Political troubles and persecution by Saddam Hussein drove many Kurds from their homes in Northern Iraq over the past few decades. In the mid 1970s, about a dozen families immigrated to Nashville. By the late 1990s, when Tahir Hussain came to the United States, there were thousands of Kurds living in Tennessee's capital city.
"I didn't know what's the difference between Nashville and San Diego or Washington D.C.," he says. "All what brought me here is that I have a friend here."
Kurds were attracted to Nashville for many reasons… including religious values. Mr. Hussain says the largely Sunni Muslim Kurds found Nashville to be a small, conservative and comfortable city. "Nashville is a religious city," he says. "There are so many churches in this city and you know the core values of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are very close. So, somehow, you feel safe about your family here and you find it easier to be part of the community."
Although there are plenty of jobs in Nashville, Mr. Hussain says many Kurdish immigrants were not able to find work in their fields. They gave up their professional careers and took any job they could get to support themselves and their families. "I have an engineering degree from my home country," he says. "When I came here, I started in a factory, hand mixing chemical material. Then, I moved to working for Public Health Department. I went to school to get my Master Degree in public service management to move on. I don't have to stick with engineering because I couldn't get an engineering job here. You don't have to be an engineer to be successful."
To help other immigrants make that transition successfully, Tahir Hussain founded the Nashville Kurdish Forum in 2002. It is one of several local non-profit organizations that provide the city's Kurdish community with a wide range of services, from transportation and translation to help filling out job applications.
Azad Sameen, 23, came to Nashville when he was a teenager, and now volunteers with the Kurdish Culture Institute. He says if these organizations could support new arrivals while they learned English and adjusted to U.S. society, they'd be able to find more satisfying jobs. "The immigrants need to spend more time in school rather that working," he says. "If you don't speak English, you don't find a good job and you don't learn English that good at work. If you go to school, you learn more. And the more you know the better job you get."
Taha Haurami agrees. He would have preferred to get an education and learn the language. But the 43-year-old immigrant says he had to get a job as soon as he could to support his family and save money. "I worked in the International food market for 10 years," he says. "Then, a friend of mine helped me to open this business, a fast food restaurant. It's a hard work, but I like it."
There is a business support network among Nashville's Kurdish community. For example, Mahdi Misto, an architect who took work as a taxi driver, started a computer company with help from friends and relatives. Not only did he succeed in establishing his own business, he says, now he can help Kurds back in Northern Iraq. "We do some business," he says. "Mostly every month we ship a container of used computers. It's like a new market for our computer business because a lot of new government offices and small businesses are starting there."
Kurdish-Americans are proud of what they've accomplished in Nashville. By starting their own businesses, and preserving their culture and traditions, their community is growing… attracting new immigrants from Kurdish communities elsewhere in the United States.