MOORHEAD, Minn. – Jamal Tmr looked on as several of his children ate pancakes in their elementary school cafeteria, laughing and chattering as easily as if this city in northwestern Minnesota had always been their home.
Every morning, the Kurdish father of seven chauffeurs some kids to school and walks others to a bus stop down the street, determined to shepherd them through an ordinary American childhood — one far from the artillery fire in their Syrian homeland and the tents where they found shelter in a Turkish refugee camp. He tries not to talk about the ordeal they escaped, or the plight of the Syrian children their age in the news.
“I don’t want their pain to be like my pain,” said Tmr, 35.
Moorhead’s community of about 1,500 Kurdish refugees and their children is following the chaos in Syria with a grim sense of familiarity, lamenting that their people — an ethnic minority living across a swath of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey — have a long history of persecution. Many settled in Fargo in the 1990s after the Gulf War, following Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds with chemical weapons and military assaults.
When Tmr joined his wife and Kurdish neighbors to watch television after taking the children to school, the latest news was distressing: reports that locals were throwing rocks at American convoys leaving Syria after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops.
Tmr and other Kurds here view Trump’s actions as a devastating betrayal, opening the door to a Turkish military assault against Kurds in northwest Syria who had fought ISIS alongside American soldiers. The close-knit group in Moorhead alternates between the Kurdish TV news channel Rudaw and CNN, gleaning firsthand accounts from family members on spotty internet services.
“Everybody is very outraged,” said Jihan Brifki, 37, whose family fled Saddam’s attacks and settled here in the early ’90s when she was a child. She now has four children of her own. “… Since this happened, I haven’t been able to sleep, I wake up in the middle of the night to look at my phone.”
Community pulls together
Brifki spent years of her own childhood in a Turkish refugee camp, and her father was killed by Saddam’s forces. A scarf featuring Kurdish flags — striped in red, white and green with a golden sun in the center — was draped over a counter in Brifki’s kitchen in Moorhead, where she talked over a meal of biryani (a rice dish with chicken, potatoes and almonds), stuffed vegetables and deep-fried pastries made of rice and meat. Her necklace showed the flag in miniature.
Among her guests was Salman Abdulkareem, 62. Abdulkareem immigrated from the Kurdish region of Iraq six years ago and enjoys walking around his neighborhood without fear. But after listening to Brifki’s family members talk about the violence in Syria, he stepped onto the porch for a cigarette to ease his distress.
“The Kurdish people are in desperate need of a country like America to support us,” Abdulkareem said. “And America needs people like the Kurdish.”
Similar anguish plays out across other Kurdish homes in Moorhead.
“Before this happened, Kurds couldn’t get over what happened with ISIS,” said activist Kawar Farok, 30, whose family came to the area as refugees from Iraq when he was a child. He was born in a Turkish refugee camp and lost a grandfather to Saddam’s attacks. “Before ISIS, it was al-Qaida. Before al-Qaida, it was Saddam Hussein. Before Saddam Hussein, it was Iran. It’s a never-ending thing. Kurds have always faced some form of oppression.”
It’s all the more painful, according to Farok, because Kurds have always loved Americans.
“When a lot of Kurds come to America, they’re very productive,” Farok said. “They love freedom, they love family, they love education — they love everything about the liberties they’re given in America.”
Many Kurdish people originally moved to Fargo with the help of refugee resettlement agencies such as Lutheran Social Service, though Nashville holds the largest Kurdish population in the U.S. Over time, the majority moved across the river to Moorhead.
Today, Tmr noted that he finds Kurds wherever he goes — working at the hospital, Sam’s Club, Walmart. A cafeteria aide in one of his children’s schools speaks with him in Kurdish in the mornings. A Kurdish flag flies along with an American one outside of Nick’s Auto Sales, owned by Farok’s brother.
Nick Farok also manages Newroz Kebab, a Kurdish restaurant that opened this year in a strip mall and features photos of Kurdish historical sites on the walls — a show of pride in their people’s history and the dream of a country of their own.
“We are very proud of [the history],” Nick Farok, 39, said. “We’ve never given up and I don’t think we’ll ever give up.”
Tmr lived in northeastern Syria near the border of Turkey and Iraq, fleeing with his family during the civil war in 2012. ISIS soldiers shot at their bus as it traveled to the Kurdish region of Iraq, wounding some passengers, but Tmr’s family escaped harm.
They lived for four years in a tent in a refugee camp in Turkey and migrated to America in 2016. Any possibility of his relatives joining Tmr dimmed after Trump took office and began dramatically lowering the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. and adopted a ban on travel from Syria and some other Muslim countries.
He settled in Moorhead because his mother’s Iraqi cousin lives here. He knows that Moorhead is safe, but he cannot fully shake the effects of navigating years of danger. When his wife, Bayan Khalil, hears a knock at the door, she asks a Kurdish neighbor to see who it is. She is afraid to go upstairs and downstairs by herself, wondering if someone is there. She has PTSD and nightmares about ISIS.
Siblings send Tmr phone videos of Turkish helicopters flying overhead. His brother’s wife died in artillery fire a year ago amid the Turkish invasion of Syria, leaving behind several children. Tmr’s heart sinks every time he hears of an airstrike, wondering if another loved one will die.
“It’s a sense of panic, a sense of helplessness, a sense that you can’t do anything about this and the exterior world powers have ignored you,” he said.
Tmr’s living room becomes raucous when the children return from school, jostling over who gets to use the PlayStation. Their ages range from 3 to 15. The boys took turns playing video games. “Shhhh!” Renas, 13, told a little sister reading loudly from a book on the Arabic alphabet.
Two clocks sat above the TV. The one on the top showed the time in Minnesota; the one beneath it showed Kurdish time, eight hours ahead.
Tmr and the adults sat back on the couch, reflecting on all that had changed. He was a laborer in Syria. Now several of his children want to be doctors. His sons played soccer at the refugee camp with other boys, but with the sport’s lesser popularity here, they’ve taken a greater interest in basketball.
“You can see my kids here, they’re pretty happy,” said Tmr. “If I was over there, my kids would be … unhappy, maybe even dead.”