WASHINGTON - Part of a sprawling park in the center of Washington, D.C., earlier this week got transformed into a sea of green, red, yellow and white — colors of the Kurdish flag.
Close to 2,000 people, primarily members of the Kurdish diaspora from all over North America, congregated just blocks from the White House Sunday to show their support for an independence referendum set to be held in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25.
The vote, not sanctioned by Iraq’s central government and not supported by the United States, nonetheless carries great significance for Kurds inside and outside Iraq.
Gathered in the U.S. capital’s Constitution Gardens, they danced, chanted and celebrated. Proudly waving their Kurdish flags, they came to express hope that someday, for the first time in history, they will see an independent nation-state for their people.
Kurds are considered the largest ethnic group in the world without a sovereign homeland, even though they have long been struggling for an independent state.
Predominantly spread out over oil-rich regions of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, Kurds were promised a separate state in a 1920 treaty, but that promise never became a reality.
Kurds came closest to achieving their dream in 2005, after the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, when they carved out a semi-autonomous state for themselves in northern Iraq.
Eyeing an overwhelming “yes” vote on September 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government — the official ruling body of Iraqi Kurdistan — hopes to gain grounds on which it could begin secession negotiations.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, voters will cast their votes at polling stations. Diaspora Kurds, according to the American Kurdish Information Network, will be able to vote online, if they meet certain criteria.
“We are here to say we want to be a nation, like other nations,” Said Siso, a participant at the Washington solidarity rally, told VOA.
Siso, who came to the rally with his five-year-old son, father and two brothers, fled his hometown in Zakho, a district in present day Iraqi Kurdistan, with his family in August 1988. Siso’s home was destroyed three times by Saddam's troops, he said.
Siso and his family eventually found refuge in Turkey, where they stayed for two years, before coming to the U.S. in 1991.
“We don’t want it [independence] by anybody. We don’t want to steal anybody’s home ... we just want to get our home," said Siso. "My ancestors, they all fought for this day.”
Noah Sofia Paymozd, a student at George Mason University in Virginia, volunteered at the rally. Her parents had to flee the Kurdistan region in Iran in 1996 due to violence there.
Paymozd’s father, and her then-pregnant mother fled to Turkey, which is where Paymozd was born. But even there, life for her parents was difficult due to local tensions between Turks and Kurds. Paymozd and her family eventually came to the U.S. in 1997, ultimately settling in Tennessee.
"One thing that really motivates me is that my parents went through hell and back just to give me the life I have. I feel like the least I can do is support the freedom and independence of Kurdistan," said Paymozd. “We should be able to stand up for what we believe in, and we never got to do that."
Also volunteering at Sunday’s rally was American Amy Kurmanj, who drove to Washington from Tennessee with her husband, an ethnic Kurd.
“I never thought it would actually happen,” said Kurmanj, who said she got involved in the Kurdish struggle for an independent state back in 1997. “But I truly believe that in history, there is a tipping point — when enough people want something bad enough, it becomes inevitable.”
In a September 15 press release, the White House said a Kurdish referendum would distract from the fight against Islamic State militants in the region, and recommended that instead the Kurdistan Regional Government “enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad.”
Present at the rally, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the U.S., told VOA she was “disappointed” with the U.S. government’s position but added that she saw it as a “disagreement among friends.”
“This referendum means an enormous amount to all of us in Kurdistan,” said Rahman. “For every single one of us it symbolizes all of the sacrifice that we’ve given in the past, and it symbolizes the bright future that we want for the next generation.”