Kurdish Americans

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Kurdish Americans
Total population
17,000 (2013 census)[1] 0.0125% of the US population
Regions with significant populations
Tennessee, Florida, Texas, California, New Jersey, Washington, D.C.
Kurdish, American English, some knowledge of Turkish, Arabic and Persian
Mostly Islam with minorities of Atheism, Zoroastrianism & Agnosticism
Related ethnic groups
other Kurds

Kurds in the United States refers to people born in or residing in the United States of Kurdish origin.

The majority of Kurdish Americans are recent migrants from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Most have roots in northern Iraq or northwestern Iran.[2] Iraqi Kurds compromise the largest proportion of Kurds living in the US.

The first wave of Kurdish immigrants arrived as refugees during the 1970s as a result of the Iraqi–Kurdish conflict. A second wave of Kurdish immigrants arrived in the 1990s fleeing Saddam Hussein's genocidal Anfal Campaign in northern Iraq. The most recent wave of Kurdish immigrants arrived as a result of the 2011 Syrian Civil War and the 2014 Iraqi Civil War, including a number who worked as translators for the U.S. military.[3]

In recent years, the Internet has played a large role in mobilizing the Kurdish movement, uniting diasporic communities of Kurds around the Middle East, South East Asia, European Union, Canada, the US, and Australia.[4]


Kurdish immigration to the US began in the 20th century, after the World War I, with several waves of migration to the United States from the area considered "Kurdistan". Following the war, the Iraqi Revolution increased the emigration of Kurds to the United States. After the war, the Kurds had been promised an autonomous region, Kurdistan in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920.The ideology of the time was heavily influenced by Woodrow Wilson's doctrine of the right to self-determination.[5]

After the Turkish War of Independence, however, the treaty was annulled and replaced with the Treaty of Lausanne, which 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 US.[6]

Following the wave of migrants that left in the aftermath of the World Wars, a second wave of Kurds in 1979 came from the north of Iraq and Iran.[5] Migration was mainly due to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. There were also large groups of Kurds that left because of the socio-political turmoil, a byproduct of the revolution and general political instability. Many of the immigrants who made the journey in 1979 had hoped to overthrow the Shah or at least opposed him. The opposition to the Shah, many immigrants from Iran were granted asylum with little trouble and received assisted travel to the US.[7] Other byproducts of the revolution were border disputes between Iran and Iraq, which culminated in the Iran–Iraq War, from 1980 to 1988.

The third distinguished wave of Kurdish migrants arrived between 1991 and 1992 and is considered to be the largest of the four waves.[5] The migration was partly due 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 usually regard the event as evidence of genocide against the Kurdish people and have used that claim for political gains.[8] Although there was widespread support for Iran from Iraqi Kurds, the war caused severe internal divisions within the Kurdish population.[9] Thousands of Kurds then moved to the US.[10]

Another major wave of Kurdish migration to the United States or at least to Nashville, which has the largest concentration of Kurdish communities in the country, was in 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 US territory, and later resettled in the US.[11]

The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003 led to a massive influx of Kurds returning to lands they were displaced from during the Ba'athist policies. Several groups of Kurds emigrated to the United States by the instability caused by land disputes between returning Kurds and Arabs whose land they had occupied[10]

After 2008, several more groups of Kurds immigrated to the US. Many of the migrants had worked in some capacity either with United States military or humanitarian efforts, international humanitarian organizations, and other NGOs.[citation needed]


The total Kurdish population in the United States according to the 2000 census was 9,423.[12] More recent accounts estimate the total Kurdish population in the US at around 15,361.[13] Other sources claim that the number of ethnic Kurds in the United States is between 15,000 and 20,000 people.[14]

The city of Nashville, Tennessee includes the largest Kurdish population in the United States. A neighborhood in south Nashville has been nicknamed as "Little Kurdistan" due to its large number of Kurds.[15] Based on the 2000 census, the Kurdish population in Tennessee is 2,405, and in Nashville, the Kurdish population is 1,770.[16] According to Salahadeen Center of Nashville, there are more than 10,000 Kurds living in Nashville.[17] As of 2017 there were approximately 15,000 Kurds in Nashville out of the estimated 40,000 that reside in the entire United States. This is the largest population of Kurds in the United States.[3] Most have roots in northern Iraq or northwestern Iran.[2]

Iraqi Kurds[edit]

Iraqi Kurds are the most autonomous within their respective lands. Iraqi Kurds compromise the largest proportion of Kurds living in the US 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 and the strategic geographic position in Northern Iraq, and the effects are still felt by many Iraqi American Kurds.

Kurds in Iraq have been the subject of aggressive Arabization processes following the Al-Anfal campaign of the early 1990s. 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 1990s.[7] Iraqi Kurdish populations in America have open channels of communication with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) mediated through various groups such as cultural centers, mosques, and other humanitarian organizations. Due to this communication network, Kurdish organizations in the US have provided a significant amount of aid and humanitarian relief to the Iraqi Kurdish population on several occasions, oftentimes going through the KRG to implement relief efforts.[18]

Iranian Kurds[edit]

Iranian Kurds, unlike their Iraqi neighbors, were subjected to the aggressive Persianization (rather than Arabization) policies of the former Pahlavi Shahs of Iran in an attempt to promote national unity.[citation needed] The most aggressive of these policies was a language policy by Reza Khan that attempted to ban the Kurdish language, in favor of Persian.[19] Despite oppressive policies such as the banning of the 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.[20] The Iranian Revolution that took place in 1979 had multiple effects on Iranian Kurdish emigration because of the economic and political instability that 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 US, which led to a large wave of migrants following the Revolution. Kurds occupy an unclear socio-political position in Iran. Although the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran 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.[21]

Turkish Kurds[edit]

The "Kurdish Question" has been present in Turkish politics since the country's inception l, 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 and attempting to wholly ignore the ethnic identity of Kurds by referring to them instead as "Mountain Turks".[22] There are far fewer American Kurds from Turkey than Iran and Iraq. One reason for the scarce amount of Turkish Kurds emigrating to the US 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.[23][24]

Syrian Kurds[edit]

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. 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.[21] The current role Syrian Kurds have had in stopping the Islamic State 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 from the position of the KRG. Syrian Kurds fighting for sovereignty in parts of Northern Syria that correspond to Syrian Kurdistan have stated their ambition to establish a radical democracy with an emphasis on gender equality, sustainable ecological 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, however there are various dialects depending on the area of Kurdistan a Kurd is from. It has been deliberately outlawed from assimilation practices in Turkey and Iran.[25] The 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.[26] Within the Kurdish language, there are three dialect groups: Northern Kurdish/Kurmanji (the largest group), Central Kurdish/Sorani, and Southern Kurdish/Laki. 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 by younger generation Kurds than the older. Although an emerging phenomenon in the US, other diasporic Kurdish communities in the European Union have demonstrated that the immigration experience oftentimes leads to a dissolution of previous existing linguistic barriers, allowing for a more cohesive Kurdish community in the diaspora than was possible in Kurdistan.[27]


Kurds make up the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, after Arabs, Persians and Turks.[7] 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. They currently are minorities in the adjacent areas of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The only area in which Kurds compromise the majority of the population are portions of Northern Iraq; the location of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).[10] Recently, Kurds have been the subject of increasing media coverage as well as academic interest bt their pivotal geo-political role in the Middle East combating militant Islamic groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.[28]

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 US and Soviet Union). The confluence of these influences has transformed Kurdish culture, creating significant differences between Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish Kurds.[7] However, they all celebrate the Persian New Year, Nowruz.

Notable people[edit]

  • 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
  • Hanna Jaff, a reality television personality, and activist
  • Herro Mustafa, diplomat
  • John Shahidi, software developer and manager, brother of Sam
  • Sam Shahidi, software developer and manager, brother of John
  • See also[edit]


    1. ^ US Census Bureau American Community Survey (2009 - 2013) See Row #91
    2. ^ a b "Immigrants thrive in US country music capital". Al Jazeera English. Retrieved February 1, 2014.
    3. ^ a b Sawyer, Ariana Maia (June 23, 2017). "Who are the Kurds, and why are they in Nashville?". The Tennessean. Gannett Company. Retrieved October 1, 2017.
    4. ^ Yeğen, Mesut. "Review: The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization and Identity." International Journal of Middle East Studies 40.3 (2008): 518-20. JSTOR. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
    5. ^ a b c Ryan, David, and Patrick Kiely. America and Iraq: Policy-making, Intervention and Regional Politics. London: Routledge, 2009.
    6. ^ Baser, Dr Bahar. Diasporas and Homeland Conflicts: A Comparative Perspective. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2015.
    7. ^ a b c d Mansfield, Peter, and Nicolas Pelham. A History of the Middle East. London: Penguin, 2013.
    8. ^ Watts, Nicole F. "The Role of Symbolic Capital in Protest: State-Society Relations and the Destruction of the Halabja Martyrs Monument in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 70–85. doi:10.1215/1089201X-1545327.
    9. ^ Yildiz, Kerim, and Tanyel B. Tayşi. "Iranian State Policy and the Kurds: Politics and Human Rights." The Kurds in Iran: The Past, Present and Future. London: Pluto, 2007. N. pag. Ebsco Host. Web.
    10. ^ a b c Yildiz, Kerim. The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present and Future. London: Pluto, 2007.
    11. ^ UC Davis. "Kurds and Refugees – Migration News | Migration Dialogue." Migration News. University of California Davis, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
    12. ^ US Census Bureau. "The Arab Population: 2000" (PDF). Retrieved November 14, 2010.
    13. ^ "2006–2010 American Community Survey Selected Population Tables". Government of the United States of America. Government of the United States of America. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
    14. ^ The Kurdish Diaspora
    15. ^ "Nashville's new nickname: 'Little Kurdistan'". The Washington Times. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
    16. ^ Patricia, De La Cruz G., and Angela Brittingham. The Arab Population, 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, 2003.
    17. ^ "Salahadeen Center Of Nashville." SCN History. Salahadeen Center Of Nashville, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
    18. ^ Nashville, Tony Gonzalez The Tennessean. "Nashville Kurds Rally to Aid Families in Conflict." USA Today. 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.
    19. ^ Sheyholislami, Jaffer. "Kurdish in Iran: a case of restricted and controlled tolerance." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 217 (2012): 19+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.
    20. ^ Roosevelt, Jr. Archie. "The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad." Middle East Journal 1.3 (1947): 247–69. JSTOR. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.
    21. ^ a b Gunter, Michael M. Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2014.
    22. ^ Zeydanlioglu, Welat. "Turkey's Kurdish language policy." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 217 (2012): 99+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
    23. ^ Wahlbeck, Östen. "The Kurdish Refugee Diaspora in Finland." Diaspora Studies 5, no. 1 (2012): 44–57.
    24. ^ Baser, Bahar. Diasporas and Homeland Conflicts: A Comparative Perspective. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015.
    25. ^ Hardach, Sophie. "'Professor, You're Dividing My Nation'; In Iraqi Kurdistan, tongues are tied by politics." The Chronicle of Higher Education 59.41 (2013). Academic OneFile. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
    26. ^ Haddadian-Moghaddam, Esmaeil, and Reine Meylaerts. "What about Translation? Beyond 'Persianization' as the Language Policy in Iran." Iranian Studies (2014): 1–20. Web.
    27. ^ Schmidinger, Thomas. "The Kurdish Diaspora in Austria and Its Imagined Kurdistan." The Kurdish Diaspora in Austria and Its Imagined Kurdistan (n.d.): n. pag. Kurdipedia. Web.
    28. ^ McClam, Erin, and Seán Federico-O'Murchú. "'The Kurds Deserve Help': American Says He Was Wounded Helping Fight ISIS." NBC News. National Broadcasting Corporation, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.