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Continued: For Kurds, Fargo-Moorhead becomes a refuge

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 28, 2012 - 9:22 PM

MOORHEAD, MINN.

The top TV news story on a recent night was a pickup truck falling through the ice at Big Cormorant Lake and warnings from the station's "Stormteam" of a coming cold snap. But at the home of Newzad Brifki, the big-screen TV was on Kurdsat, a Kurdish satellite network reporting on the recent airstrike on the border of Turkey that had killed 35 Kurdish civilians.

The dolma, a stuffed cabbage dish, and the samoon, an Iraqi flat bread, had been cleared from the kitchen table and the talk in the living room got down to the nascent Kurdish community here on the prairie.

"There is a saying in Kurdistan, 'We have no friends but the mountains,'" Brifki said. "But we had the Americans. Now that the Americans have withdrawn, we don't know what will happen next.''

Although exact numbers may be in dispute, the 1,100 or so Kurds in the Fargo-Moorhead area are by far the greatest number in the Upper Midwest. With North Dakota having the lowest unemployment rate in the country, employers like Drayton Foods, which produces frozen dough, and the window manufacturer Cardinal Glass have provided spots on assembly lines for the newly arrived who might struggle with the language but are willing to work.

Like the influx of Hmong refugees from Laos to St. Paul in the 1980s and '90s, and immigrants fleeing to Minneapolis from the civil unrest of Somalia more recently, the Kurdish community here seems to be part Midwest social experiment, part embodiment of the American Dream.

Decidedly pro-American, many arrived in the 1990s, fleeing the regime in Iraq of Saddam Hussein, and coming to Fargo-Moorhead through refugee programs largely funded through such religious organizations as Lutheran Social Service.

But with the departure of U.S. military forces in Iraq and instability of Iraq's political future, there are new arrivals by the week. Like their Iraqi counterparts of Arab descent, many Kurds worked with the American military and have secured special visas that gave them high priority in getting out of the country, their names and faces making them targets for possible reprisals in their homeland.

Still, thousands of others remain in Iraq, stuck in a bureaucratic limbo as U.S. immigration policy straddles supporting those who helped them in the war and concerns about the possibility of importing terrorists. The new instability there worries those who are here.

One program to facilitate the immigration of interpreters and translators who assisted the United States during the war has gradually increased the number of visas it grants per year from 50 to 500. But a U.S. State Department Inspector General's report on the program found cases where visas were sought by former Saddam-era military personnel, including Republican Guard officers, a chemical warfare specialist, a former fighter pilot who flew against U.S. military forces, and a commander of the national air defense center.

Hikmat Abdulhakim Ahmad, who speaks French, Kurdish, Arabic and English, was a translator for the U.S. Army and arrived in the United States through the program, known as a Special Immigrant Visa. He's now going to school in Fargo studying respiratory care after moving here from Nashville. While the usual visa program can sometimes take years, he came to this country in less than a year and got his Green Card in less than 10 days. He said he may be able to temporarily visit with a father and siblings who remain in Iraq, but Ahmad said staying any longer probably would be a death sentence because of his work with the Americans.

"You don't know who is watching, but they know who you are. They have our pictures. They are looking who is working with the U.S. Army," he said.

Unlike Ahmad, Fawzi Oray is a naturalized American citizen, having left Iraq when he was 14 and arriving in the United States in 1992 after four years in a Turkish refugee camp. For nearly six years in the last decade he worked in Iraq as a linguist for the U.S. military, most recently in October of last year with U.S. Special Forces.

"It was the most honorable thing I have done in my life," Oray said of his role. "One, it was to show the Americans that I am paying back what America has done for me. Two, it is to tell my children that freedom is not free. I am protecting the freedom that they have."

A common bond

While the Kurds in Fargo-Moorhead are from Iraq, they are an ethnic group spread across parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, in a region collectively called Kurdistan. They are bound by a common language and ethnicity -- and by the almost universal hope of an autonomous Kurdish homeland.

The bulk of the Kurdish immigrant population in the United States has been centered in the Nashville area, where there are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Kurds, who began arriving in the 1970s. Nashville has developed a Little Kurdistan area in its southern suburbs.

There is no central venue for Fargo-Moorhead's Kurdish community. There are no Kurdish restaurants or mosques and the only Kurdish-owned business is Tony Salman's A & R Auto Sales & Repair on E. Main Avenue in Fargo. Like any small businessman, Salman bemoans the lack of business, and jokingly points to his fellow Kurds, whom he says often seem to ask for advice on their car needs and then go off and make the repairs themselves.

In a bit of irony, Salman says most of his customers these days come from the area's communities of Somalis and other African immigrants.

In the 5,300-student Moorhead Public Schools, 154 Kurdish students are enrolled in the district's English as a second language programs, second only to its 286 Hispanic students. Moorhead Schools Superintendent Lynne Kovash said the district has worked hard to embrace the new cultures.

"We can't change our calenders for school days or anything, but we are very aware of things like Muslim holidays," she said.

Friday night Kurdish class

Maintaining Kurdish culture in the frozen prairie is where the Kurdish Youth of America comes in. The goal of the organization, which hopes to have a community center and Kurdish mall, is to promote Kurdish culture by offering language classes to kids of refugees and to serve those newly arriving by helping with such things as driver's licenses and immigration paperwork. Friday night Kurdish language classes have blossomed from five kids when it started in October to as many as 35 recently.

Newzad Brifki came to Moorhead as a 7-year-old boy after his family fled northern Iraq's Kurdish region, with a stop at a Turkish refugee camp where his older brother would be shot three times searching for water. Now, at 29 and with a business administration degree, he is the head and founder of Kurdish Youth of America, which operates out of an office park in south Moorhead. Brifki embodies his adopted home, driving a Ford Explorer and constantly answering calls with a Bluetooth in his ear.

The organization has become a central location for people like Sinam Amedy, who came to the area with her family when she was 6 and is now 21 and a junior at Concordia College in Moorhead. She volunteers at the center as much as she can.

"My siblings have gone through this period when they wished we were all assimilated," she said, sitting in a conference room festooned with the Kurdish flag and a poster of a young boy in Kurdish clothing. "But growing up, I realized that this is really important. I should keep that. These are really important traditions, and it's really sad if I lose those."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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