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Interview with Kasar Abdulla

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Kurdish Oral History Project
Interview with: Kasar Abdulla
Interviewed by: Aynur de Rouen
Transcriber: Marwan Tawfiq
Date of interview: 2 December 2016
Interview Setting: via Skype

(Start of Interview)

AD: Hello,

KA: How are you?

AD: Good! How about you? Can you hear me Kasar? Hello Kasar?

KA: Hello,

AD: Hi, can you hear me?

KA: Yeah, sorry I have a little bit of bad connection, so let me go to another space.

AD: Okay, sure, sure.

KA: Hello, can you hear me now?

AD: Yes, yes, I hear you well.

KA: All right.

AD: Yes. [laughs]

KA: How are you?

AD: I am good. How about you?

KA: I am good, thank you. You cannot complain, you know it is December and in Tennessee it is really beautiful weather.

AD: Oh, that is beautiful. And Kasar- first of all thank you so much for agreeing to interview with me today. Unfortunately, Marwan is very sick, and he never gets sick. He has been sick since Wednesday. So, he will not be with us. Yeah, and he has a little one too, I hope she is doing fine. So that is why it is just me today.

KA: No problem.

AD: Okay, great. So, what we need to do is I sent you the information little bit like the questions I am going to ask about. So where were you born Kasar? Can you tell me?

KA: Sure, I was born in Kurdistan of Iraq. So, northern Iraq in a village out in the Barwari area. So, I am Barwari, a Barwari tribe. I do not know how details-

AD: I know, I know. Two, three years ago I did not know, now I know so much about it. So, which city Barwari tribe is close to for the record?

KA: Duhok. So, my family is from the Duhok Province, yeah.

AD: So, and how long did you live in Iraqi Kurdistan?

KA: I was born in 1981, December of 1981 and then in 1988 of September we fled. So, I was about six years old, we fled. We left when the war broke out in 1988 where George Bush, the father was the president and Saddam Hussein at that time. And so, my family got caught up in war, so we left for Turkey which is the neighboring country and lived there in a refugee camp.

AD: Where did you stay in Turkey? Mardin?

KA: Mardin, yeah. Can you move a little so I could see your face too?

AD: Oh, can you see my face now?

KA: There you go, I can see you-

AD: All right, okay, so you still remember some details from hometown, right?

KA: Oh, yeah.

AD: So- go ahead please.

KA: So, of course the war itself was very memorable. I mean very graphic, you know I was six years old, in December, in a few months I would have been seven years old when we left, and so the memories are very vivid. They are right there. Also, I remember my sort of home before running away. I mean I can remember you know when my grandmother always going right by the Springwater. And she used to pray and meditate, and I used to pick berries [laughs] I would go to pray with her, I would pick berries, and so as they were picking up raspberries and you know really having a good time. I also remember it was a very exciting year for me I was supposed to start kindergarten that year which I never started, but I remember being so excited, you know asking for my backpack, you know I wanted books, I wanted pencils. Now, both my parents were agriculture villagers, so they did not live quite in the city when we left, they were farmers. So, it was an interesting year in that sense. I remember Kurdistan being very beautiful like I remember the seasons, you know it was beautiful in that sense and I also remember how, you know, this beauty turned into ugliness and darkness at such a young age, and I feel like my childhood was ripped off of me where I should have been learning ABCs and 1,2,3s I was running for my life. So, I do remember that very well. I remember the day it happened very well. I can describe it in detail. I could not tell you like for example what month it was, later on I found out like the year we left but I remember the actual day when it took place.

AD: Because it is such a dramatic event that imbedded in your memory I can imagine. So, when you left home, did you guys have a vehicle to go to Turkey or did you just walk?

KA: So, no we basically just walked. Someone came knocking on the door, who was a Kurdish Peshmerga actually who I think he was the only one left in his force and so he decided to warn as many villagers as possible to flee and seek safety to just basically, just keep running and do not look back. As I remember, you know, someone knocked on the door really loud out and my mother gets up to open the door, it was around dawn time, you know it scared us, we all woke up, you know the house pretty much all sleeping sort of like camping style on the floor with a Kurdish döşek [mattress], it was not like everybody had their private room per se-

AD: Of course.

KA: So, you know, my mother was pregnant at that time, and she was home with us, and my dad was not at that time, but my grandmother was. So, my mother just thought this is very typical, you know, we run to the mountains, we seek shelters up there, or to underground bunkers until the war is over and we come back out. Unfortunately, the Peshmerga was like, no, no, no you gotta run and you cannot look back. And so, my mother tells my grandmother” Why do not you take the kids, and you go up to the mountains and I will meet you after.” She was pregnant and she also thought I am going to gather some food and just catch up with you guys. And so, we left. And my mother stayed because she also wanted to inform my father. She thought he is going to come back and not find any of us. She wanted- you know, there were no cellphones at that time-

AD: Of course, not-

KA: Or emails right. So, she basically- what happened is we went up to the mountains I remember walking and walking because so exhausted and tired, when we got closer to the mountains it was freezing, it was cold. We head out in the mountains for a while then my mother caught up with us, my father came and said we have to continue moving. Everyone has gone in the village. And in that time, we kept walking and walking I remember like being really tiring experience, like it never stopped. We were very hungry. It took us three days and nights to cross the mountains that divide Kurdistan of Turkey and Kurdistan of Iraq. And in that process we stopped and my father wanted to search for his brother where we found out his older brother his wife and his elder son all of them died of the chemical attacks and so we ended up staying- the rest of the crowd actually left us but my parents, we said we need to give them appropriate burial and so my parents buried them in the mountains right now to their graves in the mountains and then we packed up and left and so their children did not want to leave. They became orphans and umm- [cries]

AD: Oh-

KA: Sorry-

AD: No, please take your time Kasar-

KA: Um, and so my parents you know became guardians to them. It was a tough experience-

AD: Of course.

KA: But we had to keep going, I mean there was no way we could stay. There was no way we could return. We just knew one way, one direction and had to keep going. I remember us we were like walking towards Turkey. We could hear like the Baath party actually catching up to us and I remember you know kids screaming and crying and mothers putting their hands over their mouth just so they will not make noise-

AD: Oh, my God.

KA: And we do not get detected [sniffling]. And actually remember that they did find us like the Baath party, and one of the soldiers even he looked like he was a commander in chief or some kind of person who can give commands and he got out and he saw us in the bushes, I can remember very well like just looking at his face and then he ordered the troops to get back in and leave like he did not see anything. And they could have chosen basically to kill all of us. And that was it, but I do not know it was a miracle I guess from God-

AD: He was a human being I guess right, yeah.

KA: So, I guess it was mostly kids and you know women and unarmed men, so we got saved in that sense. And I remember when we got to the Turkish border, Turkey did not let us in, they did not enter, they refused to let us in. It was more than a month we were really in the area where nothing really lived and no one lived it was in between Iraq and Turkey, but the Turkey kind of controlled it. It was the border, but they would not let us enter any further. But then through the United Nations talks and Kurdish leaders and so forth they were definitely negotiation processes taking place and they allowed us to go to Mardin. And when we went there nothing was actually set up, but they began after we went there set up tents and then also barbed wires and soldiers around us. As I lived there for four years, my elementary life was in the camp. I have both pleasant experiences, you know, not so pleasant experiences. It was interesting of the first year I think most of us thought we are going back, you know, to Kurdistan so we were just there temporarily, but after the first year we found out it looks like we going to be there maybe infinitely not knowing if we will ever return and so the group that fled a large group of them were really, you know, agricultural, you know, they had agricultural expertise, they were also entrepreneurs so they began to you know build like half walls underneath a tent so only the top of the tent were cloth or tent material just to help because the winters were so harsh and the summers were really harsh and so you had harshness of both weathers. I remember from there you know my mother and my parents were saying we do not want to lost generation looking at the kids and other parents started to talk, and they began to really organize among themselves and started Kurdish schools that was really illegal in Turkey-

AD: Oh, yeah, I know.

KA: Tents- you know they began when my parents put me in school and so secretly under a tent, we were being taught the Kurdish language and we were taught math and science. Of course, there was not much to teach with and so my mother, I remember her she used to take, you know like tomato cans, and she would take off the label and that was our paper to use. We would use to write on, and she would collect it for us. You know, I remember going out on field trips with our teachers and we would dig up the earth to get different colors of the earth to make clays and make chalks out of it and they used it as chalk. So, these were some memories that- and I was very fortunate, and I was so blessed and excited about those teachers because I felt like if they did not keep us busy with something hopeful, positive I would have been not in the mental state I am right now. So, it kept me busy in that sense. I fell in love with just education. My parents particularly my mother’s drive of wanting to no matter how hard life was she would walk me in the actual camp for long time just to get to the tent that was designated as a school, and so she was on top of it. She had like seven of us, seven children, you know she was adamant making sure we were there. When we got to Turkey, she ended up delivering her baby and it almost cost her, her life and we definitely lost my brother as well in that process. I mean she had smelled chemical that were used on us, the Mustard gas. She went without food, no nutrition for so long and then of course there was not the adequate medical care when she went into delivery. She had passed out. We actually thought both of them were gone. We were getting ready for funeral and burial, and you know, I guess it looked like she had fainted and did not really pass away all the way. She came back to life whereas my brother did not make it. So, we buried him in the camp. And that- so this was basically childhood, but I also remember on the other side you know innovating and making my own dulls out of sticks, you know, that was my dolls I used play with. I remember taking the top of the coke bottles, you know the glass one, and I used to make cars with it, and you know start racing with my brother, you know my older brother made me a sling shot and he said you use it if any soldier comes close to you. And I remember teaching me how to use it. And so, you know, these were something that really just kept me going and motivating. So from 1988 till 1992 I was living in those conditions and in 1992 you know we were among the very few lucky families that was selected to go through the Refugee Resettlement Program through the UN and then the United States actually sponsored us but they took our family to Fargo, North Dakota which was very strange out of fifty states you know they put us in the snow and it was really hard any wherefrom minus. It was difficult for them to find jobs I mean both of them were illiterate, never went to school. So, they did the very basic cleaning jobs to survive and after living there from 1992 to 1996 we left Fargo, North Dakota and we came all the way to Nashville, Tennessee because there was already an established Kurdish community here. There was a Kurdish Mosque here which a lot of my parent’s generation just really find it as a social space. They go there quite often and just hang out and you know eat together, have meals and it is really like a social atmosphere for them that they go to… they were able to find a lot of I guess commonalities in Tennessee, for example Tennessee is also an agricultural state and you know Kurdish people began to grow pomegranates and gig trees and you know it really reminded them of Kurdistan, I mean you know, bringing like Rehan, the Kurdish basil growing it, and so they became very excited that they could bring a little bit of Kurdistan here. They began to you know share the seedlings with each other, you know, one hose would pomegranate trees and give the seedling to the next and the next and the next before you know everyone has a pomegranate tree-

AD: That is great-

KA: And figs the same way which he just saw a sense of community in that generation Kurdish people in Nashville in particular became quite very, extremely hard-working people. So, they came, and they were in extreme poverty but many of us held multiple jobs so we can get out of poverty and become home owners for example and just working class. So, you go to find diversity in the Kurdish community here in Nashville, you have where from like higher socio-economic status to very low socio-economic status, the variety of them. But the Kurdish community in general to the United States came in different waves. So, the first wave in Tennessee, for example was 1970s, I think it was 1973 where some of them came as students went in to seek education and then they ended up staying here establishing themselves and then the first big wave after the student wave came from the refugees from different camps in Turkey and that was 1990 and up. And so, from 1990, 91, 92 there was a huge wave and then in 1996 another wave came from Guam but that was the civic leaders of professionals who worked with the United States or did some kind of you know relationship with the US, so they came as asylees whereas the previous ones in the 1990s early 1990s came as refugees. And also, you had the earliest ones coming here, students and then you had a huge wave of refugees and then you had asylees that came and sort of established themselves here.

AD: So, can I ask you this Nashville who are the first comers, those students, did not they go back when they finished the degrees here?

KA: Some of them did, only a few stayed. I mean a handful maybe 9, 10 of them or so. They stayed here and these are for example if you are interested you can speak to one of them his name is Ghandi, Kirmanji Ghandi, he is a professor of Antique in Tennessee State university-

AD: Oh, I would love to hear.

KA: Sure, I can connect you-

AD: Can you connect me, I would love to talk to more people, like I was going to ask you at the end, you know?

KA: I would recommend speaking with him just to get the earlier sense; I would also recommend speaking with Salah Osman who is the leader at Salahaddin Center, which is the, actually the only Kurdish Mosque outside of Kurdistan-

AD: Oh, really?

KA: Yeah, and so they give sermons in Kurdish. There is a whole lot of keeping the Kurdish identity here as well. So, he, yeah, I would recommend him as well.

AD: So, professor Ghandi is in which University you said?

KA: Tennessee State University.

AD: Tennessee State, okay. So, who started the Kurdish community in Nashville area? Are those students or like the group-

KA: It was the 1990 group that came-

AD: The refugees-

KA: The students are very assimilated, you know, into Nashville but the families that came in 1990, they were more interested in integration than assimilation and because they were interested in integration, they wanted to keep of some of their culture, so for example, we began to open up bakery stores and we make Kurdish Naan, which is Kurdish bakery, I mean bread to Kurdish spices. We import Kurdish spices from all the way in Kurdistan through Turkey and so we kept some of the Kurdish culture here- but it was 1990s crowd and 1996 in particular as well that you know how helped. So now you find Kurdish people in various fields, many of them became entrepreneurs. If you look at this one neighborhood, I actually call it little Kurdistan, USA- We began to take that tag and really make it known. It does feel like little Kurdistan if you come to Nashville and you drive down on those roads you going to run into like old Kurdish men in Kurdish clothing, [laughs], all the ladies taking a walk you know in that area to you going to smell the Kurdish bread-

AD: Which is delicious-

KA: Yeah, and so you know, there were some entrepreneurs, others got into health care sector, you know, others, those of us some of us gone to education filed. So, for example two of my sisters are public school teachers, you know I am one of nine siblings, each of us have gone into a different direction, you know like two in health care, whereas another brother is an entrepreneur and has his business going on, is just like rapidly all over the place going on. Yeah.

AD: So, you have totally of nine siblings?

KA: Yeah.

AD: And you all went to college and got a professional position, you know you had all degrees? Yes?

KA: The girls are smarter than the boys- [laughs] we have all got like sort of master level degrees- while the brothers went straight into technical schools, or just graduated except one of them, he went to the university, he studied criminal justice.

AD: I see, I see. And those babies are your children, right?

KA: Pretty much honestly. I am the third oldest, so I have an older brother and an older sister and there is me. So, the rest of them are actually young and I remember taking total guardianship of them including being really active in their schools: Every time there was a parent-teacher conference, I was there, you know, with them, you know and I pushed and signed up my younger particularly siblings into extra-curricular activities and I remember just signing up as their parents [laughs] because my parents you know, I’ll give you an example of my father just felt like soccer is just waste of time, and I am like no in America, you know, soccer can be something, good or beneficial but also it keeps young boys and girls off the streets-

AD: Absolutely-

KA: Because I went to the school system here, I mean I went from middle school to high school to undergraduate and graduate, I became aware, and I understood the society in a different way than my father did. And so, I felt like my father even though he had the love, but I felt he did not have quite the wisdom of how to raise kids in the United States because he was distant from you know what is really happening on the streets for example.

AD: Yeah, so you had the family in that regard because you experience on your own, right?

KA: Yeah, absolutely. I also, I remember in an amount of few months my father began to relay on me to be his personal interpreter and translator, you know. I remember being frustrated with them because he would come in take me out of school to go to his doctor appointment, for my mom’s doctor appointment and I would get upset because it was difficult for me, is just not missing that particular lesson, like you already trying- you are behind, I came in behind right, because I missed elementary school and they put me in the 4th grade, begin the 5th grade. So, I was already missing all the four years. So, I am playing catch up already and every time I would miss a class I missed so much. And so, I used to get frustrated with them. And sort of pushed back on him but them immediately I realized this was a life, you know, and I am asked to do an adult responsibility. I mean I remember learning how to write checks at the age of nine because I was helping my dad to write checks.

AD: That is right-

KA: You know for the bills because he needed help. I began working actually if you take back, I was working in the refugee camp-

AD: In Turkey?

KA: Where my mother was- yes. My mother was very gifted and talented with crafts, and so we would get a potato sac and of course you would eat the potatoes, but she would undo the sac and she would make really creative purses or other beautiful artifacts and we would take it. And she started teaching us these skills anywhere from crocheting to making all sort of things. So, we began to work after school we would come back and my mother would have us working and then my father would collect and my brother, the oldest brother would collect we just made and take it and sell it to the Turkish people and sometimes in exchange for many but also food or hygiene products and then we sort of established ourselves that way. I remember making really creative things with beads anywhere from earrings to necklaces and you know selling it to the Turkish people.

AD: That is wonderful.

KA: So, when we came to the United States as well and I remember I was thirteen years old and my father kept taking me to local groceries and asking the managers to hire me and he would brag about me and he was like she is really a good hard worker, she learns really quickly and the manager was like I will get arrested if I hire her, she is a minor and my dad was like no, no, she is the minor but she has the mind of an adult and so, we really needed it. The family needed it and so when I was fifteen years old, I began to work full time actually between two different jobs because of course the business I was working for could not give me forty hours because of the-

AD: Your age-

KA: -child labor law- I would do two part time jobs then I would go to school. So, throughout high school, college, undergraduate and graduate I was working, you know. When I became eighteen years old, I began to work in factories, you know, for Dell company, I was building laptops and then I went to Dina Corporation and I was building Car products, you know, I was making parts for cars. You know I learnt a whole lot in the process. Now I know how to take my laptop apart and put it back together-

AD: Oh My God, yeah-

KA: But it was very difficult, honestly I did not, I feel like I did not get everything I wanted to get at the college experience and, you know, I could not stay after and get active in some of the college campus activities because I was so busy had to go to class and go straight to work and come back get five hours of sleep and repeat, you know, but I did win when I was an undergraduate at Tennessee State University, I changed my major from biology to sociology, my father really wanted me to be an attorney or a doctor. So, I did not want to break his heart, I went to biology route to go to medical school, but it just did not- I feel like it did not freeze me- the more I studied was fascinated with the medical world. It just did not- you know I shadowed and went to the hospitals, and I became more distant from there. I was very curious about human behavior, I just really wanted to study sociology and human behavior and of course sociology is the unstudied field in Kurdistan and the Kurdish culture, you know, so it was making a statement to my father that sociology is good. He could not get, you know, he first thought the two Ologies end up with the doctor anyway, biology and sociology there is no difference- So I let him have it for a while until I graduated from college and after I graduated, I said look dad I am not going to medical school. And I remember he cried. He looked at me. He said I ruined my life, you know, he was, he said I ruined my life and I ruined the whole families life because he was really hoping for me to have the prosperous profession that could easily transfer anywhere in the world because constantly they have the concept that we might end up leaving America as well. You know, they felt that way. The Kurdish people felt that there is no safe haven for Kurdish people-

AD: Well, naturally.

KA: And right?

AD: That is right.

KA: So, I ended up showing him where I was coming from so, I pushed him back on- there is a very famous quote which I actually, one of the Muslim leaders Ali said, he said “Do not push your children to be like you because they were created for a time different than yours.”

AD: That is a good one. I hope my daughter will not hear that because I do the same thing Kasar. I push her to be a doctor. [laughs]

KA: Yeah. And it is honestly if you look at it you want what is best for your child. It makes sense and any doctor they have their success rate is pretty high, and so it makes sense like if you truly do want what is best for your child, you go to pick the best career right? But then we are also all not made to be going to the same filed. There is like that passion and there is let us do what I need to do to live and survive right? So, I was more driven by my passion and so I switched it and changed it and of course broke his heart and he was like what are you going to do with sociology, you know. Who cares about the way people think social movement and social institutions, you know? I was like but I do. I want to know why human beings behave in a certain way. I want to know why we create culture norms that set us back and I want to challenge that, and you know challenge public policy-

AD: And why people are being killed, being for being Turks right?

KA: Exactly. Yeah, why? Yeah, I wanted to know the human mind-

AD: Absolutely. I have to turn off that. Okay.

KA: Okay. Right after that, of course 9/11 happened. And I was in the graduate school and when 9/11 happened honestly was an opportunity for me to put my love and passion to work and I did, I immediately I ran to be the Muslim student association, the MSA president and I won, and I was the first female to sort of be in leadership of so called a Muslim organization,

AD: Wonderful!

KA: So, I began to break those gender barriers but also cultural and faith barrier. I began to host dialogues and community conversations around what happened. Because I notices that the incident started to divide us and it just hurt me the most because when it happened here I am just ran away from a terrorist who terrorized my life Saddam Hussein and I came to a peaceful life and I was being called a terrorist and you know, and also at that time you never call a Kurdish people, a Kurdish person an Arab [laugh] Right, you just called me by my enemy and so I noticed that was on campus creating division and then in the Nashville community in Tennessee of course quite conservative as well. And so, I began to organize, and I brought the community together for more of a dialogue and a conversation than a presentation and I say that it was very effective and so right after graduation and went to work at Tennessee Immigrants’ Rights and Coalition where I did public policy and integration that was focused on new Americans so both refugees and immigrants.

AD: I see, I see. So, let me ask you this; did your father working in the United States? You mentioned in Fargo right, your mom and your father, right?

KA: Yeah, my father, of course refugee’s services expire within six months, you have to get a job and kind of be independent of those services. So, my mother went straight in to basically cleaning services; cleaning hotels and my father did the same thing. He was a janitor for a church. Then he became physically disabled because of- he had a car accident in Kurdistan, but it resulted in like longer term health problems here when we had the surgery in North Dakota for him. He could not walk anymore and then his ribs were broken and that. So, he had a lot of physical disabilities which left him to be the mom and then my mom to be the dad in those cultural norms, I guess. As always so my mother even in the refugee camp constantly like helping financially like outside the house and then inside the house. So, I was sort of trained that way as well. I think my mother had a good sort of influence on me, pushing me to be independent thinker, be independent women in all aspects. So, either it be the way I think, or the way when it comes to financial means. She did that a lot with all, she had five daughters and four boys, and she was more strict on the daughters than she was on the boys when it came to education. Even if I got up and said mom, I am sick, she was like you are still going, she was like you are breathing and you are walking, you are going to school. [laughs] I appreciate that, I think I just after becoming adult myself and having three daughters on my own I am like mom, you are illiterate woman, but you have so much wisdom by pushing, and she used to say I do not want to be death and mute I do not want you to be blind like me. And so, she was like I want you to know how to survive in the world right now requires the knowledge of a pen and I want you to know that.

AD: Yeah, no I agree. I think your mother was a very strong woman like really influenced you. Your role model probably, right?

KA: Absolutely, and after we came from North Dakota to Nashville, Tennessee she also was working in factories. She was not building appliances. You know she kept a full-time job but she would also take care of my father and the children as well. I mean in my eyes she was a superwoman. You know I have three of my own and I was really only planning for two, the third one just surprised me, and I am like mom I do not know how you did it [laughs].

AD: Yeah, it is not easy. So, you said you were the third kid like age-wise, everybody, you like have older brother, two brothers?

KA: My old, the oldest sibling is the sister, and then I have a brother and then it is me. So, my oldest sister also has her masters, she has her bachelor’s in computers sciences, master’s in education, she is a public-school teacher. My older brother, he is right now suffering. He went with the United States Army to be an interpreter and translator. So, he went there he came back and suffered from a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder-

AD: Oh My God!

KA: He felt like this is the way I can go back instead of liberating Iraq and Kurdistan in particular you know of course fight Saddam Hussein back for what he did and then also appreciate the United States by providing my linguistic and cultural expertise, but he is served with the special forces then he came back really a changed man and made him incapable of living his life in a normal way. So, he is right now at his home. He has married and has children, but he is not capable of being productive outside the home which is really difficult.

AD: Oh, that is unfortunate.

KA: Because it is tough. I can now relate to what military families are going through in general everyone is coming back and suffering from this mental disease and it is difficult you know, and I feel like mental illnesses are even worse than physical illnesses-

AD: Absolutely.

KA: Because physical you know there is a way to go about it but mental illness, I guess is just like is you are sort of dead but a live in that sense-

AD: I agree, I agree. So, you are married right now?

KA: I am married.

AD: And your husband is Kurdish as well?

KA: He is Dutch Kurdish. So, he was naturalized as a Dutch person in the Netherlands [laughs], there is a very fascinating story of how we met. He is also from a totally different tribe than I am. So, there were definitely sort of cultural differences even though we both were Kurdish born in Kurdistan but born in different parts of Kurdistan and also raised in two different parts of the world. I mean I was raised in the United States, he was raised in the Netherlands, but yeah like I am very lucky to-

AD: How did you meet him?

KA: So, there is a very famous Kurdish restaurant here if you have ever here-

AD: I want to come to Nashville; I will definitely come. Okay-

KA: I would love to have you, so it is called the House of Kebab, they make Kurdish food, we can also, we do Kurdish and Persian- It is a Persian-Kurdish mixture. And so, I was at the house of Kebab, and I was just there, you know with one of my friends from college and we were eating and just kicking it off and he was here to visit his uncles from Netherlands and saw me there start asking other people about me. I had a very stubborn mind at that time. I was very against getting married. I wanted to travel the world and I did not want to get married and I was twenty-three years old of course my mom and dad were saying I am getting too old. [laughs] You know Kurdish, the cultural pressure and I am like well I guess I will never get married and do not bother me with it. It was my last year in college, my final semester actually and unfortunately I was getting proposals right and left because I was at that age and my parents were like I want some peace and just pick somebody and move out, you know, of the house, so I just I could say Oh she is going to marrying and I was not ready and I said no to him when he asked me and he went to go ask my father and my father said she is a very stubborn woman [laughter] and then he- I have an uncle that I am pretty close with, and so he found out that I am close to my uncle and went to go bug my uncle and my uncle said the same thing; she is a very stubborn woman. It is not going to happen just give up. And so, he called me over the phone and wanted to meet me and I really made him feel awful forever thinking and calling me and I hung up the phone on him. And so, he went back to the Netherlands. For me that was it. I was back to my studies and working and he could not stop thinking and he was more adamant the more I pushed him away the more he was like determined. So he came back around like Christmas break to visit his family again here and then one day I find him in my living room with his uncle and aunt [laughter], and his uncle and aunt, my father and my mother of course my parents like honestly, she has a mind of her own we do not tell her what to do, we also trust her judgment if she says no then it is a no. My father was basically saying you know yeah surely you have my permission if you can convince her go for it [laughs], but that has happened we did end up talking for few months and you know it is funny because I still I have the list of questions I asked him, it was over eighty questions. [laughs]

AD: Oh My God!

KA: About everything, I mean every little thing. And so from there we started talking, he came back to visit I got to know him, the family got to know him a little more and we ended up getting married after I graduated and was working and even that he wanted to me to go to the Netherlands and he liked it there better, he was a citizen there and had everything going on and I did not want to leave of course I had an established community here, my family here, I had friends, I was working and I was not ready to give up my whole country in a way for a man [laughs] and so ended up coming here to the United States and we have been together, it has been ten years now.

AD: Wow!

KA: -Anniversary, yeah and he is, like I said I am very, very lucky person. He is definitely that type of human being who would take what is good from each culture and practices it and let us go everything else that is not good. So, there are definitely some fractions in the Kurdish culture as it comes to gender norms and there are good things in the Kurdish culture. You know, so he is definitely, we both have a very collaborative relationship in the way we raise our children. You know I was very clear I said I just want to let you know I am activist in the community, I am an organizer, I speak, I travel and if you cannot accept my life, we are going to have difficulty. You know, I do challenge things that I see, and he was like that was what attracted me to you because that is a type of person I want to be with, and he has been raised like a partner with me.

AD: That is wonderful!

KA: It has been very helpful, I mean he was also been criticized by other Kurdish men [laughs] in the sense like “Oh are you scared of your wife,” you know those silly jokes, and you know, I just waved and so that he had hint him push back because I think it is very important that we start, you know, recognizing what is not appropriate to talk about even if it is so-called locker room talk right?

AD: That is right. Exactly. Yeah, absolutely. So-

KA: So, he is a real estate agent, and he also works in the hospital in the imaging department as a radiologist, technologist.

AD: Okay, so he went to Netherlands from Turkey? Did he have a similar story like you? How did he-

KA: His is definitely different than mine. It is much more intense. It was just him who ended up there. And he was there studying. And then he was looking at going back but he ended up staying. So, his family still in Kurdistan as of right now, but they are from Zakho. He came from Zakho.

AD: Okay, so because Netherlands is also- is very liberal you know, the whole Europe I mean the United States is a very conservative country if you are asking me. So, like when you compare-

KA: He was saying the same thing. He was saying the same thing to me actually he was like it is quite conservative here. I was like really; I thought the United States is liberal.

AD: No, it is very conservative and, so I know when I talk to like the Kurdish people from different places like in Europe it is like more relaxed, the relationship and then they also- some of the- like for example Marwan thinks Kurdish people get assimilated into culture in Europe more so than they do here and so there was like back-and-forth conversation going on. I guess it just depends, generalization is not a good thing but there are like opinions that way-

KA: I mean it is the environment, so if you look at the Kurdish people in California, Kurdish people in York and Kurdish people in the South they are very different it is because of the environment there and so it is very simple, so for example many people it is funny because I tend to think of myself as very liberal but then when my Kurdish friends from California come and then like Kasar you seem conservative. I said why is it the way I would dress or the way I think, but if you look at it even our definitions vary and so for example what I think is liberal all maybe different from what you think is liberal or even the word liberated right? Because I get that quite a lot. We want to liberate you know certain women. And to me like my definition of liberated maybe different from yours. Maybe my definition of liberation is you know for women to be really free in her thought in her way of thinking for example if she decides to go to school and pursue her school, she has that avenue and she is liberated but if she decides to stay home and she just wants to be home and be a housewife then she should have the freedom to make that decision. You should not look at a woman, a mother who decide to stay a home as unliberated and somebody who is outside of the as liberated. That is not true; the true liberation is free thinking and applying that thinking to the way you want to live. So, it is not for example in the way you dress, right?

AD: I totally agree, yeah.

KA: Yeah, first time I decided to cover, I feel like that was the day I felt liberated. I feel liberated from the sort of the dehumanization of women in the street, right? I could be more relaxed and do not have to worry you know about makeup, my hair, my dress my whatever right? I could be relaxed- but again that was my definition but my good, my best friend who I love her to death, and she thinks liberation is less clothing and that is true for her right?

AD: That is right. That is how she perceives, right?

KA: Exactly, and the society needs to give that to her whether she wants to cover more or less. It should be her choice and no one else’s choice, not the husband not the wife or the government right. It should be the women’s choice. Very simply it is interesting because this is another way when my husband was like Europe is so much more liberal than the United States when we had our first born, of course within six weeks I was supposed to go back to work and my husband was Oh, like you just had a baby just have a whole year maternity leave and you get a social work coming at your house teaching you how to nurse and making sure that you are in a good mental state and your child is doing good, your new born, and I was shocked, and said you kidding me, so I began to research and I compared the United States to the rest of the world- I was like- family? I was like yeah.

AD: Yeah, in this country I am sorry like there is like no respect to a woman, no.

KA: Yeah, I mean we saw that with the elections. Right?

AD: Absolutely.

KA: It is interesting but for us to be in twenty-first century not to have a single female president!

AD: And we will not have it either for a while because this society is not ready, I mean, I am much older than you are Kasar when I was a child, I am from Istanbul, Turkey- That was where I came.

KA: Istanbul is beautiful when I was there.

AD: Isn’t that gorgeous? I love Istanbul. So growing up you know going to school, I remember Andera Gandhi was the prime minister in India and then according to Western culture that is considered you know a developing country, I mean, I was a child when all that was happening, so it is just I do not understand but the thing with Kurdish woman that is my personal observation it is different because Kurdish women I always thought they are stronger than other people because your father, either like man are working in the farm, they also go for fighting right, part of the Peshmerga, hello?

KA: Yes-

AD: So, and then, who raised the kids, who stayed at home, in some cases actually made the living, am I right? I am not even talking about the United States, back home-

KA: Absolutely-

AD: So, to me Kurdish women are strong women to begin with even before they came here, and here also I talk to you know different people here and when I look at the daughters I see they are strong girls and I think like that is the experience, the history, the culture even though they respect their father, you know father is still the decision making person you know but still I think Kurdish women are really strong.

KA: We, I think we have to be quite honestly like we have to be the conditions we are in and we face like I used- I interviewed my mom for a project I did for my sociology degree and the amount of time this woman have helped rebuild her house, unbelievable, like the amount of time it was destroyed to the ground and she rebuilt it again and she moved on, she did not give up hope. She and I was like mom if that was me I probably I would have just given up, and she said no, I cannot give up, you have to continue, you have to take your unfortunate experiences and turn them into strength for yourself and continue and so, you know she never- I never ever heard her complain to say I am tired. I never heard- even though like I said she was like a superwoman. She was working in factories, sometime sixty, seventy hours a week and then she was coming home where she has kids, we were all one year apart from each other it was like one case you know for that many children, yeah, she still took the time to make sure that she is, you know installing the correct character strength in us you know too not-

AD: Absolutely.

KA: Give up I mean she pushed us for example to learn, to cook and clean, and read and write. She is like these are human survival skills, you should know it all whether you choose to do it or not to do it my job is to teach you about it from there is up to you what you do with it.

AD: Absolutely.

KA: Even we religiously quite honestly, she again illiterate I mean she needed her basic prayers, did not teach me anything about Islam with the exception of one thing she was like just you have a creator, she was like you have a creator, never, never take that link and connection away from your creator. How you go about that connection is up to you. And I grew up like being very pluralistic when it comes to faith and religions, I was so fascinated. Our sponsor sort of would take us to church every Wednesday and Sunday. She was like you respect that church like she gave high respect to that church. I remember the bible she literally took it and put it right next to the Quran. She said it is as a holy book as this one. And so, I grew up with that type of teaching at home which really as now I am an adult I have so much tremendous respect for world religion-

AD: Absolutely, I want to meet your mother, I swear it is like she is like a phenomenal person, what you tell me is unbelievable. I mean.

KA: She is a very humble person. If you look at the documental- Next Door Neighbor by NPT, Nashville Public Television you will see a glimpse of her-

AD: Because I watched one documentary that is how I, you know, found about you and then I asked my friend Heevy and then Heevy- actually Heevy’s husband was in North Dakota, he was in Mardin- Edib, you know Edib?

KA: That is how we know them. Yeah.

AD: Yeah, that is how- Heevy is like really, really good friend of mine. And then his story was also very interesting. So, I asked Heevy I said I know Edib’s family is in Nashville can you put me in touch with Kasar, so that was how I found you. So, I watched one short documentary is that the one you talking about, your mom is in that documentary? I need to re-watch it to catch the detail.

KA: It is a very quick glimpse because she was too shy to talk so they just covered her while she was baking Kurdish bread-

AD: I mean I remember a woman baking the Kurdish bread, but I need to go back and watch it again. I need to.

KA: Yeah, she is a very, very humble, laid back, very simple woman unmaterialistic in so many ways.

AD: Beautiful.

KA: Yeah, she definitely shaped who I am today. So, do you pronounce your name Aynur?

AD: Aynur.

KA: Aynur- my battery is at one percent in case you get disconnected-

AD: Oh, okay, okay, all right. Well, Kasar I really want to talk I have so much more questions to ask you I mean if you have time another time, I can hook up with you because you have a very interesting story. I mean whenever I talk to Kurdish people, the story I hear, and I am like what is unique story. You may think oh, it is similar. No, everybody has a different story even though some of the paths are crossed you now still everybody has a very different- because everybody is a different individual.

KA: It is like with everybody human being, I mean every human being has his own unique story and for me I usually look at my story as set of stories or chapters and every chapter is unique in its own way. It has its own challenges, and it has opportunities, and it has its joy moments and you know.

AD: Absolutely.

KA: And each time you discover another chapter about who you are you know.

AD: Well since you almost run out of your battery maybe we can wrap it up and then maybe after the holidays if you have time, I know how busy you are I can just imagine if you have time maybe we can revisit and then also if you can put me in touch with others in Nashville area I would love to talk to some more-

KA: You know, absolutely, I would really love and appreciate it if you would get a diverse set of Kurdish voices you because also-

AD: That is what I want to do.

KA: -Communities and the way to get a comprehensive view of it is to get variety of different story- Yeah, I will be more than happy you know to get you in touch with a couple of people.

AD: Thank you so much I really want to document because Kurdish people were silenced for so long it is about that time to document, and I really want to you listen to their stories and what they experienced-

KA: And honestly it is very touching for someone of Turkish descent to want to really document it.

AD: I know, I mean this is my goal. Marwan Knows, Heevy knows I am doing everything to do that.

KA: Well, I appreciate it. I had a chance to- so my image of Turkey was really bad of course those four years-

AD: I have a very bad image of Turkey from your stories, absolutely-

KA: When I was in graduate school, I had an opportunity through the program to go to Turkey. As I went on purpose, there were like seven countries from to choose and I chose Turkey because I just wanted to, I am the type of person, I do not want to have one narrative about anybody or any place. As I went their honestly, I met, I saw like the Turkish people are so generous and so kind I was like why I did not get exposed to some of this. [laughs]

AD: I know.

KA: Because we were confined, we were not allowed to really interact with outside of that confinement but honestly I came back my eyes were just wide open and I remember at first hesitated to let people know I am Kurdish because I was like I wonder what they are going look like when they look at me- but In the bus when I said I am Kurdish people gave me discounts. It was so much respect I was like Oh I am not used to this [laughs].

AD: Absolutely.

KA: As human beings we need to be careful not to fall into the dangers of a singular narrative about person or place.

AD: I agree, absolutely. I am glad you went back and then you met some decent people over there because not everybody is bad. Politics is bad but what happened is unbelievable. You know.

KA: In particular- if you like Turkey is such a beautiful place with so much opportunity and so much and like is just, I would be so heartbroken it, it continues to be damaged rather than rebuilt and unfortunately right now-

AD: But Kasar I do not what is going on in the world right now it is like everywhere, in this country, in Turkey I was just listening NPR this morning into work and then the election is being in Austria and then they are comparing the candidate with Hitler, I mean I am like what is the world coming to, seriously.

KA: You know when someone asked me, you know how were the election results? What was your sort of feelings and thoughts, I said honestly 11/9, I mean 9/11 and 11/9 are the two huge chapters that have influenced me? So of course, 9/11 happened with twin towers and then 11/9, November ninth we elected a president that I feel like reminded so much of Saddam Hussein-

AD: I agree.

KA: The way he talked, and the way he carries himself and I am like why we would do that. We work so hard to get rid of a dictator, yet we elect a dictator, a narcissist-

AD: I know-

KA: You know- it is, we will see we will pray for the best what can we do.

AD: I know-

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview

2 December 2016


Aynur de Rouen


Kasar Abdulla

Biographical Text

Born in the Barwari Area in northern Kurdistan, Kasar and her family lived through harsh times during Saddam’s ethnic cleansing campaign. She and her family made it to Nashville, TN, and were able to work and intergrade within the society while preserving their Kurdish cultural identity alongside other Kurdish families in Nashville. Kasar and her siblings received college degrees in various fields and continue to live in Nashville with their families.


63:06 minutes



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Binghamton University

Interview Format


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Kurdistan; Kurdish; Anfal; Conflict; Iraq; Barwari; Duhok; Refugee; Turkey; Fargo; Nashville; Family; Everyday life; Saddam Hussein


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About this Collection

Collection Description

In 2011, Binghamton University Libraries received the donation of the Vera Beaudin Saeedpour Kurdish Library and Museum Collection. The acquisition opened a dialog with the local Kurdish community in Binghamton, N.Y., which led to the creation of the Kurdish Oral History Project. These interviews provide deeper insight into the… More

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“Interview with Kasar Abdulla,” Digital Collections, accessed July 25, 2024,