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A Home Away from Home: Kurdish in Nashville

By Patrick at Accredited Language
Posted on Thursday, August 16, 2012
Category: Interpreting, Interpreting, Languages, Languages, Translation, Translation

One of the most fascinating immigration success stories of the 20th century is that of the Kurdish in Nashville, Tennessee. For a city best known for country music and Southern hospitality, one might be surprised to discover that Nashville boasts the largest Kurdish population in the United States.

Kurds fleeing wars, violence and oppression in their homeland have found refuge in the Music City since the 1970s. True to their form, native Nashvillians have welcomed their new neighbors with open arms.

Many Stories, One People

Like other immigrant populations in the US, the Kurds arrived in Nashville in several waves. What separates these migrants, however, is that they came from several different nations faced with hardships at different times, yet still ended up together in one city.

The first wave of Kurds arrived from northern Iraq in 1976. They were fleeing a failed revolution for an autonomous Kurdistan. These refugees were first processed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but they were eventually relocated to Nashville because of its location and booming economy.

The first arrivals were joined by Iranian Kurds a few years later, who were also fleeing a failed revolution for independence in their territories. Even with this second wave of immigration, however, the population of Nashville’s Kurdish community only numbered a few hundred.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the Kurdish community saw significant growth. This was the time of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurdistan. More than 180,000 Kurds were killed in heinous attacks, and many fled to neighboring Turkey, itself a volatile hotbed of Kurdish-nationalist conflict.

These Turkish Kurds, seeking a safe harbor amidst all the violence, eventually found their countrymen in Nashville’s “Little Kurdistan.”

In the late ’90s, Saddam again threatened Kurds living in northern Iraq and eastern Turkey. This time, he targeted those with ties to Western agencies. Some of these Kurds fled and were eventually given safe haven in Guam. Many subsequently resettled in Nashville and were dubbed “Guam Kurds” by their compatriots.

Putting Down Roots

As immigrant populations in the US go, Little Kurdistan is a relatively recent settlement. Much of the first generation is still around after almost 40 years, and many have found jobs and an education thanks to the city’s growth and some support from the government.

However, many challenges still exist.

The Kurdish Tongue

Many older Kurds may not have adjusted to the English language and, despite the warm welcome given by Nashville’s population, most native Nashvillians do not know the Kurdish language. Complicating the matter are the differences found among multiple Kurdish dialects.

The language barrier can make it extremely difficult for Kurds who don’t speak English to move around the rest of the city. Government and civil services experience challenges communicating with Kurds who know only one language, and vice versa.

In addition, hospital and medical staff often need interpreters to discuss treatments or diagnoses with Kurdish patients. When professional interpreters are difficult to find on-site — especially in emergency situations — telephonic interpreting can fill the gap.

No Place Like Home

Nashville has proven a safe haven and a good home to a Kurdish population looking for success, stability and peace. Meanwhile, the immigrant population has done its part to repay the city through its many cultural and economic contributions.

Finding a way to narrow the language gap that still exists between some Kurdish immigrants and the English-speaking majority will only help the city continue to grow and thrive. Professional interpreters and translators can help things run more smoothly in several forums, from hospitals to government offices to public transportation.

With accessible language options, the Kurdish in Nashville would be able to feel even more completely at home in the United States.

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