Kurds In Greece Protest About Their Home, Away From Home
As more and more Kurds from Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq gather in Athens they strive to preserve their political culture for generations to come.
Photos: Ryan Lucas-Henderson
The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands in what are now south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia, make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but have never obtained a permanent nation state. The Kurdish people, the largest stateless nation in the world, live in Kurdistan which has been occupied by Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria since 16th century, with a population of an estimated 40 million. Many members of the Kurdish diaspora in Greece have been around long before the refugee crisis began. Since the outbreak of the PKK-Turkey conflict in 1984, Kurds sought refuge in Greece. Lavrio Refugee camp, just one-hour outside of Athens, is home to more than 400 Kurdish refugees who moved to Greece at different time periods, all burning with a passion to advocate for Kurdish rights abroad. Influxes of Kurds into the refugee camp and in urban areas around Athens go beyond the 1984 PKK-Turkey conflict. The Anfal genocide (1986–1989) elicited the largest amount of Kurdish refugees to Greece, after they were systematically targeted using chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s offensive. This large influx of Kurds led to the creation of a Kurdish Cultural Center in 1988 in Athens, which aims to promote Kurdish identity among Kurds, new and old in Greece, and build strong networks for those who have been in Greece for decades.
The Kurdish Cultural Center is a focal point for Kurdish life in Greece, as Kurds from Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq gather to discuss their culture and strive to preserve it for generations to come. Not only is the cultural center a place where Kurds can learn their language, engage with Kurdish history and read the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish nationalist leader, but members organize political events to create awareness about the Kurdish plight abroad. The cultural center is a place for Kurds from a diversity of backgrounds to assemble as they strive to create one unified voice regarding issues facing Kurds living in the Middle East.
Turkey’s full-scale military incursion, since January, into Afrin, Syria involving airstrikes and ground forces to annihilate the Kurdish militia in order to protect its borders has been a major point of contention for Kurdish living in Greece. Today, Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies, have taken full control of Afrin and raised their flags. In the final days of the two month long campaign named “Operation Olive Branch” Syrian rebel fighters tore down an iconic statue of Kawa, a mythological Kurdish hero who defeated a brutal ruler and lit fires to spread the news, ushering in spring. This statue symbolized an important holiday of the Kurdish new year. Nearly 200,000 people have fled the Afrin region in recent days amid heavy air strikes, entering Syrian government-held territory. Additionally, there have been several hundred Kurds fleeing violence and conflict, in the Afrin region, entering into Greece from the Northern borders. Police in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki have reported a surge in illegal land crossings following Turkey’s military offensive. A record 1,500 men, women and children, described as Kurds fleeing Syria’s Afrin district following Turkey’s military offensive into the area, crossed the Evros river (Northern Greece) last week.
Currently, the creation of a cohesive Kurdish state appears to be a game of snakes and ladders. One moment up several ladders and another moment hindered by several snakes. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurds have made tremendous progress in recent months. Iraqi Prime Minister congratulated them on Nowruz, the traditional New Year, using Kurdish language, which was the first time a modern leader in Iraq spoke Kurdish in public. Not only a symbolic step, but the Iraqi Prime Minister pledged a transfer of more than $250 million to the Kurdish Regional Government in order to pay the salaries of Kurds working in government and security forces. While the Iraqi Kurds make progress, Turkey takes control of Kurdish controlled Afrin resulting in many major losses for the Kurds in Syria.
Since the Turkish offensive began in Afrin, the Kurdish Cultural Center has dedicated much of its energy into protesting Turkey and President Erdogan. Kurdish people living in Greece gathered on multiple occasions with signs and posters, produced mainly at the Kurdish Cultural center, to protest the targeting of Kurds in Afrin. At time accompanied my leftist groups, these protesters gathered in Syntagma and Omonia to chant slogans decrying the atrocities committed by the Turkish army against their people. Although, protests by Kurdish people living in Greece is not a new occurrence, given their presence in protests concerning refugees and asylum seeker rights, in recent months they have rallied large numbers of individuals from across Greece in order to come to Athens and support the Kurdish voice on the Afrin issue.
A Kurdish man (who chooses not to be named for security purposes) shares his insight on the role of the Kurdish Cultural Center and the necessity for Kurds abroad to continue fighting for their people and for the creation of a Kurdistan for all Kurds living Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
Why did you leave Syria?
I am from Afrin. I still have family there. I used to live in Lebanon and went to Syria before the revolution erupted. Even though the Arab Spring had not occured yet, I felt as though something was not right. I could feel it in my soul that something was about to erupt in Syria. This was not the Syria that I had known prior to leaving for Lebanon. In order to follow my gut, I packed up my backpack and left.
How many Kurdish Cultural Centers are there abroad?
Everywhere in the world where there are Kurds present there is a cultural center for them to utilize and gather in order to be with one another and learn about Kurdish history. Because we do not have a country to create these cultural spaces for us, it is up to Kurdish people abroad to keep our culture alive through these centers. The first influx of Kurds that came to Greece were Iraqi Kurds after the war in Iraq, after the war in Syria broke out the second largest group of Kurds that are here in Greece are Syrian. In Greece there are around 17,000 Kurds.
What services does the Kurdish Cultural Center offer?
We help organize protests, meet new arrivals to Greece, if Kurds have problems where they are living we help them and mediate those problems, we accompany people who need help purchasing things for their homes if they are unable or cannot communicate. If they do not have a place to stay or if their language skills are not equipped we assist them in going to NGOs in order to register them. We participate in local festivals and programs by putting together activities and presentations about Kurdistan, Kurdish people, and Kurdish culture. This place is a focal point for Kurds living in Greece.
How do you organize protests and communicate with the thousands of Kurds living all across Greece?
We have about 15–20 people who work in this cultural center and their job is to communicate with Kurds from around Greece. They liaison with Kurds living in cities neighboring Athens, in order to inform them about upcoming protests and events. These individuals are Kurds from different countries such as Syria, Iraq and Turkey. They are responsible for different groups of Kurds scattered around Greece. Through social media, WhatsApp groups and word of mouth, our messages are always well received because our community is very strong and motivated to spread the voice of Kurds.
Do you think the creation of a Kurdish state is near?
I think this is only the beginning. We have been fighting (literally and figuratively) for decades for the creation of a Kurdish state, that transcends beyond the Iraqi Kurdistan, created in 2014, but we are still far from it. Every time we feel we have made progress in fighting enemies of the Kurdish state, most recently ISIS, the global politics of the region change and a new enemy arises whether Turkey now or some other entity in the future. We as Kurds, must work together across borders in order to ensure that our brethren are moving forward in every country they reside. A successfully created Kurdistan in one part of the Middle East (Iraqi Kurdistan) is considered a step forward for Kurds only if there are efforts made to help the strife of Kurds in neighboring regions.