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Surrounded by family, with a scarf flashing the colors of Kurdistan draped across his chest, Kurdish war veteran Omar Osman Omer recalled life before coming to the United States more than 20 years ago. From the age of 19, he spent 13 years battling the Iraqi government as a Peshmerga fighter, struggling for freedoms like the ability to speak the language he now speaks at his home in Dorchester.
“The ideology behind the freedom fighters [was] that we wanted peace, democracy — and our basic rights were violated by the Iraqi regime," Omer said in Kurdish, translated by his son, Delshad Osman, 44.
But Omer, 65, left Iraq to find democracy elsewhere, a decade-long journey that would eventually land the family in Dorchester's Harbor Point neighborhood.
Omer says the Peshmerga revolution of the 1980s was crushed by Saddam Hussein, who infamously used chemical weapons against the Kurds. So he took his family to Pakistan, where they lived as refugees for nine years, before being selected for resettlement in the U.S. Their first homes were in Chelsea and Roxbury, and in 1998 they settled in Harbor Point.
Living in the U.S., Omer says his family can enjoy the ideals he fought for as a member of the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdish military organization which means "those who face death." But he says that freedom is bittersweet while Kurds in Syria face a Turkish military invasion.
"We have the freedom, democracy here in United States," Omer said. "But back in my country ... people are still fighting for those things. So I know the pain that my people are suffering ... it’s just unbearable."
Focus On Education
Roughly 500 Kurdish families are spread throughout New England, according to the New England Kurdish Association. Co-founder Seyhmus Yuksekkaya said the greatest number are from Iraq, followed by Turkey, Syria and Iran.
While most of the first-generation Kurds have gone directly to working and starting businesses, Yuksekkaya said, nearly everyone he knows among the younger generation is focused on education.
"Overall the education is very important to the first generation, because they probably didn't have a chance," he said. "So they send their children [to school], and they're very disciplined about it."
Patterns of Kurdish immigration have been tied to international conflicts, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq and conflict in what Yuksekkaya calls the Syrian part of Kurdistan. Most of Boston's Kurds are from Iraq, he said, while a Kurdish community in Worcester comes from Syria.
But Yuksekkaya, who's from Turkey, said the arrival of Kurds has grounded to a halt over the last three years, and pointed to the Trump administration’s antagonism toward refugees as the reason why.
"A Kurd is safe anywhere but Kurdistan," he said. "If you are outside of Kurdistan, you're probably more successful than inside Kurdistan because of the discrimination, because of the state terror ... if you [refuse to assimilate and] attempt to live like a Kurd."
A Kurdish Village In Dorchester
After the first Kurdish family came to Harbor Point apartments, Omer's son said a manager at the development encouraged federal authorities to point more families there. Now there are nearly 30 Kurdish families living on the Dorchester waterfront, Osman said.
"And so that's how we became a village of Kurdish community here," he said. "We call it a Kurdish village."
Omer has six children — all but one of whom graduated from college — and nine grandchildren. Life is good in Dorchester, but the entire family is distraught over events unfolding now in the north of Syria.
When President Trump announced he was pulling troops from northern Syria, he left the Kurdish militias — strong allies who'd helped defeat ISIS and reportedly lost 11,000 lives in the fight — to fend for themselves against a vastly superior Turkish military and other Syrian militias. Many Kurds and those sympathetic with their cause, including others in Massachusetts, described Trump's pullout as a stab in the back.
Shawnum Osman, 27, is one of Omer’s four daughters. She said she reacted to Trump's move with "complete shock."
"Given the history of the way that the Turkish state ... has treated the Kurds in Turkey, [I knew] that it was not going to be good, and that it was just a matter of time before Turkey was going to act," Shawnum Osman said. "And they wasted no time, in fact, and began their offensive."
She recently got her law degree from Northeastern University, and she's waiting for the results of her bar exam. She said the plight of the Kurds in Syria fills her thoughts each day.
"I'm still proud to be an American Kurd, and I think that with administration changes and with shifts and pendulum changes, we’ve seen that America is an ally of the Kurds," she said. "It’s just that this time in history has proven otherwise."
Shawnum Osman said it’s heartening to hear opposition to Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds from both Democrats and Republicans. And she hopes the 2020 election brings a new president, and the restoration of the U.S. alliance with the Kurds.
This segment aired on October 21, 2019.
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