Kurdish language class bridges generations and cultures in a Moorhead classroom

a teacher and student confer
Teacher Zak Amin checks the work of student Rayan Salih during a Kurdish language and culture class at Moorhead High School.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Updated: 12:20 p.m.

Zak Amin has worked as a liaison to Kurdish families, and as an English as a second language instructor at Moorhead Public Schools.

This fall he started a new class for Kurdish students to learn about their language, culture and history.

Amin not only teaches Kurdish language to these students, he teaches English as a second language to many of their parents.

He saw a communication barrier that needed to be addressed.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“Kids sometimes have needs they need to express, but the only way they can express it fully is in English, they cannot actually convey the message fully to their parents because their parents English is very limited,” said Amin.

a student and teacher stand at the front of a classroom
Student Ayaah Kakasaif and instructor Zak Amin discuss a Kurdish word during a class at Moorhead High School.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

And parents get frustrated trying to rely on a mix of Kurdish and English to talk to their children. That communication struggle was the impetus for this class.

“My main goal was to create a bridge and build a stronger relationship between the parents and the kids,” explained Amin.

Amin came to the U.S. nine years ago. He previously taught school in Kurdistan before serving as a U.S. military translator for eight years.

The class started as an after-school offering, through the Kurdish American Development Organization, which helps connect Kurdish people with community resources.

This fall the Amin began offering the class at the high school.

Represent yourself

During a recent session, eight high schools students listened intently as he discussed Kurdish cuisine.

The students are all Kurdish from 9th through 12th grade and they’ve chosen to take this new elective class.

“Who knows what Biryani is?” Amin asked.

Senior Rayan Salih accurately described the dish as rice mixed with vegetables.

Salih came to the U.S. a decade ago. This class is motivating him to embrace his own identity.

“I feel like no matter what you are, where you’re from, you should always represent yourself because I feel like it’s just right,” he said.

a man laughs
Instructor Zak Amin laughs as students talk about Kurdish food and language.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Improving his Kurdish language skills and learning about Kurdish culture and history is also about respecting his elders.

“What your people did, it’s like they did a lot for you to be where you’re at right now,” Salih said. “That’s why I represent my culture and my ethnicity.”

Like many of the students in this class, Salih comes from the Duhok area of Iraq.

Amin said there are three primary languages and many dialects among Kurdish people. Most of the students speak Behdini.

Kurdish is spoken in the homes of 239 families with students in Moorhead schools, according to district officials. It’s the most common language spoken at home in the district, after English.

There are 17 students currently enrolled in this new Kurdish language and culture elective.

Making connections

Ayaah Kakasaif is a ninth grader. She came to the U.S. as a very young child.

Her parents speak Kurdish, but most of her friends speak English and she feels the need to be fluent in both.

“A couple of months ago I went back to Kurdistan and they were all talking, their vocabulary was so well and mine wasn’t. I wanted to talk to them and I wanted to say stuff to them, but I didn’t really know how and I didn’t have the right words," said Kakasaif, explaining why she signed up for this class.

“I wanted to be able to speak to my family more and understand them and feel like I’m actually with them,” she said.

a man points to a video screen
Instructor Zak Amin discusses traditional Kurdish foods during a language, culture and history class at Moorhead High School.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Kakasaif calls the class a gift for Kurdish students.

Moorhead school officials say there are 56 different languages spoken in families with students in the district. Kurdish and Somali are the two most common after English.

High School Principal Josh Haag said this class fits well with the district goal of connecting with an increasingly diverse student body.

“Sometimes there’s that disconnect of ‘nothing that goes on here is what I see when I leave here,’” Haag said.

“It’s the, ‘how is this going to affect me in my life, in my world,’” he said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Students in a classroom
Kurdish students are learning about their language, culture and history during a class at Moorhead High School. Teacher Zak Amin sees the class as a bridge between cultures.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Amin said Kurdish students and parents are excited about the class. He hopes to expand the Kurdish language offerings next year.

And Amin thinks improving communication between parents and students can help him achieve a larger goal.

“Trying to make them more engaged into American society,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to make the parents more adapted to American society and make the kids remember about their culture and identity.”

Want more Fargo-Moorhead news? Check out our local FM page and sign up for our weekday text club:

What else is happening in the Fargo-Moorhead area? Let MPR News know at afelegy@mpr.org. Also, take our Fargo-Moorhead news survey.