Copenhagen to Kobani, Berlin to Erbil
The Islamic State's assault in Syria and Iraq has given Europe's Kurdish diaspora a new sense of purpose.
LONDON — This summer, 30-year-old political scientist Shaho Pirani kissed his kids goodbye, had his father drive him to the airport, and took a 2,000-mile flight from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Erbil, Iraq.
This was not for a vacation. Pirani arrived two days after leaving his home in Denmark in the city of Koya, located in Iraqi Kurdistan, to undergo military and tactical training with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in an attempt to learn firsthand how he could battle Islamic State extremists and other future threats to the Kurdistan region, which stretches through Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
Pirani was excited, but also nervous. He imagined what would happen if he was caught by the Islamic State’s fighters. “What if they capture me because I’m a foreigner?” he thought. “What if they behead me or parade me as a hostage on TV?” But his anxiety was quickly replaced with empowerment. He was soon immersed in the political history of the region, given tactical training, taught how to handle and shoot with Kalashnikovs and sniper guns, and given detailed instruction in everything from how to take bases and checkpoints to how the wind could affect the range of his weapons.
Pirani finished his month of training and flew home. He was never planning to stay and fight. Peshmerga commanders told him that he wasn’t needed — yet. But since he returned to Copenhagen, he’s spent every waking moment trying to figure out how to get back on the front lines. With money securely put aside for an impending flight, Pirani is ready to go. All he needs is a phone call telling him it’s time.
“I’m on social media and I see news updates, I see these horrific things, I’m uneasy, I cannot relax, I cannot find calm inside,” he tells Foreign Policy in a phone interview from his home in Copenhagen. “I just want to get off my seat, take the car to the airport, and take a plane home to Kurdistan and do something.”
Pirani was born in Iran to a politically active Kurdish-Iranian family that immigrated to Denmark in the early 1990s. Pirani says he came to Europe alone with a fake passport when he was seven or eight. He spent two years in a German refugee camp before an uncle brought him to Denmark.
Across Europe, there are hundreds of diaspora Kurds like Pirani who have answered the call to arms, left behind family, jobs, and peaceful suburban lives, and joined to fight the Islamic State alongside the Peshmerga and the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For Europe’s highly organized Kurdish diaspora, the decision to take to the front lines in their ancestral homelands isn’t one made overnight, but results from a long-standing feeling of distance combined with intense responsibility that has been cultivated over several decades. Across Germany, Sweden, and Britain, Kurdish cultural and political activity has flourished, allowing Kurds to invest in and discover their identities. In the process of settling in Europe, they’ve also managed to change Western perceptions of a little-understood ethnic group that makes up the fourth-largest population in the Middle East.
Susanne Guven, the head of the Kurdish National Association of Sweden, estimates that “a couple hundred” Kurds from Sweden have left to Iraq and Syria and many more are ready to join. “I frequently get messages from people wanting to know how they can go to Syria to fight in the war,” she says. The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that over 50 German Kurds have made the trip to go to Syria. One Facebook page has actively been recruiting fighters from Britain, Germany, and Sweden, as well as Canada, to go fight in Syria.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has created a new urgency, but the pull to go back to Kurdistan isn’t new. Pirani says it’s a feeling many Kurds, known as the world’s largest stateless nation, experience throughout their lifetimes. “It’s something that’s with you throughout all your life, and I’m trying to teach my kids the same,” he says. “I just try to tell them that they cannot forget why their father is here and what’s happening in their home country.”
But for those who are willing to stand in solidarity on the front lines, the risks loom large, as do the potential consequences waiting for them back home.
The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, which means that those fighting alongside the Kurdish revolutionary Marxist group could be subject to anti-terrorism laws if they choose to return home. Ten Kurds in Denmark were arrested in September 2012 under anti-terrorism laws for funneling $24 million to the PKK. They were released only after the court accepted that the money was for cultural activities and to help victims of the 2011 earthquake in Van, Turkey. Pirani says if he tries to go and fight with the PKK, he’ll risk at least six years of prison time.
A European Union spokesperson, who only agreed to speak on background, told Foreign Policy that it is “up to the member states” to assess the dangers posed by an individual who travels abroad, and whether “to include him in the police database, and the decision to bring him to court or not.” Many European countries have increased penalties against citizens who join terrorist groups in an effort to deal with jihadis going to join the Islamic State. In September, Danish politicians floated the idea of taking away the passports of those who go to fight in Iraq or Syria.
Those who go to fight alongside the Peshmerga, who are allied with the U.S. military, don’t necessarily face terrorism charges, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy time, either. When Pirani told a Peshmerga officer he was ready to return immediately, the officer told him that the Kurds in Iraq need modern weaponry and ammunition, not people. “If you come down here, you’ll just be another person to be shot or bombed by the Islamic State,” he was told.
After months of fighting, Peshmerga forces retook two Iraqi towns from the Islamic State in late November and gained control of the town of Baiji, where the country’s largest oil refinery is located. Iraqi Kurdish fighters recently joined the ongoing battle for Kobani, a besieged Syrian border town that has become a symbol of Kurdish resistance. The arrival last month of 150 Peshmerga helped reinvigorate the fight against the Islamic State.
Some Kurds have chosen to provide their expertise in other ways. “I know a lot of doctors who have left Sweden to help and paid for the tickets from their own pockets,” Guven says, adding that the Kurdish National Association opened a bank account to raise money for refugees from Kobani. In London, Kurdish youth are also doing their part: Recently, a group of young Kurds hosted a comedy night called “Stand Up Against ISIS” to raise funds for the Kurdish Red Crescent.
There is perhaps no place that could foster a more passionate response from its community of Kurds than Europe. Many Kurds first began moving to Berlin, London, Stockholm, and other European cities as guest workers in the 1980s, laying the groundwork for more, who came in the 1990s fleeing political persecution in Turkey, the authoritarian regime in Iraq, and harsh assimilation policies in Syria.
Today, with an estimated 500,000 Kurds in Germany, some 50,000 in Sweden, and 100,000 in Britain, the Kurds make up a robust and active network who keep strong ties to organizations back home and participate in changing public opinion in Europe about their community with a number of alternative strategies. This community and sense of solidarity has been building for decades in Europe. But the jihadi advance in Syria and Iraq has awoken it and given it a new sense of purpose.
Barzoo Eliassi, a research officer at the International Migration Institute at Oxford and lecturer at Linnaeus University in Sweden who researches the Kurdish diaspora, says that Europe is where Kurds — who were stigmatized, oppressed, and economically marginalized back in the Middle East — have wholeheartedly embraced and discovered their Kurdishness.
“When they come to Europe, they find a new political context, which is more democratic and liberal,” he says. “You have more freedom for your own cultural identity; no one comes and tells you that you cannot be Kurdish or you can’t speak Kurdish. Although you are in a minority position, you are more privileged, you have space to invest in your identity.”
The waves of immigration have also led Kurds from Turkey, Iran, and Iraq to intermingle in a way they wouldn’t in their fractious homeland. As Kurds from across different borders meet in Stockholm or Berlin or London, they are able to form a more cohesive identity than they would otherwise be able to across Turkish or Iraqi or Syrian borders.
Eliassi, who called the Kurdish diaspora one of the best-organized immigrant groups in Europe, points to Sweden, where he says Kurdish libraries, television shows, and cultural centers explore Kurdish identity while also sharing it with a Swedish audience.
This flourishing identity has also translated into concrete action. Across Europe, the Kurdish diaspora has lobbied for the Kurdish cause, holding protests and sit-ins, engaging in hunger strikes and online activism. In late 2011, over a dozen protesters rushed into the offices of the Guardian, demanding coverage of human rights abuses by the Turkish government against Kurds. In October, Kurdish activists staged a mock slave market in London and broke into the European Parliament in Brussels to demand international action for the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria.
Memed Aksoy, a Kurdish activist and spokesperson for the Kurdish Assembly in the U.K., one of the largest Kurdish activist groups based in Britain, knows of two people who left Portsmouth, England, to join the PKK in Iraq, as well as many more who have left from Germany, where the largest number of Kurds in the diaspora reside. Aksoy says he’s happy to see the PKK’s presence revitalized in Europe. Ever since the group was designated a terrorist group in 2004, its supporters in Europe have come under scrutiny and have consequently lost money, momentum, and membership. “We’re once again slowly organizing ourselves,” he says.
The PKK’s attempts to help Yazidis escape the Islamic State’s siege on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, as well as the group’s support for the ongoing siege of Kobani, have won the group praise from leaders around the world. A group of European politicians is currently pressuring the European Union to remove the PKK from its terrorism watch list.
Harry van Bommel, a Dutch Socialist Party politician, says he is working on opening the debate in the Netherlands to have the organization removed from the list for two reasons: to support the peace process between Kurds and the Turkish government and for the vital, internationally important role the organization has played in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. “It’s politically not right to play a role in this fight against ISIS and at the same time to consider [the PKK] a terrorist organization — that’s not a credible position of the international community,” he says. “We have to take into account that these lists are political lists, they are not legal lists, and therefore it is a political decision to become on the list, and also a political decision to get off the list.”
Eliassi says the fight over Kobani has been a significant moment for Kurds, leading to a rupture in how they’re viewed by the West. The battle has helped bring the PKK’s brand of secular politics, along with its emphasis on gender equality, onto the world stage.
At the same time, the fight against the Islamic State has given Kurds a renewed sense of hope that a different future for the Middle East is possible — one that could include the realization of their aspirations for autonomy and independence. This has energized the Kurdish diaspora, too.
“If you asked the Kurds maybe 10 or 15 years ago they wouldn’t have been so outspoken about it,” says Shwan Zulal, a London-based analyst of Kurdistan. “Nowadays they see it in their grasp but they know it’s going to be a hard slog, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Though divided across political, religious, linguistic, and geographic lines, the extended Kurdish diaspora has also presented an opportunity for unity among the Kurds in Europe as they raise funds, organize protests, or consider leaving home to go join the fight across their homeland.
Speaking from his home in Denmark, Pirani, who described the last 30 years of the greater Kurdish struggle as “being at a party where you feel really important but no one is looking at you,” is planning to go back to Kurdistan next year to enroll in another training course.
He wants to be prepared, he says, whether it’s helping in Iraq or Syria or the less-reported ongoing clashes between Kurds and the Iranian military. He recognizes that although his military training has just begun, he has another advantage: the eyes and ears of a wide audience at home in Denmark and Europe, where he can bridge two worlds that are slowly becoming familiar with each other.
“I know you are better at fighting people than me,” he told contacts back in Iraq. “But if you kill thousands of our enemies, no one in the world will see it. Teach me some of these things, and I can show the people in Europe how things are done.”
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