Iraqi Kurdish visitors get to know Duluth:
Delegates hope their journey will spark cultural
By Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
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
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)
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
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.
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
“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, 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
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
“Because we love our country, we didn’t sing any
songs at that time,” recalled Mustafa, who led the
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
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
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
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