Kurds in Fargo-Moorhead return to class for homeland's language

Newzad Brifki and Avann Salman
Newzad Brifki, executive director of Kurdish Youth of America, left, helps Avann Salman, 5, of Moorhead write in Kurdish during a language class on Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, in Moorhead. The class is geared toward children ages six and up, but exceptions are sometimes made.
Photo for MPR by Ann Arbor Miller

Kurdish residents in Fargo-Moorhead who fled Iraq and resettled in Fargo-Moorhead over the past 20 years are trying to reconnect their children with traditional language and culture.

It's a legacy that was denied them in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but now some of them have enrolled their kids in a special program through the Kurdish Youth of America, a local resource for the Kurdish community.

The class started in October and it's proven very popular. Five came to the first class. The second week 35 students showed up, forcing organizers to find a larger classroom.

Most of the kids, who range in age from 6-15 years old, were born in America and have learned some conversational Kurdish at home, but this class is teaching them to read and write the language. Parents pay $5 a month for each student enrolled in the class with a teacher who volunteers her time.

Nidar Salman was one of the first to sign up her children. The 36-year-old mother brings two of her children to the class, and stays to do the work herself.

"I can speak it but I don't know how to read or write. I think 95 percent of Kurdish people here in Fargo Moorhead don't know how to read or write" the language, she said one recent Friday evening. When she was growing up in Iraq, Kurdish could not be taught in schools.

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She spent four years in a refugee camp after Hussein forced thousands of Kurds to flee from Iraq in the late 1980s, and she came to the Fargo-Moorhead area 20 years ago. She thinks learning the Kurdish language will help her children understand their history. She also worries that in America life is too easy, and her children are forgetting the struggle it took to get here.

"They have everything they need," she said. "The technology, the friends, the clothing, the housing -- we didn't have that. We didn't have toys to play with. We had pieces of guns and broken glass and dolls out of sticks. My son for instance, he just got iPhone 4G. It saddens me, I always tell him, 'This is how we lived, try to remember that.' And he tells me, 'That was you guys.'"

Nine-year-old Niyaz Oray said he's learning Kurdish so he can talk to his relatives when he visits his parents' homeland.

Nidar Salman
As a child Nidar Salman didn't have the opportunity to attend school or learn to read or write the Kurdish language. Now, the mother of four is learning alongside three of her children, including Renas Salman, 8, right. The Moorhead family is among those who regularly attend a Kurdish language class on Friday nights. Since coming to the United States in 1991, Nidar Salman has earned her GED and seen her oldest son attend Minnesota State University Moorhead. She's grateful for the Kurdish language class, a program of Kurdish Youth of America. "I hope it's going to grow and stay," she said.
Photo for MPR by Ann Arbor Miller

"I have relatives back in the country and they're all Kurdish, so I've go to learn how to talk to them," he said. "And I think it's really nice if you know more than one language."

The man who organized the class, Newzad Brifki, spent his early childhood in a refugee camp in Turkey. When he was 7 years old, his family came to Fargo as part of a refugee resettlement program. That was in 1992. Today he's a college graduate who recently started a non-profit to serve the 1,100 Kurdish people living in Moorhead and Fargo. When he surveyed the community, the number one concern among parents was that their children were forgetting cultural connections.

"We struggled so much having a Kurdish nation, by bloodshed, by losing our lives, by losing our homes, by losing everything we had, by losing everything we knew and starting fresh," he said. "And then we come to America and lose everything without a fight. Everything is just changing."

Brifki said that when he came to Fargo-Moorhead as a refugee, his mother never let him forget the opportunity and responsibility of living in a free country. That's a message he wants to share with the youngest generation of Kurds who were born in America.