'Stabbed in the Back' | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

'Stabbed in the Back' 

Utah's Kurdish community reacts to the Turkish invasion of Syria.

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Kurdish families gathered in Washington Square Park on a recent Saturday to protest President Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria. - PETER HOLSLIN
  • Peter Holslin
  • Kurdish families gathered in Washington Square Park on a recent Saturday to protest President Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria.

The snowy peaks of the Wasatch Range are one of Utah's best-known natural features. For the small Kurdish community nestled in Salt Lake, those same mountains also evoke thoughts of cities and towns thousands of miles away.

"The mountains always remind me of home," Soran Kurdi, a former journalist from Iraqi Kurdistan who has lived here for six years, tells City Weekly. "We have cold, dry winters and hot, dry summers—similar to Utah."

Kurdi grew up in Erbil, the capital of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq famed for its fertile mountain ranges and pristine river valleys. He's now one of about 500 Kurds, composing between 70 to 80 Kurdish families total, who live in the Salt Lake Valley. Many have come all this way to escape the conflict and displacement that has haunted their Middle East homeland for more than a century—and in recent weeks they've banded together to mourn yet another bloody action against the Kurds.

"I feel we've been betrayed," Kamal Bewar, president of Kurdish Community of Utah—a local group that organizes events and gatherings—says of President Donald Trump's controversial decision this month to withdraw American military support from northern Syria, where Kurds allied with the United States have established a democratic, multiethnic state-within-a-state known as Rojava.

Trump's decision paved the way for an invasion by Turkey, whose government has long marginalized the country's Kurds and waged a bitter campaign against Kurdish militants. Eleven thousand Kurdish fighters lost their lives aiding U.S. forces in the war against ISIS, and now many worry that Trump's move has left them to seek new allies or face slaughter.

"It's just amazing to see, in one phone call, [Trump] turned foreign policy 180 degrees away from what the direction was before," says Bewar, who served for more than a decade as an interpreter and language instructor for the U.S. military and now works as a student success coordinator at Salt Lake Community College. "My biggest concern is innocent people will be killed."

Kurds have ancient roots in the Middle East. In the late '50s, archeologists discovered evidence of Neanderthal life dating back as far as 65,000 years in the Shanidar Cave, near the Great Zab river valley outside Erbil. For millennia, the legendary Tigris and Euphrates rivers have flowed from their sources in modern-day Turkey through the mountain passes where Kurds have dwelled, down to what used to be ancient Mesopotamia, where the water sustained the earliest forms of human civilization. According to Bewar, these links to human history feed into a mythical idea that the Kurds' homeland was the original Garden of Eden.

The Kurdish people were briefly poised to have their own sovereign state after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. But they were left behind as British and French colonial powers carved up the Middle East for their own purposes. Historical Kurdistan, home to an estimated 35 million Kurds, today stretches across the borders of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran—states where they are the minority, their culture and language subject to marginalization and violent erasure.

Fatima Rasoul, a 20-year-old student at the University of Utah, says her parents were forced to escape their home in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, in the wake of a genocidal campaign perpetrated by Saddam Hussein and his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid. Humanitarian groups and Kurdish officials estimate that between 50,000 and 182,000 Kurds were killed as the Iraqi army attacked innocent civilians with poison gas and razed thousands of villages to the ground.

"My whole life was determined literally by politics, because my parents had to flee because of the genocide of the Kurdish people in Iraq," Rasoul says.

Before coming to the United States, her parents lived in Syria for seven years. She and her brother were born in the northeastern city of Qamishlo—now a regional capital of Rojava, an autonomous breakaway region guided by the principles of Abdullah Öcalan, co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. The group is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States, and for 20 years Öcalan has been serving a life sentence for treason. But from his cell on an isolated island compound, he's advanced ideas of feminist principles and direct-democracy participation.

Rasoul has been following the latest news from Rojava closely. A senior at the U, she studies Kurdish history as part of her courses in political science and gender studies. She's visited Kurdistan multiple times, and hopes one day to build a shelter for women and children in the region.

"I kind of have been denied the ability to connect to my roots, because I've lived my whole life in the United States of America," she says. "There's something looming over me that says I should help, because I have gotten the opportunity to come to this country and get a good education, and I can take my expertise and skills back and I can help people who are in these difficult situations."

On a recent Saturday, dozens of people gathered in Washington Square Park across the street from the downtown Matheson Courthouse to protest Trump's action. Kurdish songs boomed over a sound system and families chanted and waved the Kurdistan flag, bearing a bright yellow sun at the center. Two white Utahns—both former volunteers for the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led alliance of militias aiming for self-rule in northeast Syria—also showed up to hand out pins and talk about the cause.

"Kurdish people have wanted to have their own country and be their own people since the beginning of time," Hazheen Jaff, a young Kurdish woman who was born in Iraq but spent most of her life in Utah, told City Weekly at the protest. Now, she says, "It feels like we've been stabbed in the back ... And it's, like, 'Well, how can we trust America now?' We need to protect ourselves, so there's definitely a loss of trust."

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney has been an outspoken critic of Trump's decision. In a speech on the Senate floor last week, he praised Vice President Mike Pence for announcing that Turkey had promised a five-day ceasefire, but bemoaned the troop withdrawal as a strategic misstep and an abandonment of a close ally.

"I also hope the cease-fire agreement is honored and that Turkey ends its brutal killing. But I note that lives are already lost and American honor has already been tarnished," he declared.

In Utah, Rasoul says she and others stay rooted in their Kurdish heritage by speaking Kurdish at home and connecting through a "shared memory" of where they come from and what they've been through. Every spring, they also gather to mark Newroz, a New Year's celebration coinciding with the March equinox.

Alan Arian, 42, was born in the small city of Saqqez in western Iran, but now feels settled in the shadows of the Wasatch Range. Since moving to the Beehive State in 2010, he's risen up the ranks at the Salt Lake offices of humanitarian organization Catholic Community Services, working as a program specialist to help fellow refugees reunite with spouses and children who are still overseas.

Still, like many others, the mountains of home stay close to his heart.

"Why again?" he implores, his eyes soft as he thought of his fellow Kurds in Syria. "Right now, they are alone."

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About The Author

Peter Holslin

Peter Holslin

Holslin is City Weekly's staff writer. His work has appeared in outlets including Vice and Rolling Stone. Got a tip? Drop him a line.

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