses. “What kind of humanity is that?”
A mosque, markets and restaurants make up the shopping center at the heart of Nashville’s Little Kurdistan. It’s usually packed for Friday services at the Salahadeen Center.
At the mosque, barbershop owner Adnan Abdulkader said he felt backstabbed by Trump’s pull-out decision and subsequent declaration that Kurds are “no angels” who have “a lot of sand to play with.”
“It’s still like entertainment for him. It’s like he still thinks he’s running a TV show,” Abdulkader said. “You’re messing with people’s lives.”
Though Nashville tilts progressive, the state is firmly Republican. And Tennessee’s political leaders have had tumultuous relationships with immigrant communities, particularly in the Trump era.
Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn has supported Trump’s immigration policies but broke ranks to criticize the troop pull-back. She has asked the administration to investigate whether the Turks violated a cease-fire and wants tough economic sanctions if they did.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Republican-led Legislature has so far failed in its challenge of the federal refugee resettlement program, which brought many Kurds to Nashville. The Trump administration has cut the number of refugees to 18,000 nationally next year.
About 500 refugees were resettled in Tennessee last year under the program, down from a high of about 2,000 in 2016 and an annual average of less than 1,000, according to court testimony.
Some Kurds have been deported under Trump’s immigration policies, said Zaid Brifkani, a Nashville doctor who heads the Kurdish Professionals network.
“When you are part of an administration that is taking active measures against immigration, and when we are a majority population of immigrants, then there is going to be some disconnect between us as a community and the politicians that represent us because we feel like they won’t be able to adequately address our concerns,” Brifkani said.
Help isn’t just coming from within the Kurdish community.
At the Nashville donation drive, Lee Lohnes, an Army veteran who served in Iraq alongside Kurdish translators in the 2000s, boxed clothes to ship to displaced Kurds overseas. He wondered aloud how the U.S. will recover in the Middle East.
“It’s just the greatest act of betrayal,” said Lohnes, an IT manager. “I can’t think of much worse. I’m doing my part, at least, to try to help them in any way I can.”