In 1991, Saddam Hussein used tanks and helicopters to subdue rebelling Kurds in northern Iraq. Terrified that Hussein would again use chemical weapons, as he had in 1988, millions of the country’s persecuted Kurdish minority fled. Saman Gardy was one of them. He and his family were living in Erbil, a major Kurdish city in the region, and they escaped over the Zagros Mountains into Turkey. The trek took over a week. He was 10 years old.
Gardy remembers huddling in a mosque with hundreds of neighbors, praying for protection as mortars crashed overhead. Some, too old and too weak to cross the mountains, were left to die. He remembers seeing babies succumb to the cold. He remembers standing beside other young men as they were shot and killed. “If I were a little bit taller, they would have gotten me too,” he said.
His entire family survived, though, and after three years in a Turkish refugee camp, they were flown to the United States. Here, Gardy went to school, became a U.S. citizen, raised a son and joined a growing Kurdish American community in Plano that has quietly thrived. Quietly, that is, until President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria, leaving Kurdish lives threatened by their longstanding enemy Turkey, upending decades of U.S. foreign policy and outraging the local DFW Kurdish American community.
Sitting at a Starbucks in Plano, a weekly meeting spot for local Kurdish activists, Gardy explained the complicated relationship between the United States and the Kurds. The United States has long relied on Kurdish soldiers in its wars in the Middle East. Many have assisted U.S. forces as fixers or translators. About 11,000 Kurds have died fighting ISIS. In exchange, the United States has provided the Kurds with protection, which they have used to nurture one of the region’s most progressive democracies in an autonomous area of Syria. Erbil, the Kurdish capital in Iraq, was recently declared the Arab tourism capital.
"He betrayed us." — Saman Gardy
Gardy leans conservative and has long voted Republican. “I was a huge Trump supporter. I voted for the guy,” Gardy said. He’s long admired Trump’s business success. He even predicted Trump’s successful run for the presidency in an essay when he was in high school.
Now, Gardy said, “He betrayed us.”
Once a Trump supporter, Gardy is now protesting against him. Gardy is helping to organize a sizable but largely unknown Kurdish community in DFW: roughly 8,000 people, by some estimates. They lived peacefully in Dallas’ suburbs, meeting at picnics each spring for the Kurdish New Year, until Trump’s decision sent them into the streets.
On Oct. 6, after a conversation with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops, paving the way for Turkey to invade northern Syria. Erdogan has said his troops would “crush the heads” of any Kurds in his way, and they proceeded to live up to his promise. Turkish forces “displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives,” said Kumi Naidoo, the head of Amnesty International, which interviewed witnesses in the wake of the attacks. More than 200 civilians were killed.
It’s not the first time Kurds have been abandoned by their foreign allies. After the United States and Iran pulled support for the Kurdish resistance in 1975, Hussein razed Kurdish villages. In the early ’90s, President George H.W. Bush encouraged Kurdish rebels to again revolt. They did, but the United States had negotiated a cease-fire agreement with Hussein that allowed him to continue flying helicopters over northern Iraq, which he used to strafe the rebelling Kurds from the air. Bush declined to intervene.
There’s an old saying that many Kurds use to sum up their century-long struggle for independence after being promised autonomy following World War I: The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.
From left: Ahmed Qader Ahmed, Nezar Ahmed and Saman Gardy meet over coffee to strategize their demonstrations.
The Sunday after the invasion, Gardy and five friends met at the Plano Starbucks to plan a response to Trump’s announcement. As luck would have it, the president was coming to town for a rally the following week. Pooling money, they bought paint and signs. Someone obtained a permit. Gardy created a Facebook group to promote the event and began posting on it dozens of times a day: news trickling out of Syria, interspersed with photos of wounded Kurdish children. “I'm able to be a voice for those people that are in the same shoes that I was in 30 years ago,” Gardy said. He still has friends working in camps back in Iraq and they tell him that the number of refugees has surged in recent weeks.
“We would have not been successful against ISIS in Syria without them." — (Ret.) Gen. Joseph Votel
Within a week, the Facebook page had 1,000 followers. That number has now quadrupled, a digital footprint for a DFW community that, despite its deep roots, has been nearly invisible for decades.
Kurdish Americans are sprinkled across the country, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which partners with local nonprofits to find shelter and support for newly arrived refugees. Many Kurds were settled in Nashville, which now has a neighborhood known as “Little Kurdistan." Some went to Atlanta, others Southern California. And a few came to Dallas, in waves that coincided with Hussein’s outbursts of brutality in the mid ’70s and early ’90s.
Gardy was part of the latter, the “gang of ’91,” he called it. He and his family landed in San Diego, where they arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. Catholic Charities found them an apartment and provided money to buy food. They had little concept of what life in the U.S. was like. Bananas were scarce in Iraq in the 1990s, he said, and when he saw rows of yellow bunches in the supermarket, he was in shock. “Pure royalty,” he remembers thinking. A neighbor brought over a TV, set it on the floor and plugged in an antenna so the kids would have something to do.
Gardy went to Grossmont College in San Diego and married before moving to Plano eight years ago. He had been laid off from his job as a contractor for the Department of Defense and came to Plano at the recommendation of friends from the refugee camp. He now works for DART. Thanks to affordable housing, good schools and a close Kurdish community, the number of Kurdish Americans in Plano has grown over the years, he said.
He last saw his family in Iraq in 2005. He worries that his activism will make it difficult to return, but he said that doesn’t bother him. “I will continue to do what I can,” he said.
A newer member of the DFW Kurdish community is Ahmed Qader Ahmed, a Richland College student who arrived in the United States just four years ago. He works on Sunday as a security guard at Wilshire Baptist Church. The weekend of the Turkish attack, he was distraught. He went inside to ask the church’s pastor, George Mason, to pray for the Kurds. “Ahmed said he has run out of tears. We assured him he could borrow ours,” Mason later wrote on Facebook.
The night before the protest, Ahmed couldn’t sleep. He channeled his anger and frustration into painting signs. “I Defeated ISIS. I Made the World Safer. I Do Not Deserve Betrayal,” read one, splashed in red and black. Ahmed came to Dallas after his father was wounded while fighting with U.S. troops in Baghdad. He called what was happening an “unnatural” act, something that God could not have planned. He said that he and his friends back home were losing their faith.
The next day, Ahmed and Gardy arrived at American Airlines Center. Their friends and neighbors trickled in, grabbed signs and became a crowd. Someone had a bullhorn. Many had brought their entire families. Ahmed counted a thousand people.
Like Gardy, many had once been staunch Republicans. Now, they waved signs denouncing the party’s leader. Even some of Trump’s supporters seemed swayed. One handed a MAGA hat to the demonstrators, saying that this was the one issue on which he and the president disagreed.
Kurdish protesters outside American Airlines Center the night of Trump's rally
It was the biggest Kurdish protest Dallas has ever seen, said Omar Barzani, a Kurdish American restaurateur. He arrived to the United States in 1977 and has lived in the Dallas area for nearly four decades. “There’s never been this much support for the Kurds,” he said. Barzani repeated the old saying about the Kurds and the mountains, and then inverted it. “Now, we have more friends than mountains,” he said, listing them off: Congress, the American people.
Three days after Trump confirmed his withdrawal of troops from Syria, Congress voted overwhelmingly to condemn it. "Why would anyone align with us going forward?” asked Dallas Rep. Colin Allred during a hearing. It was a remarkable show of partisan unity — so rarely seen in recent years — fueled by Democrats’ derision of Trump and a feeling among both parties that the withdrawal amounted to betrayal.
“There's a difference between public sympathy and political action." — Gunes Murat Tezcur
Military leaders have also criticized the move. Joseph Votel, a retired four-star general and former head of U.S. Central Command, said he was disappointed by Trump’s decision and felt it undermined U.S. credibility. He called the Kurdish-led forces exceptional partners.
“We would have not been successful against ISIS in Syria without them,” he said.
The moment is an extraordinary opportunity for Kurdish activists, said Ozum Yesiltas, a professor at Texas A&M-Commerce. “As far as the Kurds in the U.S. are concerned, this is the perfect time to officially get organized on the ground,” she said, citing widespread support for the Kurdish cause.
Yesiltas has been studying U.S.-Kurdish relations for the last decade and is writing a book on the subject. She explained that the Kurdish leaders and their lobbyists in Washington have little power to shape American policy, which is dominated by a “state-centric” perspective that prioritizes the influence of the region’s leaders like Erdogan and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad while ignoring minority groups like the Kurds, by most calculations the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own.
Kurdistan, their homeland, sprawls over Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq and is home to 35 million Kurds. Despite their numbers, Kurds lack the resources to mount an effective lobbying campaign in Washington, she said. She counts only a few dedicated Kurdish lobbyists in the Capitol.
Yesiltas thinks a grassroots movement by Kurdish Americans has a better chance of swaying policymakers, at least for now.
Nezar Ahmed has big plans to do just that. Last month, he helped establish a political action committee, Americans for Kurdish Relations. He hopes to use it to convert public sympathy into political power. The group, he says, will solicit donations from churches, community groups and NGOs — many of which have provided assistance to Kurdish refugees in the past — and use the money to publicize the Kurdish cause and donate to political campaigns. “We're trying to build it from a grassroots level,” he said.
Ahmed, like Gardy, came to the United States from Iraq in the early ’90s. He was 4. Since, he’s graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas and become a logistics analyst at PepsiCo in Plano. He recently got certified to register voters in Texas. “You’d better darn believe I’m going to be busing people to vote,” he said.
Saman Gardy, Nezar Ahmed and Ahmed Qader Ahmed work together to protest U.S. actions in the Middle East and advocate for Kurds.
But not everyone is optimistic about his ability to influence U.S. foreign policy. Gunes Murat Tezcur said Trump has already caused irreversible damage and there is little stopping the pattern of betrayal from repeating. Tezcur is the chair of the country’s first Kurdish studies program, established at the University of Central Florida in 2015. It’s still the only one.
“There is increasingly visible Kurdish activism in the last couple of years, which wasn’t the case in this country for a long time,” he acknowledges. But, Tezcur added, activism can only go so far for a people so vulnerable to slight shifts in the political winds. “There's a difference between public sympathy and political action,” Tezcur said.
And American foreign policy is controlled largely by Trump, who has shown little sympathy toward the Kurds. At the rally in Dallas, Trump compared them with children. “Sometimes you have to let them fight. It’s like two kids in a lot, you’ve got to let them fight and then you pull them apart,” Trump said.
“There’s never been this much support for the Kurds." — Omar Barzani
He enjoys the support of many Republican leaders in Washington. After the House voted overwhelmingly to sanction Turkey for its attack on the Syrian Kurds, the action has stalled in the Senate. “If Turkey was planning on coming into northern Syria and trying to ethnically cleanse the Kurds, and U.S. troops were caught in the middle, I am not completely convinced that it was a bad idea to get them out of harm’s way,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said in late October. He was later forced to clarify that he did not support the ethnic cleansing of Syrian Kurds.
Ahmed met recently with Plano U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, a former Marine who has expressed dismay over Trump’s policies in Syria. Ahmed posed a series of questions. Who was involved in Trump’s decision-making process? Why not declare a no-fly zone like the United States did in Iraq? Taylor was sympathetic. He didn’t have all the answers, but he told Ahmed that he would try to get them. (A spokesperson for Taylor declined to comment on the meeting and said that he “regularly meets with constituents to discuss issues important to them.”)
“It’s an uphill battle,” Ahmed said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
But Ahmed has no plans to back down. “If this continues,” he said, “we’ll plan another rally.” It’ll be different from the first. There will be less yelling, he said. It will be more like vigil.
For Ahmed Qader Ahmed, the demonstration at the Trump rally was a revelation: The world is listening. He could recall the moment the realization crystallized. He was marching with the other demonstrators around American Airlines Center, facing the crowds who had come to see Trump. As Ahmed approached a main entrance to the arena, the images of burned Kurdish children flashed into his mind, the anger boiled in his heart. He raised his voice, joining the others, shouting.
“I will never forget that two seconds,” Ahmed said. “The police and the people and everyone stayed silent. The voice of the Kurds was the loudest voice around.”