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In Moorhead, a Kurdish community thrives

Most of the area’s immigrant Kurds, like business owner Talib “Tony” Salman, left their homes after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the Kurds in the late 1980s.

Newzad Brifki, an author and the founder of Moorhead’s Kurdish Community of America, is running for mayor.
MinnPost Photo by John Fitzgerald

Decades after their arrival, the Kurdish immigrant community in Fargo-Moorhead – now into its third and fourth generation – is doing so well it’s hard to get members to sit for an interview.

Newzad Brifki, an author and the founder of Moorhead’s Kurdish Community of America, is running for mayor. He will face off Nov. 6 against City Council Member Brenda Elmer and attorney Johnathan Judd to replace Mayor Del Rae Williams. Brifki said he was too busy to be interviewed.

Equally busy is Chrah Maii, an 18-year-old freshman at Concordia College in Moorhead. He was born in Fargo and grew up in Moorhead with two brothers and two sisters.

“My parents are from Northern Iraq,” Maii said. He’s not sure exactly where they are from or when they immigrated to the United States. “They don’t really talk about it. They think they’re in America, they’re here for a fresh start.”

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Brifki’s run for mayor has not gone unnoticed by Maii.

“It’s awfully inspiring. Here’s a guy who was born over there, came over here and is making a name for himself, running for mayor. Me, being born in the U.S., I believe I could do even more.”

What does “even more” entail? Maii’s goal is to achieve a dual major in neuroscience and biology en route to becoming a pediatric oncologist.

Independence remains elusive

Many of the 1,000 people or so of Kurdish descent who live in the Fargo-Moorhead area were either born in the United States or immigrated from the traditional Kurdish homeland, which encompasses parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Political divisions created at the end of World War I left the Kurds without a homeland. While the hope of political independence is dim today in Turkey and Iran, the Kurdish militia is active in the Syrian civil war while their greatest hope and greatest frustration for independence comes in post-Saddam Iraq, where Kurds have voted for an independence that has remained elusive.

Chrah Maii
Courtesy of Chrah Maii
Chrah Maii
But American intervention in Iraq wasn’t the catalyst for most of the Kurdish migration to the U.S. Most, like business owner Talib “Tony” Salman, left their homes after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the Kurds in the late 1980s.

Salman, owner of A&R Auto Sales and Repair in West Fargo, fled Iraq in 1988, lived for four years in a migrant camp in Turkey, then emigrated to the United States. He and his brothers first arrived in Nashville, where exists to this day a large community of expat Kurds. He longed for a smaller town where he could more easily establish himself and so lived in Sioux Falls for four years. He was drawn to the Kurdish community in Moorhead-Fargo and eventually made his home there.

Salman is busy running a business. He says the auto sales and repair business is tough these days. Easy money means more people lease cars rather than buy them and trade them rather than repair them.

‘I came here to find peace’

But Salman is not buffaloed by tough times. “I come from a rough life, not peaceful. I came here to find peace, even if it’s not easy. I have the freedom to do my own thing here even if it’s not easy. My parents had a rough life. I want to show my children they have the chance to be something. I can’t do that there (in Iraq).”

One of his sons is a supervisor at a Fargo-area bank. “I’m so proud of him. I helped send him to college and he got the chance to be a banker. People are really happy with the way he’s helping run the bank,” Salman said. In a reflective moment, Salman added, “When it comes to survival, people come here to make a new life, a better life for themselves and their children.”

Many of the émigré children, like Salman’s son and Chrah Maii, have gone through the school system, making the 288 students who speak Kurdish at home in 2017-18 one of the largest ESL groups in Moorhead Public Schools.

Kari Yates, the district’s director of Elementary Learning and Accountability, wrote in an email (because she’s busy) that “of the 288 students with Kurdish home language, only 150 of them continue to qualify for participation in the English Language education program. Many of them have been here long-term and have either not entered EL programming or have exited through annual ACCESS testing.”

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When it comes to being busy, few can match Nezir Ahmed. He has a full-time job as a corrections officer with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, a part-time job as an officer with the Glyndon Police Department, has children ages 5 and 2,  and his wife is due at any moment with their third child.

His children are born under very different circumstances from the ones into which he was born in 1986. When he was 2 years old, his family fled Iraq to Turkish migrant camps where, like Salman, they waited for four years until they were able to emigrate to the United States.

They lived in his aunt’s house in Fargo — he, his parents and eight brothers and sisters in the upper floor while his aunt’s family lived in the main floor. His father worked three jobs and Ahmed started kindergarten without knowing a word of English.

But Ahmed said that by first grade his English was about 80 percent fluent just from being with other children and playing sports. His family eventually moved to Moorhead, where Ahmed remains to this day.

Respect for traditional culture

He said that while he has adapted to American culture, he and many of the émigrés don’t want to leave their old culture behind. They celebrate Kurdish holidays like Newroz, as well as birthdays and weddings, although he hasn’t attended many recently because he’s very busy.

His brothers and sisters have jobs as teachers, accountants and nurses, while two sisters are stay-at-home mothers. Most have one to three children, and while most still live in the Fargo-Moorhead area, some have moved as far away as California and Texas.

As for Ahmed, his desire to be a police officer came in junior high. He said his family had just made the move from Fargo to Moorhead and, in a bid to feel that he belonged, he fell in with a tough crowd. After he found himself in trouble, the school’s DARE officer and GREAT officer “took me aside and said ‘Hey, you have to shape up,’ ” Ahmed said.

“They gave me a vision of the path of where I was going to be as opposed to the path of where I could be. I started getting more into education, sports, listening to the discipline of my father and family. [My brothers and sisters], we kept each other on the right path.”

He said that as with any group of people, there are some in the Kurdish community who are successful and some who are not, “but it’s very family-oriented – if you do something, everyone knows about it. It’s like a soap opera.”

He said they watch out for each other. “If you see someone going down the wrong path, you try to help them out.”

Ahmed said he was the focus of some bullying while in school. He was in ninth grade during 9/11 and experienced bigotry not only from students but from teachers as well.

“After that, give or take a week, I learned that some of my friends were not my friends – people I had known for years didn’t want to know me. People called me terrorist, jihadist, ‘is bin Laden your uncle?’ … Without my family support, it could have been a lot worse. You don’t want to just take it, but my parents said to just let it go, it isn’t worth it. Pretty soon people learned that I was Kurdish and not Iraqi. You live and you move on.”

‘More American than Kurd’

While Ahmed’s generation still has a toe in the old country, the newer generation does not.

“My kids, my nieces and nephews, they’re more American than Kurd. They don’t even speak their own language. My brother has a daughter who is in a Spanish immersion program and doesn’t speak a lick of Kurdish.”

Ahmed, who has a degree in criminal justice from North Dakota State University, hopes that being a police officer will offer hope to the next generation.

“I wanted to be a cop and you can be one too. I tell them that if you work hard, you can be anything – not just a cop, but a doctor or a lawyer. You just have to work hard.”

And stay busy.