Touring a Kurdish capital in the US
- 29 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
In Nashville, Kurdish immigrants have built a community to replace the home many were forced to flee. In a co-production with the BBC, Public Radio International's programme The World took a tour of the area.
Nolensville Pike is on Nashville's south side and is one of the city's most international strips. Stores and restaurants specialise in all things Mexican, Indian, Chinese - the usual suspects in a fast-changing city.
But there's one area off the Pike, at Elysian Fields Road, that stands apart: Little Kurdistan.
It looks like a drab strip mall. But it is far from that.
"You have the mosque here in the centre, and to the right you have bakeries, shops and markets - and jewellery shops," says Remziya Suleyman, a 29-year-old community organiser who grew up in the area. "I remember when it was just the mosque and that was all we had."
Suleyman arrived here as a child in the late 1980s after her family fled the Kurdish region of Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein's genocide.
They were part of a wave of refugees from Kurdistan who resettled in Nashville, a relatively affordable place with entry-level jobs that didn't always require English and ties to non-profit organisations like Catholic Charities, which assisted Suleyman's family when they arrived.
The city's Kurdish community grew as the war in the Middle East caused more people to leave Kurdish regions, including those in Iran.
Now Nashville houses the largest Kurdish community in the US, totalling about 13,000 people.
When I visit, it is Friday. Suleyman and I go to the mosque during afternoon prayer. While the imam delivers the sermon to the men, a flat-screen television transmits his words to the women in another room where kids run around.
Afterwards Suleyman shows me the Azadi International Food Market. There's a gem tucked away in the back of the market: a bakery where one wall is lined with ovens, including a tandoor, a large, drum-shaped oven. Several workers are kneading dough into long flatbread.
It is tough work. Bakery shifts start at 04:00. One woman kneads for hours. She gestures to a large plastic bucket filled with dough.
"It's heavy," she says in Kurdish. She sticks a dough ball to the sides of the tandoor to bake. Once it begins to puff, she uses tongs to pull the bread off the sides of the oven.
Customers stream in and out, picking up the warm, soft bread.
Sabri Abdullah runs the bakery and market and talks to me while ringing up customers. He got here in 1993, and he tells me he spotted an opportunity in the community.
"I was the first one, and now we have several bakeries trying to do the same thing," he says.
Nashville's top (and only) Kurdish cop
At 26, Jiyayi Suleyman is the first Kurdish American cop in Nashville.
He patrols Nashville's toughest neighbourhoods, where Yemenis and other Middle Easterners run many of the shops. He says it would be difficult to police his own neighbours.
"You then have to face your community saying, 'Why'd you arrest this young Kurdish guy? Or, why did you do this, why did you do that?'" he says.
Still, he gets calls from neighbours asking for advice about everything from domestic disputes to parking tickets.
Kurdistan is never far from his thoughts. He visited recently and his ties to the region are strong - his uncle is a peshmerga commander and has faced off against both Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State.
Suleyman says he might have joined his uncle had his family not moved to Nashville.
But he's happy in the US, raising two young boys, and - just as he might have in Kurdistan - trying to keep his community safe.
In the market next door, there's another tucked-away spot in a tiny side room. It's where Ibrahim Tahir sells jewellery, and it's clear what is in demand: gold, for weddings and anniversaries - and as an investment. Necklaces and bracelets glitter and golden belts have coins that jangle.
For some, Tahir says, buying gold feels safer than putting savings in a bank. Also, he says, "You can carry it."
Suleyman and a childhood friend, Drost Kokoye, tell me more about their journey to the US.
Kokoye says she and her family were sheltered in Guam for three months, in a five-bedroom house with one family to each room.
"It was a US military base," she says. "I had no idea what was going on. You're from Kurdistan, a landlocked nation, and here we are on an island that's refreshed every couple of weeks with hurricanes. It was frightening."
Suleyman remembers being on the move for years with her family, heading to different refugee camps, until they settled in the US.
As a student at Tennessee State University, she developed an interest in community organising when lawmakers introduced a bill that threatened to make the practice of Islam illegal.
That law was defeated, as were other anti-Islamic bills. But they convinced her to become a full-time advocate.
Days after I left Nashville, tensions rose in northern Iraq. I gave Suleyman a call.
"Our community is on the edge," she says. "We are concerned about the safety and security of all of our loved ones."
She's leading a call for volunteers in Nashville to help pack donations for a humanitarian aid campaign.
It's called All for Kurdistan.