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EU: Kurdish Communities Flourishing Across Europe

There are communities of Kurdish people flourishing across the European Union. Their numbers are fed by the continuing flight of refugees from Turkey and the Middle East, including Iraq. Twenty years ago, the history of the Kurds meant nothing to most Europeans. Today, however, that ethnic group enjoys widespread recognition in their host communities.

Prague, 11 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- They arrive by day and by night, clambering up rocky shores in southern Italy, packed into truck trailers arriving at the English port of Dover, or hidden in seaborne containers heading for Stockholm.

They are the immigrants who are pouring into the European Union in search of refuge from persecution at home or simply better economic conditions. And whenever groups of refugees make formal application for political asylum, their number is likely to include Kurds.

Kurds are a people spread over parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the Caucasus republics, but who have no state of their own. Nearly all Kurdish immigrants arriving in Europe are from Turkey and Iraq. Until recently, there was a bitter civil conflict in Turkey between the authorities and independence-minded Kurds. In Iraq, there has been a decade of turmoil, and once again the region faces the possibility of war.

No one knows the exact numbers of Kurds involved. When they make application for asylum, Kurds are mostly classified by citizenship, and so they show up in official statistics as Iraqis or Turks.

But over the years, starting with the legal immigration of workers in the 1960s, Kurds have established themselves as distinct communities in Europe. They are largely integrated into their host countries but feel strongly about retaining their traditional culture.

And while their culture has often suffered repression in their own regions, it has flourished in Europe.

In Sweden, for instance, Kurds have their own television station. TV Kurdan was established in 1996 to broadcast programs in the Kurdish language and to help bring recognition to Kurdish artists and writers. It gives special emphasis to programs for the younger generation.

In London, there is a Kurdish cultural center which, like others across the continent, holds exhibitions and concerts of Kurdish music.

The Kurds have developed a public profile, as well. In part through media reports of countless Kurdish demonstrations against Turkey and Iraq, Kurds in Europe are a well-identified ethnic group. Soran Hamarash is a spokesman for the Kurdish cultural center in London.

"Kurds are still very, very much attached to their roots, but at the same time they discover, they learn in this country and they achieve things," he said. "Kurds are relatively new in Europe. They are not like Turks, who have been immigrating to Europe for a hundred years. But there are Kurds who have achieved very high positions in Britain and in Europe in general."

According to Hamarash, Kurds long settled in Europe are now moving into mainstream politics in their host countries, which he says will increase their influence on national government policies. The same duality -- preservation of the old culture and integration with the new -- also characterizes the Kurdish community in North America.

By way of example, Hamarash said, "I e-mailed a congressman in America who was of Kurdish descent, and my e-mail was in English. To my surprise, I received in reply a message in Kurdish, and I was astonished. The Kurdish he was writing was so good."

According to Hamarash, the integration of Kurds in foreign lands is made easier by the comparative absence of Muslim extremism. As he puts it, "The Kurds, although culturally Muslim, are open-minded. They are not fanatic. They are not religious [in the restrictive sense], but follow religion more generally. It does not restrict their activity towards other nations."

The Kurds, however, have their fair share of problems. The main one is the lack of recognition for their distinct culture in most of their homelands, and the repression that can result from this.

Rochelle Harris, a spokeswoman for the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP), says there is much to be done to make countries like Turkey, Iraq, and Iran face up to the human rights abuses they commit against Kurds. To this end, she says, "KHRP conducts litigation in advocacy, which means taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights against [for instance] Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. We have a long track record of successful cases."

Harris says it takes about seven years for a case to go through the European Court of Human Rights system. She says that out of 150 cases so far, 44 judgments have been returned -- and in 40 of those judgments, the court found that Turkey had violated the human rights of Kurds. She says the cases brought by the KHRP have a significance for Turkey going far beyond individual circumstance.

"The importance of the cases before the European Court of Human Rights is that Turkey has to comply with its human rights obligations in order to join the European Union. So the cases to the court really highlight that the rights violations are still ongoing."

Many Kurds dream of an independent Kurdistan, based on the territory of northern Iraq, which has been free of Baghdad's control since the end of the 1991 Gulf war, and which is under U.S. and British air protection. But in Brussels, media executive Dogan Ozguden says most Kurds realize the dream of an independent Kurdistan is unrealistic.

"There is a 'realpolitik,'" he says. Kurds "know very well that a declaration of independence for Kurdistan may provoke some reaction from the big powers and from neighboring countries like Turkey and Iran. And for the moment, the majority of the Kurds are struggling [instead] for administrative autonomy, and for cultural and human rights."

The struggle looks as if it will continue for a long time. The Kurdish communities in Europe, meanwhile, will be aiming to keep alive the best of Kurdish customs and culture.