MOORHEAD — A Kurdish community leader and former mayoral candidate here has found himself a target of criticism in Texas over a nonprofit he operates there — the same one he ran in Moorhead for nearly 10 years.
A group of Kurdish-Americans in Dallas-Fort Worth has criticized the nonprofit's founder, Newzad Brifki, for how funds collected by the nonprofit are used.
The critics are former members of the nonprofit's board, established late last year after Brifki moved the organization from Minnesota to Texas.
“It's really sad,” said Muneer Bradost, who was elected vice president of the board in Texas before it was dissolved by Brifki.
Brifki operated the 501c3 nonprofit from a Moorhead office for nearly 10 years before abruptly shutting it down two days after he lost the November 2018 election for Moorhead mayor.
The stated reason for closing was that the organization had “run out of funding.”
The nonprofit reopened and began asking for donations again a few months later.
Late last year, it resurfaced in the Dallas area, which, like Moorhead, has a sizable Kurdish-American population.
In a phone call, Brifki said his critics simply don’t understand how nonprofits work, and he calls their acts “junior high stuff” amounting to “nonsense and gossip.”
“It is what it is. I’m bigger than that,” he said.
Brifki answered a few more questions before cutting the call short, and has not responded to additional requests for information.
Concerns raised in Moorhead
Former Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said she heard similar concerns about Brifki and the nonprofit from local Kurds.
Williams revealed she would not run for reelection in 2018, and Brifki was one of three people to announce their candidacy for the position.
She said Brifki was “not a big rules guy” during his campaign and "didn’t seem to care" when told by the city that he couldn’t place his campaign signs wherever he wanted.
A few weeks after losing the mayoral race, Brifki was slapped with a $250 civil penalty for violating state campaign rules on a different matter — not filing a campaign financial report in a timely fashion.
Williams said she tried, unsuccessfully, to look into how the Kurdish Community of America spent its money.
According to records obtained by The Forum, the nonprofit has always filed a Form 990-N or e-Postcard tax form, for gross receipts of $50,000 or less, where itemizing is not necessary.
Nonprofit board dissolved
Bradost said a Brifki family member contacted him late last year through a Facebook page he administers, Kurdish Community in DFW or Dallas-Fort Worth, stating Newzad Brifki and his nonprofit had just moved to Texas and their group should join forces with him.
After the group and Brifki met, a public meeting was held to elect board members and discuss priorities. It was decided the nonprofit would raise money to support the people of war-torn Rojava, Syria.
According to Bradost, Brifki informed the newly elected board that he would need to keep two-thirds, about 67 percent, of all funds raised to cover his salary, expenses and overhead costs.
In the brief phone call with The Forum, Brifki said something similar; that a two-thirds amount retained is "typical" for nonprofits.
The board demanded that less money go to the nonprofit and more go to the refugees.
“We told him, 'No, we're not going to accept that,'" Bradost said.
The fundraiser collected nearly $6,400 before it ended prematurely and Brifki disbanded the ten-member board via email, Bradost said.
A November 2019 post introducing the new board members has since been deleted from the nonprofit's Facebook page. The Texas Secretary of State website now notes Newzad Brifki, Jihan Mohammed and Barzan Abdi as directors, with Mohammed also listed as president and Abdi also listed as secretary/treasurer.
Money raised from the GoFundMe campaign was eventually sent to another nonprofit, Heyva Sor a Kurdistane, the Kurdish Red Crescent organization, Bradost said.
Rick Cohen, chief operating officer for the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, DC, said it's reasonable for a portion of a nonprofit's funds to be used for an executive director's salary and expenses, but not typical to designate a specific percentage of a fundraising campaign to cover them.
"We wouldn’t recommend structuring (a nonprofit) that way," Cohen said.
Complaints filed; no charges
The Arlington, Texas Police Department said it did receive a complaint from Brifki, who claimed he was being harassed by members of his nonprofit board.
Police spokesperson Tim Ciesco told The Forum a detective who spoke with the parties involved determined the complaints were largely the result of a financial dispute.
Because laws governing Texas nonprofits give those organizations much discretion in how they manage their funds, the detective, along with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, felt there was not enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime, Ciesco said.
The Forum contacted the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office to see whether any complaints about Kurdish Community of America have been filed here.
Deputy Chief of Staff John Stiles said the office cannot say whether complaints have been filed due to the Data Practices Act.
However, he said the more complaints they receive about a particular organization, the more likely the office is to investigate, and people who file complaints remain anonymous.
Aram Arko, 22, said his family was introduced to Kurdish Community of America after moving to Moorhead in 2012.
They were told Brifki could help Kurdish-Americans find opportunities. Arko said Brifki fixed his resume and helped him get a job.
“I thought he’s a good guy. I trusted him,” Arko said.
After that, Arko said Brifki requested payment for helping him find a job — something he wasn't expecting. Arko said he paid the $60 anyway.
Whenever his family sought help from the nonprofit, Arko said they were only told about costs for services afterward and were asked to pay in cash.
If the amount was questioned, Brifki would threaten to send the bill to a collections agency, he said.
Asked whether a nonprofit director can dissolve his or her own board, Rick Cohen of the National Council of Nonprofits said that's "kind of the reverse of how things work."
A nonprofit board has ultimate oversight, he said, including having access to the organization's financial information and determining how much to pay the executive director.
Northern Minnesota ties
Newzad Brifki and his nonprofit have numerous contacts in and around Duluth, Minn.
Duluth has a sister city relationship with Rania, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Ben Thwaits, executive director of Duluth Sister Cities International, said the organization has hosted celebratory Kurdish events attended by Brifki and his sister, Jihan Brifki, but does not have a formal or financial relationship with the nonprofit.
Tom Zelman, president of Duluth Sister Cities International, said the organization had planned a Kurdish new year celebration known as Newroz for the first week in April but has chosen to cancel it.
"Due to the uncertainty of the situation, we’ve decided not to go ahead with this," Zelman said.
Michele Naar-Obed, a grass roots activist with the Hildegard House Catholic Worker in Duluth, helped establish the sister city relationship with Rania. At some point, she became acquainted with Brifki and his nonprofit.
"I have never found them to be immoral or illegal or ill-natured," Naar-Obed said.
In fact, she said Kurdish Community of America helped her raise $10,000 for a new library in Kobane, Syria.
Brifki released a book in 2017 titled "My Journey to America: A Kurdish-American Story," in which he wrote about his family fleeing Iraqi Kurdistan and living in a refugee camp in Turkey before coming to the U.S. in 1992.
He has touted himself as a success story, as the head of a nonprofit and owner of a business known as Brifki Consulting.
Bradost sees it differently and is undeterred in his criticism over how Brifki runs Kurdish Community of America.
"I'm not going to be silent," Bradost said.
TIMELINE: Kurdish Community of America and Newzad Brifki
Sept. 2009 Kurdish Community of America established in Moorhead, initially as Kurdish Youth of America
Aug. 2013 Newzad Brifki announced candidacy for a vacated Moorhead City Council seat
Nov. 2013 Lost City Council race
Jan. 2014 Named treasurer of the Moorhead Rotary Club
Aug. 2014 KCA announced a fundraiser to secure humanitarian supplies for families who had fled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region
March 2017 Released a memoir, “My Journey to America: A Kurdish-American Story”
Nov. 2017 Announced candidacy for Moorhead mayor
Feb. 2018 Started Brifki Consulting
May 2018 Created a stir during mayoral campaign for his comment related to funding for the Minnesota Security Hospital and for a new Moorhead railroad underpass. “Instead of building a hospital for crazy people for $70 million, spend only $30 million and give $40 million to Moorhead,” Brifki said.
July 2018 Joined the Moorhead Business Association.
Oct. 2018 Complaint alleged Brifki failed to file campaign financial reports in a timely manner and that he accepted a contribution that was more than what is allowed by law.
Nov. 6, 2018 Lost Moorhead mayoral race, managing 8 percent of the vote to Johnathan Judd’s 51 percent and Brenda Elmer’s 40 percent.
Nov. 8, 2018 Announced on Facebook that KCA nonprofit is closing: “We are sorry but the organization has run out of funding."
Nov. 29, 2018 A $250 civil penalty is imposed on Brifki for being late in filing a campaign financial report. Other complaints were dropped.
April 10, 2019 Announced on Facebook that the nonprofit has been restarted, and requested donations.
Nov. 2019 KCA website is updated with new address in Arlington, Texas, where the nonprofit and Brifki's consulting business operate out of the same office space.