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Kurds from Iraq Seek Asylum in the US

  • Jeff Swicord

Among the millions of immigrants to the United States over the past 300 years, there have been many who were fleeing repression and war. Among the most recent arrivals seeking asylum are Kurds from the north of Iraq.

VOA's Jeff Swicord reports on a growing community of Kurdish immigrants who now live in Nashville Tennessee in the American heartland.

An evening at home for the Ali family. Kamaran, his wife, and three children came to the U.S. as refugees from their home In Arbil, in the Kurdish part of Iraq, in 1997.

Like many fleeing from Saddam Hussein's repression it was their first trip outside of Iraq. And their first experience with Western culture.

Kamaran Ali says, "Actually it was quite strange for me because it was the first time to be abroad and from where we lived -- moving to the United States there is a big difference."

Kamaran and his family are a part of a community of almost 5,000 Kurds that have settled here in Nashville Tennessee, the home of American country music, a musical genre with a rich history that is still a booming business.

One of the most difficult things for Kamaran and his family was learning the American dialect of English.

"Because we got taught back home in school to learn the English, English. Not the American English. So, we had to adjust to the American language and how to speak with people," says Mr. Ali.

The Ali family and others where aided by Nashville's Catholic Charities, which assists refugees when they first arrive in the U.S. Holly Johnson, who runs the refugee resettlement program, says the most difficult thing is convincing people who often had professional jobs at home, that they might have to work as a doorman at a hotel as a first job to get started.

"So we have to convince people to swallow your pride for right now. This is a stepping-stone. You can move on, you can get re-certified. You can do other things but, right now, you need to meet your basic needs," says Ms. Johnson.

Most in the Kurdish community have done well. Tovi Asman started out working in a fast food restaurant and now owns his own car dealership. It's one of many things Tovi could never have done under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

"We were under the government -- they don't let us to do something we like: to do business, to do like free [as if we had freedom] in the country. So when we come to the United States it is a big difference, it is freedom. You can make a business, you can do a business, you can do anything you want," says Ms. Asman.

Tovi would like to expand his car dealership and open up several other locations.

"They are incredibly hard working. Employers normally contact us when they have openings; we have to do little recruiting of employers. As soon as they hire a refugee one time they are kind of sold," says Holly Johnson.

The Kurdish community here in Nashville is very close. While most have assimilated into American culture and made American friends, many come to shop here at Babir Kiram's grocery store every day. Just to get a taste of home and keep in contact with Kurdish friends. Babir says members of the Kurdish community here are always helping each other, especially new arrivals. But there are still a few that have a very hard time making the adjustment.

"As a matter of fact, I saw so many of them when they came here, they will be under the big depression and finally I saw them, they give up and they can not make it," says Mr. Kiram.

Most in the community have been very happy with their lives. But still some have thoughts of home.

"Actually I would like to go back home. So as my children. They would like to be there but, we do like it here. It will be a big challenge, it will be a big decision to make," says Mr. Ali.

Nashville's Kurds are deciding whether they are Iraqis in temporary asylum, or part of the ever-growing number of immigrant Americans.

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