Kurdish Americans

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Author: Chad Dundas
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 7,871 words
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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Kurdish Americans

Chad Dundas


Kurdish Americans are immigrants or descendants of people who are Kurds, an ethnic group indigenous to multiple countries throughout Southwest Asia. The bulk of the worldwide Kurdish population lives in Kurdistan, a roughly defined region of arid mountains and high plateaus that includes portions of eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran. Kurdistan is typified by rugged terrain, high elevations, and extreme temperature swings between summer and winter seasons. It also boasts significant deposits of natural resources and is suitable in many areas for intensive agriculture. Estimates of the total size of the region range widely, from 74,000 square miles (190,000 square kilometers) to 151,000 square miles (390,000 square kilometers), the latter of which is roughly the size of the state of Montana.

The total population of Kurdish people is between 30 and 38 million, according to 2012 estimates from the CIA World Factbook. Although political and nationalistic factors make it difficult to accurately gauge the size of the Kurdish population, this estimate includes approximately 14.35 million in Turkey, 7.9 million in Iran, 6.2 million in Iraq, and an undefined population of several more million in Syria. The majority of Kurdish people practice Islam, though some adhere to indigenous religions and a small number practice Christianity or Judaism. Many Kurds subsist by farming and herding animals as part of the region's pastoralist economy. Since the 1990s they have had partial autonomy in the area of Iraqi Kurdistan, a district rich in oil and minerals such as coal, copper, gold, and iron. This has provided an economic boost for the Kurdistan Regional Government but has further worsened long-standing discord with the Iraqi government.

Kurdish people first began immigrating to the United States after World War I, though the most notable numbers arrived in three distinct migration waves during the late twentieth century. The largest population of Kurds in North America is in Nashville, Tennessee, where since the late 1970s Kurdish refugees have settled in a neighborhood affectionately known as Little Kurdistan. Early on, Kurds in the United States worked entry-level jobs, but in cities such as Nashville, where large populations have gathered, they now own an array of businesses that support their neighborhood communities. The vast majority of Kurdish immigrants are from Iraq, and the largest influx occurred during the 1990s, when Kurds fled that country in great numbers to escape a genocidal campaign waged against them by dictator Saddam Hussein.

Estimates of the Kurdish population in the United States vary greatly. In 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated that there were 15,300 people of Kurdish descent in the United States, but other informal estimates put the number closer to 40,000 or 60,000. Kurds often migrate secondarily to the United States, which makes it difficult to calculate accurate population numbers. In addition, many Kurdish Americans self-identify as being from the country from which they migrated, such as Iraq or Turkey. According to the American Community Survey as well as unofficial estimates from groups such as the Kurdish Achievers and the Kurdish American Youth Organization (KAYO), the largest populations of Kurdish people in the United States live in Davidson County, Tennessee (which includes Nashville and surrounding communities); Virginia; and San Diego, California. KAYO also reports that Kurdish Americans live in smaller but notable numbers in the states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.


Early History Historians still debate the exact origins of Kurdish people, and there remains some disagreement over the etymology of the term Kurd. Although Kurdish people were not recognized as a single, distinct ethnic group until the Middle Ages, archeological evidence suggests humans were inhabiting the mountains of Kurdistan as early as 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. The people of these early civilizations (such as the Guti, Subari, Lullu, Kassite, Mitanni, Mani, Urartu, Nairi, and Mede) are believed to have been of Indo-European decent or to have migrated south from lands in what would become the countries of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia. Modern Kurdish people are likely the descendants of these early tribes and their culture the result of centuries of assimilating the beliefs and customs of many disparate migratory groups.

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By the rise of the Muslim Conquests of the region during the early seventh century, indigenous people were living a partially sedentary lifestyle, practicing basic agriculture and herding livestock in the rugged terrain of Kurdistan. In 641 CE, forces of the Muslim caliphate pushed north from the Arabian Peninsula, conquering lands claimed by the Sassanid and Byzantine empires, including Kurdish outposts in what is now northern Iraq. This period likely signaled not only the Kurdish civilization's first exposure to Islam but also the beginning of centuries of rule by outsiders, punctuated by countless Kurdish uprisings against various foreign invaders.

While under the rule of the caliphate, tribes in the empire's most remote, isolated areas began establishing their own independent states, and during the Middle Ages many Kurdish dynasties arose in the region. Of these dynasties, the Ayyubid dynasty (c. 1173–1250) was the largest, ruling over Egypt and what is now Syria, northern Iraq, and Yemen. Kurdish dynasties would rise and fall with the changing tides of invasions and conquests, though Kurds managed to maintain some autonomy over their homeland.

In 1514 Ottoman armies captured and annexed Kurdistan and Armenia as two separate lands. For a time Ottoman leaders allowed local chiefs to govern Kurdish domains, but by the nineteenth century the empire had begun centralizing its power around the capital city of Constantinople. In 1847 Kurdish leaders staged an unsuccessful revolt against the Ottomans; and despite its failure, by 1880 the first real Kurdish nationalist movement had taken root, with leaders demanding the recognition of an independent Kurdistan.

Modern Era Kurdish history during the twentieth century was largely defined by oppression and persecution at the hands of political leaders in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria as well as by a desire among Kurds to establish sovereign home rule over Kurdistan. When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved at the end of World War I, many Kurds resisted assimilation into the new Turkish Republic. During the war, the Young Turks, members of Turkey's secularist, nationalist reform party, had waged a widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing and forced deportation against Kurdish people, displacing as many as 700,000 Kurds from their homelands. It is estimated that perhaps half that number were killed.

From the 1920s until the 1940s, several short-lived independent Kurdish states blossomed and folded as the world's most powerful nations vied for control of the Middle East's oil-rich lands. These failed efforts included the Kingdom of Kurdistan in Iraq, the Republic of Ararat in Turkey, and the Republic of Mahabad in Iran. Each of these, as well as numerous other Kurdish uprisings, were suppressed by the ruling parties of their respective nations, resulting in the forced displacement of more Kurdish people and sporadic periods of martial law.

By the dawn of the Cold War, much of the Middle East was divided between countries welcoming support and influence from the United States and countries allying themselves with the Soviet Union. Kurds were caught in the middle, and their attempts at independence were often actively thwarted by the world's superpowers. In Turkey during the 1950s, Kurds enjoyed some increased freedoms and began working within the country's political system to improve their living conditions. In 1960, however, these efforts were halted when a military coup d'état ousted the country's democratically elected government.

At the same time in Iraq, war between a succession of governmental regimes and Kurdish people raged for nearly fifteen years, resulting in widespread atrocities. In 1970 Kurdish leadership negotiated an agreement with then–vice president Saddam Hussein that would allow Kurds to become members of the Iraqi government. After the attempted assassination of Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani in 1971, however, Kurds began a new offensive against the Iraqi government and were supported in their efforts by the United States. When Hussein signed a surprise peace agreement with Iran in 1975, the United States abruptly withdrew its support of the Kurdish independence movement, and the Iraqi power structure renewed its attacks against Kurds. The sudden lack of aid from the United States also caused Kurdish groups to regress into factionalism and infighting, which further hampered efforts aimed at liberation.

Hussein's worst attacks against the Kurds took place during the Al-Anfal campaign from 1986 to 1989. During this offensive, thousands of Kurdish people were killed in ground attacks, chemical-weapons strikes, and the systematic destruction of 4,500 Kurdish settlements. It is estimated that as much as one third of Iraq's 3.5 million Kurdish citizens were displaced and more than 180,000 non-Arab minorities killed. The most high-profile attack against the Kurds was Hussein's 1988 chemical-weapons assault on the village of Halabja, during which thousands of men, women, and children died.

In 1990 Saddam Hussein's military invaded the country of Kuwait, and during the build up to the ensuing Gulf War, the U.S. government began aiding rebel groups in Iraq for the first time in fifteen years. The following year, in response to Saddam Hussein's defeat by the United States, Kurds joined Shias from southern Iraq in an armed revolt. Although the uprising met with initial success, Saddam Hussein's armies moved in and destroyed the guerilla forces once it was clear that U.S. troops had left the region and were no longer supporting the freedom fighters. Thousands of Kurdish people were again forced to flee into the mountains, Page 43  |  Top of Articleand perhaps 1.5 million crossed the borders into Turkey and Iran. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France intervened to establish a “safe haven” for the Kurds in Iraq. Shortly thereafter Kurds in northern Iraq held parliamentary elections and established the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The next decade was typified by internal strife in the Kurdish movement and widespread skepticism about the trustworthiness of aid and military support from the United States. After the United States' successful invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, Kurdish people gained control over expanded territory, and a new constitution was established recognizing KRG rule in parts of the country. Following the 2003 war, Iraq's governmental system (where traditional political identity often went hand-in-hand with religious beliefs) underwent a significant shift as Shi'a Muslims and Iraqi Kurds gained more power. Across Kurdistan, this coincided with a rise of religious pluralism and today many Kurds abroad and in the United States emphasize interfaith relations and religious tolerance.

In Turkey, however, the government has historically refused to acknowledge the existence of a Kurdish minority population altogether. In March 2013 the Kurdistan Workers' Party offered the Turkish government a cease-fire to long-standing guerrilla warfare in that country. In Syria, Kurdish rebels joined other insurgent groups in an ongoing civil war, hoping the outcome would result in added rights and land holdings for Kurds.


The first Kurds to arrive in the United States, in the 1910s and 1920s, likely were not specifically identified as Kurdish by immigration officials. Because of this, and because they left few historical accounts of their lives, little is known about their numbers or about their early experiences with American culture. The majority probably settled in traditional immigrant neighborhoods of major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York and in the farmlands of Southern California. Some Kurdish residents in those areas today can trace their ancestry back to these initial arrivals. Most Kurds of that era departed their homeland due to the political upheaval brought on by the end of the World War I, including the fall of the Ottoman Empire, widespread forced deportations from the new Turkish Republic, and the repercussions of several large-scale Kurdish rebellions during the next two decades. Additional armed conflicts during the mid-twentieth century, such as the Fourth of July Revolution in Iraq in 1958, also increased Kurdish immigration to the United States.

The next notable and well-documented influx of Kurdish immigrants to the United States did not

A Kurdish immigrant holds a baby during a Kurdish New Year celebration in 2005 in Lake Dallas, Texas. The area is home to several thousand Kurds who gathered together to celebrate the holiday with dancing and food. A Kurdish immigrant holds a baby during a Kurdish New Year celebration in 2005 in Lake Dallas, Texas. The area is home to several thousand Kurds who gathered together to celebrate the holiday with dancing and food. KARL STOLLEIS / GETTY IMAGES

occur until 1975, when a fifteen-year revolution against a string of Iraqi regimes ended in failure and the deportation of massive numbers of Kurds. Between 1975 and 1978 the Iraqi government forcibly dispossessed 200,000 Kurdish people, some of whom immigrated to the United States. By 1976 many were being processed at Kentucky's Fort Campbell near the Tennessee border, just 60 miles north of Nashville. At the time, the city's booming economy, strong network of charitable organizations, and availability of entry-level jobs made it a natural landing place for the majority of these Iraqi Kurds. By 1978 they were joined by Kurds from Iran, who escaped that nation following their own unsuccessful bid for autonomy.

According to the leaders of local charity organizations, the Kurds who settled in Nashville during the 1970s established the first real Kurdish American community. They also constituted the first of three modern waves of Kurdish immigration to this country. The second wave came during the late 1980s and early 1990s as many Kurds left Iraq Page 44  |  Top of Articleto escape the genocidal attacks launched against their people by Saddam Hussein's regime. Many of these Kurds spent years languishing in Turkish and Iranian refugee camps before the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when a few thousand were accepted into the United States.

The final major wave of Kurdish immigration took place during the late 1990s, when Saddam Hussein's regime began threatening the families of nongovernmental organization staff members who had partnered with or received support from Western entities. In 1996 nearly 2,000 Kurdish people, mostly intellectuals and members of Kurdish leadership, crossed into Turkey and were quickly relocated to the United States by U.S. forces. Many of these immigrants—sometimes called the Guam Kurds due to the six months they spent there before being resettled in the United States—also found permanent homes in the Nashville area.

The Kurdish population in Tennessee has been estimated by groups such as the Kurdish American Youth Organization to be 11,000. Another estimated 10,000 live in San Diego County, which is home to up to a quarter of all Iraqi refugees in the United States. Many Kurdish people in Southern California work in agriculture, but the population also includes professionals, intellectuals, and activists. In Nashville the neighborhood known as Little Kurdistan features restaurants, grocery stores, car dealerships, and other local businesses owned by Kurdish people. A Kurdish community of around 4,000 people lives in the area of Dallas, Texas, while similar numbers live in suburban Virginia outside Washington, D.C. The Kurdish American Youth Organization also reported small, but significant, populations of Kurdish Americans living in New Jersey and New York. In 2010 the American Community Survey listed much lower estimates for Tennessee (2,980), California (2,853), and Virginia (1,192). The discrepancy between the unofficial estimates and the U.S. Census numbers can be explained by the fact that Kurds migrate to the United States from various countries and may self-identify as being from that country rather than being of Kurdish descent.


The Kurdish language is less a single, unified language than a collection of related dialects spoken by Kurds throughout western Asia. As a whole these dialects are frequently referred to by the umbrella term “Kurdish” and are considered part of the Indo-European language family. Typically, Kurdish languages are organized into three major dialects, called Kurmanjî, Soranî, and Pehlewaní. Within these there are numerous subdialects, which are spoken by smaller but significant numbers of


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Kurdish people. According to the Kurdish Academy of Language, there is “no standard nomenclature for the divisions of Kurdish dialects, not just in the works of Western scholars but among the Kurds themselves,” so the organization and names of various dialects and subdialects vary from source to source.

Kurmanjî (sometimes referred to as Northern Kurdish) is the dialect spoken by the largest number of Kurds, with an estimated 21 million native speakers. It is the language of the majority of Kurdish people living in Turkey, Syria, and the northern areas of Iran and Iraq, as well as in many of the former Soviet republics.

Soranî (or Central Kurdish) is the dialect spoken by the majority of Kurds in Iran and Iraq, with an estimated 10 million native speakers. Unlike Kurmanjî, which is written using the Latin alphabet, Soranî is written in a modified Perso-Arabic script.

Pehlewaní (also called Southern Kurdish or Kermānšāni) is spoken by an estimated 6 million Kurds in western Iran and eastern Iraq. Likely once a more prevalent dialect, Pehlewaní is believed to have been diluted and partially assimilated into Central Kurdish by large numbers of Soranî-speaking refugees who have moved into areas traditionally dominated by Pehlewaní.

In some countries, the Kurdish language has been a subject of controversy, and Kurdish speakers have faced discrimination. In Syria it is forbidden to publish materials written in Kurdish. Prior to 2002 it was illegal in Turkey to speak or write in Kurdish, but the country has since granted some reforms regarding the language. In 2009 the Turkish government began operating a twenty-four-hour Kurdish-language television station. As of 2012 it announced plans to begin teaching Kurdish in schools and to allow the language to be used in courts. Kurdish was recognized as the second official language of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and Soranî is now regarded as the dominant form of written Kurdish.

The 2010 U.S. Census counted 12,982 Kurdish speakers living in the United States. Because the majority of Kurdish American families arrived during the last several decades, many continue to speak Kurdish as their primary language at home. This is particularly true of older Kurdish Americans, some of whom never attended school in their home countries and may find it difficult to learn English—or may have no desire to learn it. In cities where Kurdish neighborhoods have been established, older immigrants sometimes isolate themselves inside Kurdish-speaking communities. In navigating English-speaking society, older Kurdish Americans sometimes rely on bilingual

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In November 2010 the University of California–Los Angles hosted North America's first summit on the Kurdish language. The summit was sponsored by the Kurdish American Education Society and UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies. It drew twenty experts on the Kurdish language from all over the world for a day of lectures and panel discussions. Topics included language policy, Kurdish identity, literature, music, and the dilemmas faced when trying to standardize the language.

children or grandchildren who have attended school in the United States.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Common greetings and expressions in Kurdish include the following:

Bi xêr bî, Bi xêr hatî—Welcome; Silaw—Hello; Demêke tum nebînîwe—Long time no see; Xoşhalim bi nasînit—Pleased to meet you; Beyanî baş—Good morning; Roj baş—Good afternoon; Êware baş—Good evening; Shaw Khosh/Shaw bash—Good night; Xoşbext bî—Good luck; Noş—Cheers; Rojêkî xoş—Have a nice day; and Sipas dekem—Thank you.


The dominant religion among Kurdish people, including those living in the United States, is Islam. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims who adhere to the mainstream Shafi'i school of religious law. Smaller numbers of Kurdish people are Shi'a Muslims, and others engage in mysticism as part of Sufi orders. An even smaller minority of Kurdish people continue to adhere to indigenous religions, some of which are believed to predate the culture's exposure to Islam.

Conversion to Christianity and Judaism never gained widespread popularity in Kurdish communities, though there are Kurds who identify as Christian or Jewish. In the United States many Kurdish families observe popular Christian holidays. A small number of Kurds adhere to Zoroastrianism, which was once the state religion of ancient Iran and is based on the teachings of the ancient philosopher Zoroaster. It is believed by some scholars to be the world's first monotheistic religion and focuses on the opposing forces of good and evil, embodied by two conflicting deities.

Notable indigenous religions among the Kurds include Yârsânism and Yazidi. Yârsânism (also known as Ahl-e Haqq, which is Arabic for “people of truth”) features distinct holy scriptures written in Persian and Page 46  |  Top of Articlethe Kurdish Gorani dialect. Major themes include reincarnation, the presence of distinct but related internal and external worlds, and the existence of a divine entity that manifests itself in human form. Many similar beliefs appear in the Yazidi faith; its adherents believe in the intermittent reincarnation of seven holy beings left behind by the creator to look after the world. Its holy books are written in the Kurdish Kurmanjî dialect, and its teachings contain elements of Zoroastrianism and Islamic Sufi doctrine.

Initial waves of Kurdish Muslim arrivals to the United States likely found few opportunities to worship in public and a lack of religious centers in which to assemble. Even in large cities where mosques were available, few if any services were conducted in the Kurdish language. This posed considerable difficulty, because Muslim prayer is often conducted in congregation, and communal services are considered a focal point of many Kurdish communities. In 1997 Kurdish people in Nashville opened the Salahadeen Center, believed to be the first Kurdish mosque in North America. There, local imams frequently hold services in Kurdish and multiple daily prayer times are available to congregants. San Diego also features a Kurdish Community Islamic Center, which offers religious prayer services to Kurdish speakers.

In modern times, and especially in the wake of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Kurdish people have begun to emphasize a spirit of religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation both in Kurdistan and the United States. The new constitution of Iraqi Kurdistan “endorses and respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the people” but also guarantees individual religious freedoms, mandating that other groups have “the freedom to practice their religious rites and rituals.” In 2012 the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan declared that schools there would be religiously neutral, teaching all the great religions of the world without favor or discrimination. Additionally, in recent years more Kurds have begun to convert to Christianity, though their numbers remain comparatively small.

Maintaining a distinct cultural identity is important to Kurdish people, and they have worked to preserve their customs by establishing their own neighborhoods, religious centers, social clubs, and in some cases by continuing to wear traditional dress. Enclaves such as Nashville's Little Kurdistan have become vibrant Kurdish communities where Kurdish refugees from different geographic locations bring together their tribal heritage, religious beliefs, and social bonds.


The majority of Kurdish immigrants have been eager to adopt the trappings of mainstream life in the United States. However, maintaining a distinct cultural identity is important to Kurdish people, and they have worked to preserve their customs by establishing their own neighborhoods, religious centers, social clubs, and in some cases by continuing to wear traditional dress. Enclaves such as Nashville's Little Kurdistan have become vibrant Kurdish communities where Kurdish refugees from different geographic locations bring together their tribal heritage, religious beliefs, and social bonds.

Adapting to life in the United States also posed some problems, particularly for older Kurdish people. Many were used to the tribalism of traditional Kurdish culture and felt alienated from the mainstream values of the United States, which they often saw as overemphasizing the individual at the expense of the family and spirituality. Some harbored a distrust of government and police after negative experiences in their home countries. Many struggled to find or adjust to new careers and in general to navigate American society, leading to a feeling of cultural isolation. Some older Kurds began to depend on younger people who more easily learned the language and more deftly assimilated into the culture of the United States.

As a result, Kurdish American youths sometimes reported feeling caught between two worlds, charged with maintaining the customs and traditions of their parents and grandparents while simultaneously fitting into the mainstream culture they encountered at school and in the workforce. This could lead to its own form of isolation; for instance, some Kurdish youths felt they could not turn to their parents when they encountered trouble in school or with friends. They often identified with a mixed cultural identity, feeling both American and Kurdish. Some Kurdish American young people in Nashville have joked about being a generation of “Ameri-Kurds.”

A turning point in Kurdish American culture may have occurred when educated Kurdish civic leaders with pronounced organizational skills began arriving in the United States during the late 1990s. These were professionals and intellectuals who left Iraq after being targeted by Saddam Hussein's regime. After settling in the United States, they began organizing the Kurdish American communities, helping earlier arrivals who had attained enough financial stability to start their own businesses and advocating for political engagement and activism in modern Kurdish American communities.

Traditions and Customs Kurdish immigrants have often forged close-knit communities upon their arrival in the United States, and many of these communities maintain decidedly traditional customs and beliefs. Although they often come from different regions and disparate backgrounds, Kurds typically share similar family and community values. The leaders of charitable organizations who helped settle Kurdish refugees in Nashville from the 1970s through the 1990s theorized that one reason the city seemed attractive to Kurds was that its relatively conservative Page 47  |  Top of Articlemorals and strong religious fundamentals were compatible with their own traditions.

Family and community are central themes in the lives of Kurdish Americans, and gatherings at the homes of extended family members are frequent, important events. Traditional Kurdish culture places considerable emphasis on the concept of hospitality, and it is considered an honor for Kurdish people to host other family members, friends, and even strangers in their homes. Guests are considered as important as family and no rooms in a host's home are closed to them. Hosts are commonly prepared to entertain at any time, frequently rescheduling other plans and organizing impromptu feasts or social gatherings when visitors arrive unannounced.

Cuisine Traditional Kurdish foods are as diverse and eclectic as the people themselves. Common staples of the Kurdish diet include meats such as chicken and lamb as well as a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and grains. Traditional dishes include meat dumplings called kofta or kibbe; dishes of rice, meats, and egg known as biryani; meat and vegetable pies called kuki; stuffed-vegetable dishes called dolma; an eggplant, pepper, potato, and tomato dish called tapsi; as well as a variety of soups, stews, salads, and sweets. Meals are often accompanied by rice or flatbread. Kurdish beverages include sweet black tea or strong, bitter coffee, as well as a mixture of yogurt, water, and salt known as mastow.

For Kurdish Americans, preparing traditional foods provides an important link to the culture of their homelands. Family dinners are common, and food typically fulfills a central role in community gathering or while entertaining guests. Even small, simple gatherings often begin with servings of Kurdish tea or coffee, followed by offerings of sweets, nuts, meats, and cheeses. The presentation of fruits typically comes last and can often signal the end of a gathering. Religious families view food as a gift from God, meant to be shared with others. Refusing food in the home of traditional Kurdish American families can be considered an insult or a sign that some slight or offense has been perceived.

In cities with larger Kurdish populations, traditional breads and pastries are sometimes available from Kurdish-owned bakeries. Restaurants offering Kurdish foods can also be found in cities such as Nashville; New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Traditional Dress Many Kurdish Americans, especially younger, second-generation members of the community, opt to wear Western or Americanized attire when in the workplace, at school, or attending mainstream social activities. At cultural gatherings, at home, or at religious services, however, some still opt to wear traditional clothing. This is especially true of older Kurdish Americans, who often hold onto traditional styles of dress in their everyday lives.

For Kurdish men, traditional dress usually consists of baggy trousers and loose-fitting shirts. Head wraps or turbans (called jamadanis in Kurdish) are typically only worn by very traditional older men and in some rural areas. They are rarely worn in the United States. Women's traditional dress generally consists of long, colorful dresses and headscarves. Kurdish women do not wear veils. Some younger Kurdish American women continue to wear headscarves in everyday life, many for religious reasons and to show that they adhere to the traditional customs of the culture.

Dances and Songs Music plays an important role in Kurdish culture, and traditional Kurdish music and dance are often performed during cultural gatherings among Kurdish Americans. Various regions throughout Kurdistan are known for producing different musical styles, and classical Kurdish musicians typically come in the form of storytellers, bards, and minstrels. They perform a wide gamut of styles, including songs of epic stories, love ballads, work songs, religious hymns, and songs used to mark special occasions such as wedding and holidays. Traditional Kurdish instruments include long-necked stringed lutes called the tembÛr and the saz, reed pipes known as the qernête and the bilÛr, and numerous percussion instruments.

Kurdish dances are often traditional round dances, where groups of participants join hands and perform choreographed steps while moving in a circle. In the Kurdish folk dance known as halparke, a single dancer comes to the head of the circle and performs a variety of intricate solo steps. Unlike some neighboring Muslim peoples, Kurdish dances are also often performed by men and women dancing together. Variations of Kurdish dances include the dilan, sepe, and chapi. Kurdish people also have a belly dancing tradition that dates back to their inclusion in the Ottoman Empire.

Holidays Kurdish Americans who practice Islam generally observe the major holy days of the Muslim calendar, and many Kurdish families in the United States also recognize popular Christian holidays. In addition to that, the largest Kurdish holiday of the year is Newroz (sometimes spelled Nawroz, NÛroj, or Nowruz), the Iranian new year. The celebration coincides with the spring equinox on March 21, though the Kurdish festival typically lasts several days, when community members gather for dances, games, special feasts, and the reading of Kurdish poetry. According to Kurdish lore, Newroz commemorates the deliverance of the Kurds from a terrible tyrant and celebrating it demonstrates solidarity with the cause of Kurdish independence.

In the United States, Kurdish communities typically hold gatherings to celebrate Newroz with music, dancing, and food. Sizable Newroz festivals are held each year by the Kurdish community in places such New York City, Southern California, Nashville, and Chicago.

Health Care Issues and Practices The bulk of Kurdish people who have immigrated to the United States have come as refugees escaping oppression and wartorn environs in their homelands. Before arriving in the United States, some first-generation Kurdish Americans experienced the kind of significant psychological trauma, physical injuries, and substandard treatment

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Haka ta nazani, chava da jeerani.

If you don't know, look to your neighbor.

Yek ziman her bes niye.

One language is never enough.

Berxwedan jîyane Û jîyan berxwedane.

To struggle is life, and life is struggle.

Çi dil hizir deket, dev xeber dedet.

Whatever the heart thinks, the mouth will speak.

Derdî xencer asane, derdî dil pir girane.

The pain of a dagger is easy, the pain of a heart is heavy.

Destê betal ser zikê birçî.

A hand that does not work will rest on a stomach that is hungry.

Tenha çiyakan dostmanin.

We have no friends but the mountains.

Tîrek mehawe ke le xot bigerêtewe.

Don't throw the arrow that will return against you.

that can cause lasting medical problems. Some suffered through genocidal campaigns and chemical-weapons attacks. Early on, language barriers and economic conditions may have prevented some Kurdish immigrants from seeking medical treatment, but access to health care has likely increased for most, particularly among the younger generation and Kurdish American professionals.

Literature from the U.S.-based Kurdish Human Rights Watch encourages refugees to seek medical care upon arriving in the United States, including reassurances that there is “no stigma attached to mental health or psychosocial services in the U.S.” It also warns that “public health care coverage is limited. … It may take weeks to see a doctor for a routine appointment, although critical health needs will be met in a timely manner. Once you become employed and can purchase private medical insurance, your health care options will increase.”


Traditional Kurdish families are patrilineal, and communal living is common, with extended families often living together under the same roof or as part of a larger, shared family compound called a mal. Several nuclear-family units typically live together in a mal, sharing the responsibilities of household duties as well as providing economically for the family. According to Kurdish customs, a family's eldest son, his wife, and their children continue to reside with parents and grandparents. If a family's economic status permits it, younger brothers and their families may eventually begin their own mals, over time enlarging the size and clout of the family compound.

Many first- and second-generation Kurdish Americans adhere to some of these familial customs, though life in the United States has altered some practices. It is still common for Kurdish American children to live with their parents well into adulthood, but most move out and start their own families after marriage. It is typical for Kurdish American extended families to stay in close contact, often living in the same neighborhoods, and to regularly gather for weekly or nightly communal family meals.

Gender Roles Kurdish families typically have both a male and a female leader (called the malxî for males and the kabanî for females), and although males are regarded as the traditional heads of patriarchal households, gender roles have often been defined by a family's living conditions. Generally, men are tasked with most agricultural duties and make most social and political contact with the outside world. Women are the primary caregivers for children and are charged with preparing family meals, but they are also expected to contribute to the social, economic, and political affairs of Kurdish society.

The lifestyle of seminomadic clans in Kurdistan often allow women and men to be nominal equals, while in sedentary rural families, and with the exception of the kabanî, women historically take a subordinate role in family units. Among more urbanized families, the entry of women into the workforce has weakened patriarchal traditions and allowed women to exercise more power in their households.

Kurdish American women, especially younger, second-generation family members, sometimes express mixed feelings regarding the expanded opportunities available to them in the United States. While largely enthusiastic about taking advantage of the economic, educational, and social freedoms offered by mainstream society, many also wish to honor and stay connected with their Kurdish heritage. In the United States, Kurdish wives often equally share with their husbands the responsibility of financially supporting their family. Many also accept traditional roles inside the household, saying they consider it an honor to be able to cook meals and complete housework to better the family's life.

Courtship and Weddings Kurdish marriage arrangements often occur according to tribal traditions and can be a method of establishing alliances and creating hierarchies. Historically, marriages were arranged, with parents sometimes making marriage plans before children were even born. Arranged marriage partners were typically from the same tribe and the marriage ceremony itself seen as the passage to adulthood for boys and girls. After marriage, a wife traditionally left her family to move into the mal of Page 49  |  Top of Articleher husband's family. In the past, this did not cause a woman to be geographically separated from her family, since tribes typically lived or traveled together. During modern times, however, the large-scale forced deportations and considerable Kurdish diaspora have often required women to leave their own relatives behind and travel great distances with their new families.

During the twentieth century, urbanization, separation from traditional clans, and modern economic factors have all weakened Kurdish tribal influence. This can be seen among Kurdish Americans, for whom arranged marriages are rare and tribal associations are less influential, though still present in their lives. Although some more traditional Kurdish elders still expect women to marry within their own tribes, younger Kurdish American women are exercising more agency in choosing their own partners, marrying outside of tribal traditions or marrying outside of the Kurdish community entirely. As a result of this modernization, Kurdish American wedding ceremonies often blend Western traditions with Kurdish customs.

Relations with Other Americans Kurdish Americans work to foster close relationships within the Kurdish immigrant community, but they are also typically welcoming to outsiders. By and large, they have positive relations with other Americans. As an immigrant group whose greatest numbers have arrived within the last three decades, many Kurds feel they are still building their reputation in the United States and express excitement at the prospect of sharing their own culture with their new neighbors here. In this way, Kurds stay in touch with their traditional culture while also welcoming members of outside groups into the fold.

However, Kurds have also experienced some high-profile difficulties in relating socially to other Americans. According to a 2007 article in the New York Times, a Kurdish street gang called Kurdish Pride had emerged on the south side of Nashville; it was believed to have “formed to present Kurdish bravado to this city's mix of Latino, Asian and black gangs.” After a string of crimes and criminal indictments, the gang was denounced by Kurdish community leaders and by the Kurdish American Youth Organization.


A strong work ethic is a point of pride for many Kurdish Americans, a growing number of whom have worked their way up from the hardships they initially faced as refugees and are now sending their children to college, starting their own businesses, and enjoying the fruits of life in the United States. The obstacles faced by Kurdish refugees coming to this country are formidable. Although charitable humanitarian organizations often provide some support in finding homes and entry-level jobs, some Kurdish people enter the U.S. workforce at positions far below the status they had in their home countries. Most Kurdish immigrants must navigate the working world initially knowing very little English and with a limited understanding of American culture.

Despite these difficulties, many Kurds have found success in the United States. In cities with large Kurdish populations, many immigrants have been able to rely on the support and patronage of other Kurds. In Nashville, for example, Kurdish people own businesses that are largely geared to serving Kurds, such as bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, and car dealerships. It is not uncommon for Kurds from other areas of the country to relocate to Nashville in order to start businesses they know will be supported by the Kurdish community. Kurdish Americans also own businesses that cater to the public at large.

Kurdish neighborhoods in other locations may be slightly less organized and less visible. In a 2009 interview with the Kurdish Herald online newspaper, Luqman Barwari, president of the California-based Kurdish National Congress of North America, said first-generation Kurdish immigrants in Southern California had historically not been economic climbers. Barwari said that unemployment and dependence on government-funded social assistance programs remained high in his community and that the population of professional Kurds in the San Diego area was small enough to be considered “insignificant.” Second-generation Kurdish Americans are working to change these realities, Barwari said, as more young Kurdish Americans are pursuing higher educations aimed at starting professional careers. He credited the organizational efforts of youth groups such as the Kurdish American Youth Organization with mobilizing young Kurds and helping them work to better the community.


In many instances, Kurds were forcibly disenfranchised from the political process in their home countries, and, perhaps as a result. Kurdish Americans have largely been keen to partake in the process after relocating to the United States. As in many diaspora communities, this includes not only an interest in their new country's political landscape but also attempts to organize and support political causes in their homeland. In March 2010, Nashville was selected as one of nine voting centers in the United States to participate in Iraqi parliamentary elections. As many as 12,000 Iraqi expatriates (many of them Kurds) from Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, and Missouri traveled to the city to take part in a three-day voting process to elect candidates to represent them in the provincial council in Iraq. American wings of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were both active in the elections.

In 2008 the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition honored the Nashville chapter of the

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An American Kurd demonstrates in front of the White House. An American Kurd demonstrates in front of the White House. B CHRISTOPHER / ALAMY

Kurdish American Youth Organization for its efforts to motivate the Kurdish community to participate in the U.S. presidential election. Kurds in Nashville also organized a movement around supporting the candidacy of Barack Obama.


Academia Azad Bonni (1963–) is a noted professor of neurobiology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he serves as chair of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. In 1976 his family left Kurdistan and settled in Canada, where he completed college and began his career in science and academics. In 1995 he received a PhD from Harvard University, where his laboratory made seminal contributions to the study of neurobiology, with an emphasis on neuronal connectivity, mental disorders, autism, and the developing brain. He has dual Canadian and American citizenship.

Activism Reza Jalali (1949–) has been a national director for Amnesty International as well as the multicultural director for the Department of Health in the state of Maine. Born in a Kurdish town in Iran, Jalali as a child witnessed family members jailed and forced into hiding for opposing the policies of the Iranian government. In 1981 he fled to India, and in 1985 he was granted admission to the United States. He settled in Portland, Maine, and became a U.S. citizen in 1991. Jalali continues to work organizing humanitarian relief efforts for Kurds throughout the world and has established numerous organizations, such as the Maine Kurdish Relief Fund and the Ethnic Minority Coalition.

Religion Edip Yuksel (1957–) is a leading intellectual and author in the modern Islamic reform movement. He has published more than twenty books on religion, politics, philosophy, and law while working against negative stereotypes of Muslim people and espousing a progressive view of Islam. Many of his texts were originally published in Turkish and have been translated into English. Born in Turkey, he has dual citizenship in Turkey and the United States and works as a professor of philosophy at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.

Stage and Screen Alia Shawkat (1989–) is an actress who has appeared in numerous films and Page 51  |  Top of Articletelevision series, mostly in comedic roles. She is best known for her work in the role of Maeby Fünke on the television sitcom Arrested Development. Born in Riverside, California, Shawkat is of Kurdish decent on her father's side and of Irish and Norwegian descent on her mother's side. Her filmography also includes the comedies Deck the Halls (2006), Whip It (2009), and Cedar Rapids (2011), as well as the war satire Three Kings (1999).


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The Kurdish Review

Billed as the only nationwide newspaper for Kurdish Americans, the Review is a monthly publication based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to “inform, educate, and promote awareness of Kurdish news, topics, and ideas that are relevant to today's vibrant Kurdish American community.” Archived issues are available online.

Behar Godani, Editor in Chief
Email: KurdishReview@gmail.com
URL: www.kurdishreview.com


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Voice of America: Kurdish

An international news and information service that offers a news broadcast as well as a website in the Kurdish language.

David Ensor, Director
330 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, D.C. 20237
Phone: (202) 203-4959
Fax: (202) 203-4960
Email: askvoa@voanews.com
URL: www.dengeamerika.com


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An online newspaper published in both English and Kurdish providing coverage on Kurdish news and issues.

Ayub Nuri, Editor in Chief
Email: ayub@rudaw.net
URL: http://rudaw.net/english


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Chicago Kurdish Cultural Center

A nonprofit group dedicated to bringing Kurdish people together and to educating people about Kurdish culture.

4803 North Milwaukee Avenue
Unit A
Chicago, Illinois 60630
Email: info@kurdishcenter.org
URL: www.kurdishcenter.org

Kurdish American Society

A Kurdish cultural organization headquartered in New York City.

Phone: (718) 635-0064
Email: info@usakurds.org
URL: www.usakurds.org

Kurdish Human Rights Watch

An organization providing refugee assistance to Kurdish people in the United States and around the world. Includes offices in California, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington State as well as in Iraq.

2805 Foster Avenue
Suite 207
Nashville, Tennessee 37210
Phone: (703) 385-3806
Fax: (703) 385-3643
Email: admin@khrw.org
URL: www.khrw.org

Kurdish National Congress of North America

A nonprofit benefiting Kurdish people in the United States and Canada.

Luqman Barwari, President
P.O. Box 50216
Irvine, California 92619
Email: kncna@kncna.net
URL: www.kncna.net

Washington Kurdish Institute

A nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to Kurdish issues around the globe.

Najmaldin O. Karim, President
1612 5th Street NW #2
Washington, D.C. 20001
Phone: (202) 484-0140
Email: wki@kurd.org
URL: www.kurd.org


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Center for Near Eastern Studies

A department at the University of California–Los Angeles dedicated to the study of Near Eastern peoples. Sponsored the first Kurdish language summit in North America.

Sondra Hale, Interim Co-Director
10286 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, California 90095-1480
Phone: (310) 825-1181
Fax: (310) 206-2406
Email: cnes@international.ucla.edu
URL: www.international.ucla.edu

Kurdish Political Studies Initiative

A research center that seeks to “develop knowledge and understanding about the Kurds and Kurdistan” as part of the University of Central Florida's Global Perspectives program.

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John C. Bersia, Co-Director
University of Central Florida
Howard Phillips Hall 202
4000 Central Florida Boulevard
P.O. Box 160003
Orlando, Florida 32816
Phone: (407) 823-0688
Email: John.Bersia@ucf.edu
URL: http://ucfglobalperspectives.org/

Vera Beaudin Saeedpour Kurdish Library & Museum Collection

An exhibit among the special collections archive of Binghamton University that includes items from the collection of Vera Beaudin Saeedpour, the former director of the now-defunct Kurdish Heritage Foundation of America.

Jean L. Root Green, Head of Preservation
Binghamton University Libraries
P.O. Box 6012
Vestal Parkway East
Binghamton, New York 13902-6012
Phone: (607) 777-4844
Email: jgreen@binghamton.edu
URL: http://library.binghamton.edu/specialcollections/saeedpour.html


Emery, Thero. “In Nashville, a Street Gang Emerges in a Kurdish Enclave.” New York Times, July 15, 2007.

Gibney, Matthew J., and Randall Hansen. Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

Lawrence, Quil. Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East. New York: Walker and Co. Books, 2008.

Mansfield, Stephen. “Religious Neutrality in 94%; Muslim Iraqi Kurdistan.” Huffington Post, June 18, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-mans-field/religious-neutrality-iraqi-kurdistan_b_1587042.html

Meho, Lokman I. The Kurdish Question in U.S. Foreign Policy: A Documentary Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

O'Connor, Karen. A Kurdish Family: Journey Between Two Worlds. Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, 1996.

Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Winders, Jamie. Nashville in the New Millennium: Immigrant Settlement, Urban Transformation, and Social Belonging. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2013.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300110