From Orumieh to Winnipeg
Farhad Sultanpour of the Kurdish Association of Manitoba speaks to members of the Winnipeg Jewish community and others. (photo by Yolanda Papini Pollock)
According to Farhad Sultanpour of the Kurdish Association of Manitoba, Kurds are the largest nation of people without a state. The majority of Kurdish people, he said, live in a strip of land that stretches through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Sultanpour was speaking to a Winnipeg audience about the connections between Kurds and Israel at an event organized by Winnipeg Friends of Israel (WFI).
Sultanpour came from Orumieh, in east Kurdistan, the northwest part of Iran, and was brought up as a Sunni Muslim. He made his way to Canada in the late 1980s.
“In 1979, during my mid-teens, the Islamic Revolution began and the Kurds fought adamantly to protect and liberate their towns and villages against Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was rising to power,” said Sultanpour.
During this time, Khomeini was stalling in the negotiations with Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the Kurdish leader, regarding the creation of a Kurdish autonomous state. What was actually happening, said Sultanpour, was that “Khomeini was reinforcing his revolutionary army. He led the invasion of the Kurdish territories, while declaring jihad to all Kurds. In 1989, the agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran assassinated Dr. Ghassemlou in Vienna, Austria.”
Sultanpour, who was 19 at the time, needed to make a decision – join Khomeini’s army or join the Kurdish Peshmerga.
“I chose to be a Peshmerga, fighting against Khomeini’s regime,” said Sultanpour. “After a year and a half, I went to the United Nations office in Ankara, Turkey, to apply for refugee status. A year and a half later, I was granted a refugee visa by Canada.”
Integration into Canadian culture was challenging for Sultanpour, mainly due to the language barrier. At the time, he hardly understood or spoke English, and had made the move alone.
Sultanpour has nothing but good things to say about Canada and the second chance at life afforded to him by Canadians. “I painstakingly pursue my English class and university courses for self-improvement,” he said.
He and his wife feel it is time to raise awareness about the plight of the Kurds, especially with the rise of ISIS.
“In the last 10 years, my wife and I have built three public schools, purchased a prefabricated trailer home-style classroom, and built a community centre near the city of Orumieh, in east Kurdistan-Iran,” said Sultanpour. “For the last 20 years, we have been helping, financially, 65 to 100 very poor families in Kurdistan.”
Sultanpour is now working to strengthen the Kurdish-Jewish connection in Winnipeg. He is saddened by the lack of knowledge about the Kurdish situation in the general public, as well as with federal public servants who have not heard about Kurds or Kurdistan.
He referred to an article in the Dec. 29, 2015, issue of Time Magazine: “Alan Kurdi was one of a million. In the summer of 2015, the 3-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish origins and his family fled the war engulfing their country, hoping to join relatives in the safety of Canada. They were part of a historic flow of refugees from the Middle East to Europe this year, and they followed the dangerous route taken by so many others. In the early hours of Sept. 2, the family crowded onto a small inflatable boat on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey. A few minutes into the journey to Greece, the dinghy capsized. Alan, his older brother, Ghalib, and his mother, Rihanna, all drowned, joining the more than 3,600 other refugees who died in the eastern Mediterranean this year.”
Sultanpour said, “Alan, his brother, Ghalib, and mother, Rihanna, were identified as Syrian when, in fact, they came from Kobane, the Kurdish town invaded by Syria. The tragedy of the death of these three Kurdish people made Alan’s father, Abdullah, prefer to bury his family in Kobane and stay in his beloved motherland, Kurdistan. Up to their dying day, Alan, Ghalib and Rihanna were stripped of their identity and state.
“In the heart of the Kurds, the Kurdi family are Kurds from Kobane, Kurdistan,” he continued. “Alan’s dead body was the only Kurdish child seen by the world, not knowing that there were hundreds of thousands of Kurdish men, women and children who are dead and are dying in Kurdistan – the biggest nation without a state.”
Sultanpour, like many other Kurds, sees Israel and the Jewish people as their only allies in the Middle East. He sees Kurdistan and Israel living in a very hostile region with common enemies, with both nations finding Iran and ISIS as threats to their existence.
With only about 500 members of the Kurdish community in Manitoba, the Kurdish Association of Manitoba is looking to network with the local Jewish community to have a larger impact.
“Both Yolanda Papini Pollock of the WFI and Bernie Bellan of the Jewish Post and News have been instrumental in the speedy interconnection of the Kurds and Jewish people in Manitoba,” said Sultanpour.
The approximately 35 attendees at the event had many questions for Sultanpour about Kurdish-Jewish connections, Kurdish political parties’ relationships with one another, and Palestinian-Kurdish relations.
According to Sultanpour, many in attendance were surprised to know that the present Kurdish capital of Erbil was the capital city of Jewish Kurds from the end of the first century when some Kurds converted freely to Judaism.
“There were numerous questions about political and religious issues regarding the Kurds,” said Sultanpour. “It was very obvious that the attendees were happy to welcome the Kurds and that they could have accepted them earlier had they known about them sooner. But, it’s not too late to develop a much stronger bond with the Jewish people here in Winnipeg and increase the connection globally.”
In related news, another manifestation of Kurdish-Jewish friendship occurred in January, when Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called for an independent Kurdistan, saying, “The Kurds are an ancient, democratic, peace-loving people that have never attacked any country. It’s time to help them.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.