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 Iraqi Kurdish visitors get to know Duluth: Delegates hope their journey will spark cultural exchanges

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Iraqi Kurdish visitors get to know Duluth: Delegates hope their journey will spark cultural exchanges  28.9.2010  
By Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune 

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September 28, 2010

DULUTH, Minnesota, — Numbering five people in all, the delegation from Rania, Kurdistan region of Iraq, slated to meet this morning with Mayor Don Ness may be modest in size, but it carries a formidable burden.

Khalid Qadir, head of the delegation, said the group bears the hopes of an entire 200,000-person city on its shoulders. Speaking through an interpreter,
www.ekurd.nethe explained that the prospect of establishing a friendship exchange and possibly even a sister city relationship between Duluth and Rania has captured the collective imagination of his countrymen.

“This is a new feeling for us to make a cultural exchange between our two nations,” said Qadir, describing the large crowd that gathered to send off the delegation. “When we departed, the people of Rania came with us.”

So who are these delegates, and why do they care about developing friendships half a world away from home? Let’s meet them.                   

Tom Morgan of Duluth (left) explains the history of the Ohara Peace Bell on Sunday to a delegation of visitors from Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan region, including (from left) Sirwan Mirza, Hero Sardar, Khwnaw Sleman, Khalid Qadir and Hiwa Mustafa. Photo: (Steve Kuchera/ duluthnewstribune com)
Khalid Qadir

Qadir, 38, manages the Rania Youth Activities Center and describes the outlook of young people today in his community as largely hopeful.

That was not always the case in this Kurdish city sitting near Iraq’s troubled border with Iran. For years, Qadir said his people lived in constant fear of Saddam Hussein and his ruthless regime.

Thousands of Iraqi Kurds endured chemical attacks, death squads and seemingly random arrest during the Ba’athist reign.

Qadir himself was arrested at age 17 and was imprisoned in Haia, a notorious prison in Kirkuk. Qadir likened the experience to a year in “hell.”

After an uprising in 1991, hopes ran high that the West would support the Kurds in their struggle against Saddam Hussein. But help did not arrive, and the Kurds again were faced with subjugation.

“We felt like we didn’t have any support, except for from the mountains around us,” Qadir recalled.

When U.N. forces overthrew Hussein in 2003, Qadir said his community rejoiced and welcomed U.S. soldiers. He said the area has enjoyed less unrest and relatively little violence, as a result of the region’s unified support.

Shirwan Mirza

As a 31-year-old high school English teacher from Rania, Shirwan Mirza said he was at first surprised by the idea of his community partnering with a distant city in northern Minnesota.

But after receiving a crash course in what becoming a sister city might entail and talking to a delegation from Duluth that visited Rania last year, he now counts himself a strong supporter.

“I would hope we could get to know each other and our different ways of living ... so we can benefit from your culture and so you can know about our culture,” he said.

Mirza, who is serving as an interpreter for his delegation, said people would be wrong to view Iraq as a homogenous nation. He said the Kurdish population in northern Iraq has its own unique traits.

“We have a different culture from the rest of Iraq. We wear different clothes, eat different dishes and speak a different language,” Mirza said.

Khnaw Sleman

Khnaw Sleman, 43, teaches English at Koya University, and said students’ thirst for exchange opportunities runs high around Rania.

She noted that younger generations in her community are becoming better versed in English, thanks largely to the introduction of the subject in the primary grades and improved, more-engaging texts.

It’s widely accepted that speaking English can lead to broader career opportunities, but Sleman said there’s another motivation as well.

“Most of our students know that understanding the English language is important to having a better view of the world,” Sleman said.

If given opportunities to visit and study in Duluth, Sleman said she’s confident a number of students would be eager to participate.

Sleman said male and female students both are equally active in academic studies at her university. If anything, she said female students may enjoy a slight edge in numbers when it comes to studying English.

Hiwa Mustafa

Few have been more pleased to see the re-emergence and energization of the local Kurdish arts scene in Iraq than Hiwa Mustafa, a 45-year-old father of three sons and manager of art activities for the Rania Education Directorate school.

He said that under the rule of Saddam Hussein, popular groups, such as the Rania Music Team, often were required to perform numbers in praise of his regime.

“Because we love our country, we didn’t sing any songs at that time,” recalled Mustafa, who led the group.

With the heavy hand of an oppressive government lifted, Mustafa said more musicians, visual artists and dramatists are stepping forward to hone and display their skills.

It might be interesting to see what a cross-pollination of Rania’s art scene with Duluth’s could yield.

Hero Sardar

Hero Sardar, 37, works as a civil engineer in Rania, where she admittedly has her work cut out.

Lately, she has been consumed with a road building project.

Sardar said that much of the region’s infrastructure has been destroyed or badly damaged. While water systems, the electrical grid and the sanitary sewer network all need work, she thinks roads are a high first priority, as they will allow needed supplies to enter the community.

The financial resources Rania has available to tackle this work is far outstripped by the needs at hand, but Sardar and her colleagues keep plugging away.
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