Freedom and the Kurdish Existence

As a predominantly English teacher, my weekly schedule of periods is dominated by said core subject; 17 of my 27 periods. The coursework is rigid and inflexible and though I do enjoy teaching it, the standardized curriculum is often devoid of opportunities to infuse originality and the personal touch that I enjoy most about teaching. The other ten periods in my weekly schedule are humanities. For 6th and 7th grade, the levels I teach, it means a mix of history and geography. Unlike my English classes, humanities gives me a chance to put some of my own style into the curriculum, in particular adding maps.

I love maps. Always have, always will. I’ve spent years studying obscure maps and the world, and plan on spending many more years traveling it. Naturally enough my love for maps spills into the classroom, where I’m constantly diagramming past cultures, empires, migration routes, sailing patterns, and trading hubs.

My seventh grade classes recently finished a string of units several months long on past empires and civilizations of the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent. On one such lesson before the winter break- I don’t remember which one- I hastily included Kurdistan just to make the geography of the lesson more relatable. It was greeted with raucous cheers from the class. Kids were beaming at the fact that between Assyria and Persia, Kurdistan had been delineated on the map.

In the waning minutes of the period several students came up and shared how much they enjoyed the lesson. How much they loved that I had mentioned their beloved Peshmerga, and taken the time and effort to recognize Kurdistan’s presence on my whiteboard map.

What began as a simple gesture is now commonplace among my humanities lessons. I’ve now worked to provide more ways that the students can associate and apply the history and geography lessons, relating past conflicts and territories to the struggles that the Kurdish Peshmerga has undergone in current conflicts with the Islamic State as well as near-past wars against Saddam Hussein, all too often for the smallest gains in freedom, working to undo past wrongs.

 This is a land that, although famously shaped and still defined as the cradle of civilization, is seeing some of its most important history unfold in real time. Kurdistan, though owing its foundation to roots as ancient as its fellow Islamic neighbors, has been disproportionately affected by the regional turmoil of the last century.

As a nation Kurdistan was split between the newly created states of Syria and Iraq as well as Turkey and Iran by way of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. It was a view to the end of World War I created by the British and French diplomats who lent their names to the agreement, and a way to divisively punish the Kurdish people for their loyalty to the Ottoman Empire.

It is also a division that Kurdistan still owes it’s lack of proper statehood to. Kurdish autonomy only began to take shape after what was known as the National Uprising in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War a mere twenty five years ago, an autonomy that continues to unfold today.

And as such, anecdotes in my classroom about  war, political existentialism, bleeding with the ideals and  implications of personal and national liberties, resonate a little stronger here. At my school in particular; a government subsidized K-7 for children of Peshmerga soldiers. Most of my students are on scholarship. Many have lost one if not both of their parents to war against aforementioned combatants like the Islamic State and Saddam Hussein, so anecdotes of liberty, freedoms, sacrifice, and personal loss are more poignant here.

Primary school students gather around the Kurdish flag during recess.
Primary school students gather around the Kurdish flag during recess.

It’s been a very interesting experience for me being here. Being in the middle of what has become a drawn out war for independence. There’s effectively two wars; the dominant headline grabbing conflict is the struggle against the radical Islamic State, or Da’ish (Dash) as it is known here, and the lesser known, less dramatic war of politics, economics and words between Kurdistan and neighboring countries which are hindering the move towards international independence.

Both are existential conflicts. Kurdistan’s past, present, and future are very much threatened by the ongoing campaigns from different directions and different forms; it’s very existence is at stake. Whether or not Kurdistan will ever have international borders of its own seems to depend greatly on these continually unfolding events.

I’ve found that the happenings out here, the raw passion is often hard for friends and fellow Americans back home to understand. We don’t have to fight to survive. These fights, for our very existence, exist to us only in immortalized history texts detailing our own foundational past over two centuries ago.

We’ve spent the better part of the elapsed time having the opportunity to play an active role in the forming of other states, while our own borders have remained secure. Our wars of more recent history appear to have been for the purpose of preserving our lifestyle and a set of ideals that are privilege beyond our immediate needs as a living society. We Americans don’t know what it feels like to claw for a corner of the world to call our own, and we’re lucky for it.

Personal liberties and freedoms, guarantees not to be trifled with for us, are exciting and cutting-edge ideas out here. People are only beginning to explore what beautiful possibilities come with a rapid gain in private enterprise or independent choice, even if they are more used than most to fighting for it.

As a result, we Americans, we westerners, seem to be more familiar with freedom. We know what it allows, to what lengths or extremes we can take it. And yet in my brief experience I think the Kurds understand it better. They know what it costs, what the absence of freedom feels like, and how sweet the smallest taste is. We might have greater experience with freedom, but our relationship with liberties is now a centuries-old ensured security, one for which very few of us understand the real sacrifice or experience of maintaining.

Kurds appear to know the real value of freedom because it is still a very fresh experience and a quickly growing existence. Their near past is littered with examples of freedom being a distant goal.  And as such I feel lucky to have the opportunity to watch this national growth unfold, and see the coalescence of both sacrifice for, and reward of, freedoms.


Peshmerga soldiers rolling past our van on their way to the front lines
Peshmerga soldiers rolling past our van on their way to the front lines

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