Trump cracks down on refugees in Nashville's Little Kurdistan.

Author:Petti, Matthew

ARMED MEN PULL ShevanArif and his family over at a busy intersection, asking questions and demanding to see IDs. Bystander cellphone video captures Arif nervously shaking his head and pleading with the two men, who mill around and make phone calls. They aren't local police, and they're evasive when he asks if he's under arrest. Eventually, they realize Arif isn't the person they're looking for, and drive off without explanation.

This would be a fairly ordinary--though still terrifying--encounter in much of the developing world. What's remarkable is that it took place in Nashville, Tennessee, as part of a massive immigration sweep that began this June. And the targets are members of a persecuted community who thought they had found safety in America.

When the Trump administration unveiled the second version of its travel ban in March, there was a curious difference from the first one. Iraq, which had originally been one of seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were deemed too dangerous to enter the United States, was now off the list. The Islamic State (ISIS) hadn't been expelled from Iraq in the intervening month; rather, the change was a result of some behind-the-scenes politicking.

In exchange for Trump lifting the entry ban on Iraqi citizens, the Iraqi government agreed to issue papers that would allow the U.S. to deport people back to that country. For years, it had been nearly impossible for U.S. immigration authorities to deport Iraqi nationals, as Iraq just wouldn't accept them--and for good reason. Despite brief lulls in the violence, Iraq has been in a state of civil war more or less since the American-led invasion toppled its government in 2003.

Though the travel ban's legality is now being disputed before the Supreme Court, the deal with Iraq still stands. So the federal government has begun rounding up Iraqi nationals with removal orders, including some who have lived in America for years, building families and careers.

Almost three months after the U.S.-Iraq deal was made, a weeklong immigration sweep hit the Kurdish-American community in Nashville without warning. Alleged civil liberties violations and ethnic profiling shook the community, known locally as Little Kurdistan. But the potential future consequences of the sweep are even worse: Since most Kurds came to Nashville fleeing oppression, their deportation to Iraq would likely amount to a death sentence.


THE HISTORY OF Little Kurdistan, like that of Kurdistan proper, features a series of betrayals by the U.S. government. An estimated 28 million people across the Middle East speak Kurdish, but Nashville is mostly populated by Iraqi Kurds, who have had a tumultuous relationship with the United States.

The first wave of Kurdish immigration to Nashville came in 1975, according to Kani Xulam, founder of the American Kurdish Information Network. That year, the shah of Iran (then a U.S. ally) and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein signed an agreement in Algiers that ended Iranian and American support for Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, allowing Hussein to crush the rebellion without opposition. Some 200,000 people were displaced in the aftermath.

Hussein Bazirki was one of those who fled after the U.S. cut off support. Thousands of less fortunate Iraqi Kurds were killed by the Iraqi army. Bazirki says he would have been hanged had he remained in Iraq.

The Nixon administration seemed unwilling to deal with the consequences of giving and then suddenly pullingback support for these rebels. ("Promise [Kurds] anything," Secretary of State Henry Kissinger infamously said, "give them what they get, and fuck them if they can't take a joke.") A year later, a congressional investigation unveiled America's broken promises.

Diplomatic official Sue Patterson told the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project in a 1989 interview that she noticed that an increasing number of Kurdish refugees were asking for asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the late 1970s. After reading leaked proceedings of the congressional investigation in The Village Voice, she recognized that her own government was responsible for the uptick, and she pushed for the United States to begin accepting Kurdish migrants from Iraq.

Many of the refugees, including Bazirki, settled in Nashville. There were no established Kurdish communities in America at the time, so people like him had the difficult task of laying down roots not just for their families but for their entire ethnic group. A resettlement organization got Bazirki a job, but learning English was an obstacle, made more difficult by the lack of Kurdish speakers in Tennessee at the time.

Nevertheless, he is proud to have made a life in America, and he says that others of his generation feel the same way.

Almost two decades after Bazirki's journey, Drost...

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