|Regions with significant populations|
|Kurdish; American English|
|Mostly Islam with minorities of Atheism, Zoroastrianism & Agnosticism|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Iranian people (Yazidis, Zazas)|
There are few generalizations that can be made about American Kurds because of the group's diverse blend of language, religion, and national identity. Despite the cultural differences that exist within the Kurdish population, the marginalization and persecution of the Kurdish people has led to a revived Kurdish national identity.
In recent years, the internet has played a large role in mobilizing the Kurdish movement, uniting diasporic communities of Kurds around the Middle East, European Union, Canada, the U.S.A., and Australia. Today, American Kurds are playing a pivotal role in reviving the emerging Kurdish national movement.
Kurdish immigration in the United States began in the twentieth century. Kurdish immigration started after World War I, with several waves of migration to the United States from the area considered "Kurdistan". Following WWI, the Iraqi Revolution increased the emigration of Kurds to the United States (as well as Iran). After WWI the Kurds had been promised an autonomous region, "Kurdistan", in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.The ideology of the time was heavily influenced by Woodrow Wilson's doctrine of peoples right to self determination and was why Kurds originally were granted the area of "Kurdistan". After the Turkish War of Independence, however, the treaty was annulled and replaced with the Treaty of Lausanne that denied any Kurdish claim to an autonomous region. After the reversal of Kurdish land claims and ensuing persecution, Kurdish emigration from the Middle East began. Many diaspora communities were established in Europe and other Kurds emigrated to the U.S.
Following the wave of migrants that left in the aftermath of the World Wars, a second wave of Kurds in 1979 came from the Northern area of Iraq and Iran. Many of the Kurds that emigrated at this time did so because they rejected the theocratic system that followed the Iranian Revolution. There were also large groups of Kurds that left because of the socio-political turmoil that was a byproduct of the revolution and general political instability. Many of the immigrants that made the journey in 1979 had endeavored to overthrow the Shah, or at least opposed him. Due to this opposition to the shah, many immigrants from Iran were granted asylum with little trouble, as well as receiving assisted travel to the United States. Other byproducts of the revolution were innumerable border disputes between Iran and Iraq. These tensions culminated in the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980-1988.
The third distinguished wave of Kurdish migrants arrived between 1991 and 1992, and is considered to be the largest of the four waves. This migration was due in part to Kurdish support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, because Saddam Hussein had retaliated by attacking multiple Kurdish regions with chemical weapons.The most horrific and infamous of these attacks occurred at Halabja in 1988. Although different groups of Kurds have alternate interpretations of the attack, Kurds in general regard the event as evidence of genocide against the Kurdish people and have used this claim for political gains. Although there was widespread support for Iran from Iraqi Kurds, the Iran-Iraq War caused severe internal divisions within the Kurdish population. Thousands of Kurds moved to the U.S. during this time.
The last major wave of Kurdish migration to the United States or at least to Nashville (which has the largest concentration of Kurdish communities in this country), was Between 1996 and 1997, following a major civil war between Iraqi Kurdistan's two major political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Iraqi army began targeting hundreds of individuals accused of working against Saddam's regime. The International Organization for Migration initiated an evacuation. Kurdish refugees crossed the Turkish border, after which they were evacuated to Guam – a U.S. territory in the Pacific – and later resettled in the U.S.
The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003 led to a massive influx of Kurds and Turcomans returning to lands they were displaced from during the Ba'athist policies. Several groups of Kurds emigrated to the United States due to the instability caused by land disputes between returning Kurds and Turcomans and Arabs whose land they felt entitled to.
After 2008, several more groups of Kurds emigrated to the U.S.. Many of these migrants had worked in some capacity either with United States military or humanitarian efforts, international humanitarian organizations, and other NGO's.**
The total Kurdish population in the United States according to the 2000 census was 9,423. More recent accounts estimate the total Kurdish population in the U.S. at around 15,361. Other sources claim that the number of ethnic Kurds in the United States is between 15,000 to 20,000 people.
The city of Nashville, Tennessee has the United States' largest population of Kurdish people. Based on the 2000 census, the Kurdish population in Tennessee is 2,405 and in the city of Nashville the Kurdish population is 1,770 based on the 2000 census. Nashville, known as 'Little Kurdistan'by many of its Kurdish residents, estimates that more than 10,000 Kurds are living in Nashville. Census numbers of Kurds, however, may underestimate the Kurdish population because it does not explicitly recognize Kurdish ethnicity. There have been recent efforts by Kurdish organizations and other groups to change this.
Kurdish Religion in America
Most Kurdish people follow Sunni Islam, there are also minorities of Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians, Alevis, Yezidis, Yarsans, Zoroastrians, Babis and followers of different Sufi and Mystic orders, some of which have formed their own sub-communities in the United States.
Kurdish Cultural Background
Kurds make up the second largest ethnic group in the Middle East only outnumbered by Arabs. Despite the size of the Kurdish population, the Kurds have always been a minority in their respective nation states since the fall of the Ottoman Empire; currently occupying minorities in the adjacent areas of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The only area where Kurds compromise the majority of the population are portions of Northern Iraq; the location of the Kurdistan Regional Government or “KRG”. Recently, Kurds have been the subject of increasing media coverage as well as academic interest due to their pivotal Geo-political role in the Middle East combating militant Islamic groups such as ISIS.
Kurdish culture is problematic to define in absolute terms because the Kurdish population has been heavily influenced by tribal affiliations, contrasting nationalist projects, as well as international support from different ideological factions at different times (most notably the U.S. and Soviet Union). The confluence of these influences has transformed Kurdish culture creating significant differences between Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish Kurds
Iraqi Kurds compromise the largest group of Kurds, as well as the most autonomous. Iraqi Kurds also compromise the largest proportion of Kurds living in the U.S. and the group with the most established relationship with various groups (political, religious, humanitarian) within Kurdistan. The effects of tribal affiliation and power structure effect Iraqi Kurds more than other groups. Tribalism has remained important to Iraqi Kurds largely because of their history of relative autonomy, as well as the strategic geographic position in Northern Iraq and the effects are still felt by many Iraqi American Kurdish. Northern Iraq is the home to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the center of Kurdish political and military power.
Kurds in Iraq have been the subject of aggressive Arabization processes following the Al-ANFAL Campaign campaign of the early 1990’s. The Arabization process took place in conjunction with massive displacement of Kurdish families from Kurdish regions leading to an influx in Kurdish immigrants during the early 1990’s. Iraqi Kurdish populations in America have open channels of communication with the KRG mediated through various groups such as cultural centers, mosques, and other humanitarian organizations. Due to this communication network, Kurdish organizations in the U.S. have provided a significant amount of aid and humanitarian relief to the Iraqi Kurdish population on several occasions, often times going through the KRG to implement relief efforts.
Iranian Kurds, unlike their Iraqi neighbors were subjected to aggressive Persianization (rather than Arabization) policies of the former Pahlavi Shahs of Iran, in an attempt to promote national unity. The most aggressive of these policies was a hostile language policy by Reza Shah that attempted to totally ban the Kurdish language in favor of Farsi. Despite oppressive policies such as the banning of the Kurdish language Iranian Kurds achieved semi-autonomy for a brief moment in time when the Mahabad Republic rose to power in 1945 with the tacit support of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Mahabad Republic, Kurds became an even more feared and persecuted group in Iran. The Iranian Revolution that took place in 1979 had multiple effects on Iranian Kurdish emigration because of the economic and political instability it caused within Iran and the accompanying Kurdish persecution. The international support and attention dissenters of the shah received helped Iranian refugees receive asylum in the U.S. which led to a large wave of migrants following the Revolution. Kurds occupy an unclear socio-political position in Iran.Although the 1979 constitution granted equal rights to all ethnic minorities, distribution of vital resources such as healthcare, education, housing, and employment indicate that Kurds in Iran have remained an oppressed group in practice.
Turkish Kurds have been influenced the most by nationalist projects and associated assimilation policies and this has contributed to the relatively small amount of Turkish Kurds living in the United States. It is also the case that Turkish Kurds are underrepresented in the U.S. because they choose not to identify as Kurdish, most likely a result of the discrimination and persecution Kurds experienced in Turkey. The “Kurdish Question” has been present in Turkish politics since the country’s inception and the issue has remained contentious. The Turkish government has tried multiple assimilation strategies including language policies that suppressed the Kurdish language, discriminative economic and employment practices towards Kurdish people; as well as attempting to wholly ignore the ethnic identity of Kurds by referring to them instead as “Mountain Turks.” There are far less American Kurds from Turkey than Iran and Iraq. One reason for the scarce amount of Turkish Kurds emigrating to the U.S. is that many emigrating Turkish Kurds will travel to one of the closer Kurdish diaspora communities within the European Union like Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland, all of which are all home to varying sized Kurdish communities.
Syrian Kurds have experienced especially damaging discriminative practices, so much so that most Syrian Kurds cannot obtain the necessary documents to travel and/ or emigrate. Due to this, there are few if any properly documented Kurdish migrants from Syria. Recently there have been many efforts by Syrian Kurds to fight for political freedoms enjoyed by other Syrians beginning with an estimated 250,000-300,000 Syrian Kurds that were denied citizenship under the Ba’thist regime demanding citizenship status. The current role Syrian Kurds have had in stopping the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have brought the Kurdish question in Syria back to center stage. The military success the Kurds have experienced against the Islamic State has led to the creation of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. Although similar in some ways to the KRG, the vision put forth by the Syrian Kurdistan is quite different than the position of the KRG. Syrian Kurds fighting for sovereignty in parts of Northern Syria that correspond to the Syrian Kurdistan have stated their ambition to establish a radical democracy with an emphasis on gender equality, sustainable eco practices, and an overarching goal to undermine hierarchical power relations.
The combination of military success against ISIS with a radical political philosophy has made the Syrian Kurds, particularly those involved with the creation of independent Kurdistan within the Syrian Kurdistan project a focal point of international Kurdish mobilization.
Kurdish immigrants do not share a common language. The Kurds have never standardized the Kurdish language, despite texts with Kurdish writing exist as far back as the 12th century. Kurdish language has been deliberately outlawed due to assimilation practices in Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish language is officially recognized in the Iraqi constitution alongside Arabic. Kurdi or Sorani emerged as the literary expression of Kurdish language and is recognized in Iraq as the official written form of Kurdish. Within the Kurdish language there are four dialect groups; Northern Kurdish (the largest group), Central Kurdish (Sorani), Kurmanji, Laki (Southern Kurdish). The existing linguistic divisions within the Kurdish language make it difficult to generalize about what languages are being spoken by Kurds in the United States. English is spoken much more frequently amongst younger generation Kurds than older. Although an emerging phenomenon in the United States, other diasporic Kurdish communities in European Union have demonstrated that the immigration experience often times leads to a dissolution of previous existing linguistic barriers, allowing for a more cohesive Kurdish community in diaspora than was possible in Kurdistan.
- Azad Bonni, Edison Professor of Neurobiology and Chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine.
- Edip Yüksel, Islamic philosopher and intellectual, considered one of the prime figures in the modern Islamic reform and Quranism movements.
- Hamdi Ulukaya, businessman and entrepreneur, founder of Chobani
- Herro Mustafa, diplomat
- History of the Kurds in Nashville, Tennessee
- Turkish Americans
- Iranian Americans
- Iraqi Americans
- Syrian Americans
- Yazidis in the United States
- Assyrians in the United States
- Azerbaijani American
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