With these experiences engraved in me, I felt empowered heading off to UChicago. Now I could be as much a part of Kurdish culture as I wanted to be. Without fear. One of the first places I went in Chicago was a Kurdish restaurant on the North Side. There, for the first time in my life, I saw a Kurdish flag hanging in public. No police would break into the restaurant to take it down, I knew, yet I felt a little uneasy finishing my dinner under that flag all the same. Something deeply internalized was not letting me just be.
I was quick to ask my American and European friends out to eat Kurdish dinners with me. Many of them asked me who the Kurds were. Some volunteered remarks along the lines of, “Oh, I love the Kurds. They fought ISIS.”
It was as if the Kurds’ long struggles did not get them anywhere but to figure as enigmatic forces fighting a barbaric enemy. And while this anti-ISIS narrative is important, it is reductive and ultimately divorced from the core demands of modern Kurds.
ISIS, after all, was not what woke the Kurdish resistance up. It was only one of the many oppressive forces Kurds faced and fought against to defend their homeland.
This past year, I was invited to become a student ambassador for Justice for Kurds, an organization founded by Thomas Kaplan and Bernard-Henri Lévy. The group works to raise awareness of the Kurdish cause in the United States and around the globe. I signed on because I wanted to see my friends conjure up more than faceless images of anti-ISIS militia when they think about the Kurds. I wanted people to think about Leyla Zana, about the Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, about Dilshad Zaid.
I became an ambassador because it is a decisive moment to identify with the Kurds before circumstances may force them to slowly give up on their democratic principles.
This year, when the first-ever Kurdish Student Association at UChicago (which I founded with my friends) celebrated the Newroz in March, Kurdish students and allies made their appeal in the name of all Kurds forbidden to celebrate their new year due to political oppression. I am calling now for an honest reckoning by the West of what its non-negotiable values are — and a reckoning of which allies can be trusted to secure them. This is a difficult task, but justice demands it.
The trans-Atlantic conversation, such as it is, about Kurds needs to be depoliticized: the argument must take place outside of considerations keyed to the Middle East strategies of the U.S. and E.U. Kurdish culture and history have suffered for far too long under those considerations, which extend undue latitude to the four states within which the Kurds live. That kind of depoliticized support is essential to protect the Kurds from the governments of these four states. And — especially in Syria and Iraq — the contours of the Kurdish struggle have demonstrated our deep compatibility with democratic Western values.
So the E.U. and the U.S. need to stop vacillating about whether the Kurds are their friends. Once given the moral and practical support required, the Kurds will be able to act as pioneers, so to speak, of the values the West would like to see flourish in the Middle East. Calling for this recognition until the global establishment listens is my most crucial task as a student ambassador for JfK. And the JfK family is what keeps me hopeful against all hope that justice will prevail.