On a Sunday night in early October, 24-year-old Sherin Zadah was working on her graduate school application at her San Diego home when her father, who had been watching the nightly news, called out: “Oh, my God, what is Trump doing?”
The White House had just announced a pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria in anticipation of a long-planned military operation by Turkey into the area. As Kurdish Americans, Zadah and her father knew this meant imminent humanitarian disaster for Syrian Kurds. Just last year, their relatives had fled their homes in northern Syria ahead of Turkish artillery attacks.
Paralyzed with anxiety, they stayed close to the television. The following morning, Zadah’s father tried calling his aunt who lives with her three children in Kobani, near the Turkey-Syria border, but he couldn’t reach them.
By Wednesday, Turkey started firing shells into northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was launching an operation to “neutralize terror threats” against Turkey. Amnesty International has since accused Turkish forces of “indiscriminate attacks in residential areas.” Thursday, Zadah and her family had heard of a Kurdish man in their San Diego community who lost his 7-year-old cousin to mortar fire in the northeastern city of Qamishli.
Zadah’s father was still unable to reach his aunt or cousins. He lost his appetite and ability to sleep through the night. He would later admit to Zadah at dinner, over a barely touched plate of chicken tikka masala, that he suspected he was depressed. “That’s a significant confession from someone raised in a culture that heavily stigmatizes mental health issues,” Zadah said. (Her father has still not managed to contact his relatives.)
In those trying days, Zadah picked up her phone to call her close friend, an 18-year-old Kurdish American named Yara Ismael. The two started planning demonstrations in Southern California.
Though Kurds make up .01% of the American population ― 40,000, by best estimates ― Zadah and Ismael were able to organize protests in San Diego and Los Angeles by posting fliers and circulating them on social media. They also reached out to other concerned Kurdish Americans to ask them to get the word out.
Hundreds of people showed up at the protests in both cities, waving signs, marching and chanting, “Stand with Kurds!”
In Nashville, which houses the largest number of Kurdish Americans anywhere in the U.S., hundreds came out to protest the White House decision. In Boston, Dallas, Washington, Las Vegas, Seattle and other cities, small groups of Kurdish Americans took to the streets. When President Donald Trump visited Dallas for a campaign rally, he was met by hundreds of demonstrators from the local Kurdish community.
Eloquent and assertive, Zadah got in front of news cameras to speak out on behalf of Kurds at one such rally in San Diego. “We feel betrayed,” she said to a local news reporter. “We feel angry that for five years the Kurds have fought side-by-side with Americans to fight the world’s greatest terrorist threat, ISIS, and they’ve essentially been abandoned.”
A second-generation Kurdish American whose parents came from northeastern Syria, Zadah had always kept one eye on the Kurdistan region. Two years ago, she organized a memorial to the Anfal genocide of the late 1980s, in which more than 180,000 Iraqi Kurds died. In late September, when Zadah went to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at a presidential campaign event in San Diego, she shook her hand, looked her in the eye and said: “Please don’t forget about the Kurds.”
But she’s also a full-time educational consultant, and it was college admissions season ― her busiest time of the year. So Zadah became overloaded with studying for the Graduate Record Examinations, college admission deadlines, a despondent family and round-the-clock political activism. “If I wasn’t talking on the phone, writing an email, debriefing with Yara, talking to my manager, I was falling asleep,” Zadah recalled.
When the first wave of protests died down, Zadah turned her attention to lobbying. She and Ismael started a running list of lawmakers to contact about potential congressional votes on Turkey and Syria.
Zadah stopped studying for the GREs, Ismael dropped a college course and the two started scaling back on sleep. Still, they said they’ve never been more fulfilled.
“I have more purpose than I have ever felt before in my life,” Zadah told me on a night she looked particularly exhausted. “We don’t care if we’re not sleeping,” Ismael added. “So long as it’s for this cause.”
They called each member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to ask where they stood on their support for the Kurds. “We are Kurdish Americans and we’re concerned with the ethnic cleansing happening in northeastern Syria,” they told congressional staffers. They scheduled phone calls with congressional aides, and Ismael caught a flight to Washington to meet a few in person. They developed relationships with close to a dozen legislative staffers and began checking in with them regularly.
A week after Turkey started launching airstrikes, after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) didn’t vote to condemn Trump’s troop withdrawal, Zadah and Ismael began communicating directly with Omar’s foreign policy aide. They sent a list of their concerns to the congresswoman’s office before a hearing on the U.S. troop withdrawal in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and they were ecstatic when they saw Omar bring up one of their first major concerns: allegations of Turkey using chemical weapons in Syria. “It felt like our voices were being heard,” Ismael told me.
When Omar opted not to vote on recognizing the Armenian genocide and then voted against sanctioning Turkey, Zadah and Ismael immediately called Omar’s foreign affairs aide to express their anger. “As Kurdish Muslim-Americans, watching the first Muslim get elected along with Rashida [Tlaib], wearing a hijab, this representative who is supposed to present the ideas of democracy and feminism and human rights,” Zadah said over the phone to the legislative aide. “She herself is a refugee. But in regards to the largest ethnic minority in the world, she’s doing nothing to stop them from getting killed.”
Omar’s foreign policy aide told them the congresswoman would be willing to offer special visas to Kurds fleeing northern Syria. He shared that she’d also be open to a resolution banning weapon sales or security aid to Turkey. But she wouldn’t be supporting sanctions against Turkey, he said. They asked for a stronger condemnation against the Turkish president. He said he’d suggest it. “Please let us know what we can do for you,” Zadah said at the end of the phone call. “We’re here, and we want to help the situation.”
As the Turkish offensive wore on, the U.S. House passed a bill, with overwhelming bipartisan approval, to impose sanctions against Turkey. As the bill moved to the upper chamber, Zadah and Ismael wanted to seize on that momentum. They created a flyer for a phone bank and urged others to call their senators and urge them to vote yes on sanctions against Turkey. Ismael reserved a classroom on her college campus for an hour.
Perched over a screen, running on adrenaline and not enough sleep, Zadah and Ismael pulled up a spreadsheet of names that included every U.S. senator minus the bill’s two sponsors. First up on the list was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Zadah dialed his office and listened for a half-minute. “Mailbox is full,” she said, scowled and hung up. Given his recent skeptical comments to the media about sanctions against Turkey, Zadah knew McConnell was unlikely to support this bill, but she’d wanted to at least leave a message. From across the room, Ismael offered her friend a sympathetic glance and put her phone to her ear to call Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. She found the same: Mailbox is full.
Fighting fatigue, Zadah and Ismael quickly worked down the list, alphabetized by last name: Lamar Alexander. Tammy Baldwin. John Barrasso. A few friends stopped in to help. Together, they managed to call 48 senators, urging their support on a bill to sanction Turkey for its recent invasion into northeastern Syria and attacks on the Kurdish population there.
“This is a humanitarian tragedy, and the House has overwhelmingly supported sanctions against Turkey,” they said firmly to lawmakers’ aides and to voicemails, reading from the scripts they’d prepared the night before in between working and final exams. “As Americans, we hope to see our senators be on the right side of history.”
A bit before 1 p.m., a backpack-clad college student walked into the classroom, signaling the start of the class and an end to their phone banking. Ismael and Zadah smiled and waved goodbye to the computer screen where Shawnam Omar, a Kurdish American woman in Boston, was Skyping in from the phone bank she’d organized.
Elsewhere, a few Kurdish American activists in Nashville, Atlanta and Seattle also called senators, demanding sanctions. Over the course of the day, Zadah and Ismael estimate there were roughly 150 calls placed to senators by a dozen people over an hour. Of course, they would have liked to see more people participate, but “I think it went really well,” Ismael said. They’d had several productive conversations with legislative aides.
Zadah ultimately decided to postpone taking the GREs. Instead, she and Ismael started planning the beginnings of a Kurdish advocacy organization, coming up with names such as “Friends of Kurds” or “Americans for Kurdistan.” To their knowledge, no such organization broadly representing the interest of Kurdish Americans exists.
In U.S. cities hosting a sizable number of Kurds, there are often smaller, local organizations that function to represent Kurdish interests, such as Nashville’s Tennessee Kurdish Community Council, or the Kurdish Community of Southern California. But “there’s no collective Kurdish diaspora organization that represents the interests of Kurdish Americans,” said activist Dilman Yasin, who began organizing protests and vigils in the Nashville area following the Trump administration’s controversial Oct. 6 announcement. “I think if we had a central organization that would be able to speak on behalf of all of us, it would greatly benefit the diaspora.”
When Zadah received an invitation to speak on a youth panel at the Kurdish National Congress of North America, she was surprised. She’d never before heard of KNCNA.
When she arrived at a large conference room at East Lake University near Ann Arbor, Michigan, the first thing she noticed were rows of empty chairs. She took her seat on the stage with two other panelists and felt her heart sink. KNCNA represents the oldest and largest umbrella organization for Kurds in the United States, yet its annual conference drew sparse attendance. One attendee later told me: “Almost nobody knew about, it and it was extremely out of the way.”
“It’s quite indicative of where the Kurds are in terms of lobbying and organization,” said Bilal Wahad, an Iraqi-Kurdish American and expert in Kurdish politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “When you’re coming from a dictatorial regime, you’re not used to lobbying. It’s about survival.”
“Maybe it’s less true for the second- and third-generation Kurds,” Wahad suggested. “They aren’t just in survival mode, but they appreciate the opportunity and freedom and voice that living in America offers them.”
At the conference, Zadah described her lobbying efforts, particularly the channel of communication she and Ismael established with Omar’s office: “We need to form a more cohesive strategy on how you want to approach this crisis because people are paying attention. We’ve seen tangible results. And if we’ve seen tangible results, then if we all come together, we’ll actually be able to create a difference.”
The small number of attendees rose from their chairs to applaud. Organizers later told her it was the first conference to ever see a standing ovation.
Deborah Bloom is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. In addition to breaking news coverage, she gravitates toward feature stories about women, culture and the environment. She can be reached on Twitter (@deborahebloom) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.