LOS ANGELES, US – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) needs to engage more with the Kurdish diaspora, especially youth, as Kurds abroad have historically played an important role in advocating internationally for Kurds in the region, the KRG’s representative to the United States said this week.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman spoke at the University of Southern California (USC) on Tuesday at ‘Kurdistan in Perspective,’ organized by a young and impassioned graduate student, Evin Cheikosmon.
The purpose of the series of talks was to educate students and the public about the KRG, their diplomatic mission, their challenges, achievements, and the future of Kurdistan, said Cheikosmon.
The main event was preceded by a roundtable discussion between Rahman, a number of USC professors of Public Diplomacy and International Relations, and the spokesperson for Olive Tree Initiative, a university-based organization that advocates conflict analysis and resolution through academic discourse, experiential education and leadership development.
Rahman eloquently provided about her diplomatic mission, the scope of her work, levels of her engagement with the US government and international delegations. She was able to highlight the challenges KRG has faced and how her core group of seven dedicated staff provide different services to Kurds in North America and contribute to the representation of Kurdish interests.
She specifically mentioned how a member in her team engages with diasporic communities such as Assyrians, Caledonians, Christians, and Yazidis in North America in spite of “…the vast geography of the land. Diaspora for KRG is an asset that we still have to tap into it and learn from more successful diasporic communities such as the Lebanese.”
One of the salient aspects of Rahman’s talk was to stress the critical importance of mutual understanding and broadening KRG – US relations beyond military and humanitarian assistance to one of direct and long term co-engagement, stressing the fact that the people of Kurdistan and the regional government are the most trustworthy and reliable ally the US has in the Middle East.
She contended that despite some flaws, “We are a democracy, far more democratic than the others; the rights of minorities, religious and ethnic are protected by our laws… Out of 111 seats, 11 seats have been allocated to minorities, which is disproportionate to their population.”
She noted that the world has yet to see the depth of the humanitarian crisis they are facing, “2 million refugees that have increased the population of Kurdish areas by a third,” and the ways in which the influx has adversely affected the adequacy of services and created new gaps given the limited resources provided by the outside world.
In addition to this growing crisis as new camps are being built with Mosul operations in full force, the KRG also have a “security crisis and economic crisis deepened by the decline in oil prices, and refugee population.”
A participant asked if the KRG was pursuing UN status. Rahman found the notion of nation state to be the backbone of the UN raison d'être, “The brainchild of 19th century men not women, a notion that that fails to see national aspirations. We have more bonds with Catalina, Northern Ireland… They support us as we have similar issues. The idea will not collapse. A new kind of thinking is needed. Even IMF [International Monetary Fund] does not mention us. These structures have to be restructured.”
She characterized the support provided by the UN as inadequate despite the fact that 55% of all the displaced people, and 95% of Syrian refugees in Iraq, are in Kurdistan. “When you talk to UN, they talk about Iraq,” she said in bitterness.
On the issue of the turbulent relation with Baghdad, Rahman pointed out how since the inception of the KRG they had adopted a flexible and accommodating policy, based on the democratic rights of minorities and a liberal model for democratization of Iraq, but the central government always used exclusionary measures against Kurds and Sunnis, both of whom were disillusioned with Iraqi governments.
Seeing no alternatives, the Sunnis resented and resisted, giving rise to Daesh, an Arabic acronym for ISIS, who began to wage a catastrophic war against everyone particularly minorities. It was only during this dangerous stage that the US and Europeans came to see the importance of the Peshmerga and the rewarding work of collaboration with KRG, but even this did not bring the well-deserved attention to “our pressing need for the types of weapons we needed in our fight against Daesh.”
In response to a question by a professor of Public Diplomacy about the inherently conflicting goals the diplomatic mission had to manage their policy goals and daily tensions, Mrs. Rahman noted emphatically, “We are respectful towards our Iraqi ambassador… we are cordial. We do not report to each other. With Iran and Syria, life is easy; they do not have embassies; with Turkey we have a good relationship. We have to have good relations with our neighbors, even Iran and maybe one day with Syria. We are landlocked.”
In a follow up question on Turkey-KRG relations in light of what is happening to Kurds in Turkey, Rahman said, “We are bound by blood, by kinship, by border, by families like mine that live across borders. In Iran, Kurds are executed on charges of crime or being gay, but they are political. What is happening in Turkey is a disaster. Some cities are utterly destroyed. PKK has not always been wise. We never brought the war to the city. Turkey has responded catastrophically; the peace process has unraveled. We hoped that HDP would be able to play its part in parliament but that did not work partly because of PKK pressure and partly because of Turkish disproportionate use of force.”
In the general session where a diverse group of students, educators, and some members of the Kurdish community attended, Rahman chronicled the painful history of Kurds in Iraq and the many massacres that Kurds had suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and how eventually between 1991 and 2003 they experienced a degree of freedom from “the grasp of the dictator.” It was only in 2003 that a new transformation occurred, but “We decided to remain a part of Iraq and did our best to make it a progressive one. If we had not been there, minorities would not have been even mentioned… In Iraq killing a woman for honor was not a crime, but for us it was.”
She teased out some of the ironies by saying “We thought Iraq would be pluralistic, democratic, peaceful, but it has not been so. We thought it would change not just for Kurds but also for all Iraqis. Unfortunately Iraq, the US, and we made many mistakes; it has cost us dearly.”
She depicted the degeneration of the political process with former Prime Minister Maliki’s autocratic grasp of power and the subsequent alienation and disillusionment of Sunnis, leading to the rise and spread of Daesh that “…filled a vacuum.”
She characterized ISIS as “local, the manifestation of anger, resentment of a people who felt disenfranchised… that is why when ISIS took Mosul, they did not fight …we warned Baghdad.” Then ISIS attacked the heartland of Yazidis, Shabaks, and Christians.
She spoke of the horrific massacres committed and the many more mass graves yet to be found. In the face of this existential threat the US only provided light arms before President Obama ordered airstrikes.
Reflecting on the US role she said, “This [US airstrikes] saved many lives. We are thankful for that decision…but the need is much more as we have 650 miles to protect not just ourselves but also others, as we have become safe haven for minorities. In addition to our own 5 million, we have to take care of 2 million refugees. They need water, shelter, medication, food, sanitation, their children need education.”
Rahman also spoke alarmingly about the economic crisis that is plaguing the KRG in terms of declining oil prices, the adamant refusal of Baghdad to pay their share of the budget, the humanitarian crisis and total standstill of the KRG Vision 2020 Document designed to diversify from oil and instead focus on agriculture and tourism, a promising plan that looked attainable between 2003 and 2013, during the period she called, the Golden Decade, when two international airports and 30 universities were built.
She lamentingly said, “…with Daesh everything came to a standstill, but …we have to restart the process of reconstruction; they [ISIS] have destroyed everything utterly. We need US and coalition countries to rebuild places, help people to go back to their homes and create an industrial base, to invest in the agriculture, to divest from oil...”
With respect to the future of Kurdistan she said, “Every Kurd in his heart wants independence. We will achieve it but through dialogue and peace. We raise it wherever we go… we will achieve it for stability...”
She ended with a moving response to the last question on the role of diaspora. Rahman stressed the need for appreciating the role of diaspora and how during the boom many returned to Kurdistan.
She insisted that the KRG would like to attract diasporic Kurds, but many have reservations about the quality of education for their children even though there are several schools that provide high quality education. She reminded the audience that historically the diaspora has played a role as it did in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
She concluded by stating “We were the voices of our relatives; they could not cry for help; when someone was killed when 5,000 people were killed in Halabja, diaspora protested; they sent back money during sanctions. Diaspora has played a role. Your generation, we need to engage with you through social media, utilize your thoughts through Facebook and internet building and expanding.”
Dr. Amir Sharifi is the president of the Kurdish American Education Society