“My older brother was 14 and we were shepherds in Turkey. A Turkish General came and questioned my brother. He shouted at him that he must be a PKK collaborator. My brother denied it but the General slapped his face hard and left him lying face down in the ground. When he left, I asked my brother ‘Who are the PKK?’ He replied, ‘They are people who don’t slap children.’ After this I saw 5 cousins leave university education to go into the mountains to join the PKK. This is how we lost our people from education to fighting.”
This is one of Ibrahim Eroglu’s memories of life as a Kurd before he came to Britain as a refugee. The Kurdish people are spread across land and mountains spreading from Turkish borders to Iraq.
Kurds caught up in Turkey’s attempts at a unifying Nationalism were banned from speaking their mother tongue. They retreated to the mountains and the communist socialist and Marxist PKK resistance sprung up. America muzzled in escalating the violence from stone throwing youths to armed forces at war with Turkey. While an enemy of Turkish Kurds, the Americans were best buddies with Kurds in Iraq including them in their schemes to defeat Saddam Hussein.
Either way the Kurds, having no country or state became victims of war, torture and political oppression. They began seeking asylum in Britain in the 1980s and then chose Scotland as a destination from 1995 onwards.
They have no embassy to seek aid against bizarre British Home Office practice and application to get “leave to remain” can take a whole decade so chances of British citizenship are well out of reach. To help with the quagmire of legal issues and practical support, Ibrahim runs the “Kurdish Initiative”. This voluntary run organisation provides interpretation/translation services as well as opportunities for vital social interaction, particularly at Kurdish New Year Festival of Newroz in March.
“80% of Edinburgh Kurdish community is bilingual” Ibrahim states. But this has not been an advantage to them. On observing the treatment by immigration authorities of his people he is convinced that their spark of optimism and enthusiasm on entering Britain is completely wiped out by the obstacles preventing refugees from gaining higher education or gainful employment.
They have limited rights to education, work and travel and have been accused of having trouble integrating into Scottish society. Ibrahim explains that the Kurdish people prefer to help each other to raise money for businesses such as Kebab restaurants and work very hard contributing to the city’s economy but this input is not recognised as evidence of integration. “It is the same as happened to Indian and Pakistani communities before in this country.”
Victimization by the police is a worrying result of the lack of understanding of the community’s needs. Their New Year celebrations have seen “visits” by officers who insist on taking down participant’s names and addresses and a Kurdish shop keeper may have his shop “raided” at any time. If a refugee does not have the right status they can be taken in for questioning at any of the country’s immigration detention centres. This could mean a trip down south to Croydon, London for someone whose entire family lives in Edinburgh.
It is then that Ibrahim and his colleagues are needed most; to find legal representation as well as provide vital interpretation services. “We are working very hard to encourage our youth to become educated but then I hear a story of a 24-year old Kurdish man who is criticised by a teacher at college for the way he pronounces the word ‘tomato’. The teacher says they always have this trouble with refugees. The man feels that this is just like in Turkey where you are punished for speaking your language.”
About 50% of Edinburgh’s Kurdish community is Muslim. They are hard working and choose to be self employed. They are attempting to build new lives here and would be better able to do so without Police harassment and ignorance of their presence and identity. While PKK and the DTP struggle for a peaceful resolution with the Turkish government, Edinburgh could show its solidarity with the Kurds settled here by understanding their needs and accepting their contribution to our society.