Duluth-to-Rania: A view from the Kurdish north of Iraq
Tomorrow, seven Duluth citizens are scheduled to arrive in the city of Rania, in the Kurdish north of Iraq. Calling themselves the Duluth-to-Rania Friendship Exchange Project, their mission will be reaching out a hand of friendship; learning abou...
Tomorrow, seven Duluth citizens are scheduled to arrive in the city of Rania, in the Kurdish north of Iraq. Calling themselves the Duluth-to-Rania Friendship Exchange Project, their mission will be reaching out a hand of friendship; learning about Kurdish culture, history and life; and laying the groundwork upon which a more formal sister-city relationship might be built. On both sides, the visit is an opportunity to open hearts that have been closed by fear and suspicion and open hands that have been clenched in anger. Indeed, the visit is a beautiful gesture with the first steps filled with promise and hope in building peace.
This is my second trip to the Kurdish north of Iraq since 2007. Cumulatively, I've been here for 10 months. When I came, I knew very little about the Kurds. I thought of them as an extension of the Arab population of the central and south of Iraq. The longer I'm here, the more I'm learning about their rich history and culture, which dates back more than 6,000 years.
The Kurds have their own ethnic identity, language, culture, customs and religion. They predate the coming of Islam to the Middle East. Consisting of more than 27 million people, they are the largest population without a country of their own. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the World War I, they saw their hopes of a homeland die as they were parceled into four countries with new borders. Currently, there are more than 15 million Kurds in Turkey, 5 million in Iran, 5 million in Iraq and 1.5 million in Syria. Each group has survived genocide attacks throughout history.
The city of Rania, in the northeast corner of the Suleimaniya Governate, is in the foothills of the snow-capped Qandil Mountains. It is a city of about 70,000. The first time I visited Rania, I was introduced to Khaled Qader who runs the Rania Youth Center. The center serves about 200 youth daily with after-school programs in computer science, fine arts, music and English classes. It has a library with books in Kurdish, Arabic and English. It sponsors annual cultural festivals. And, for some, the center is simply a safe haven.
During one of my many meetings with Khaled, I asked how long Kurds have been fighting for their autonomy. After two hours of what turned out to be a detailed Kurdish history lesson, he was at 1100 BC. Two and a half hours later, we were in a century that was at least recognizable to me, and within another hour, we were in the current century. He was sure to let me know that was just a recap.
I was given a tour of Rania's Fine Arts Institute. It was there that I began to see that the Kurds' identity, which has been threatened throughout history, has been saved in music and arts. Their songs are rich in symbolism and metaphors. Their artwork captures their cultural ways. Their poetry is a mix of beauty and tragedy throughout time.
The Kurds have offered much to the world, and, given the chance, they want to give more of themselves. They have been isolated and ostracized too long.
When I spoke with Khaled about the possibility of a friendship exchange program with Duluth, the spark in his eyes lit into a flame. His hand immediately opened. There we were with two hands opened in friendship with hopes that more will follow. That will come when the Duluth-to-Rania Friendship Exchange Project delegates arrive.
Michele Naar-Obed of Duluth is living in Suleimaniya and working until mid-June with Christian Peacemaker Teams.