Members of Russia's Kurdish diaspora at the opening of a representative office of Syrian Kurdistan in Moscow.Valery Sharifulin/TASS
Inside a dimly lit room in an ordinary building in the north of Moscow, several severe-looking, swarthy men are looking at the TV with tense faces. The TV news anchor is speaking in Arabic about the movement of troops in Syria. The men quietly speak with each other about the news.
Near the TV hangs an enormous portrait of Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The party is categorised as a terrorist organization in Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union. Öcalan has been serving a life prison sentence on the Turkish island of Imrali since 1999. For many Kurds, however, he is a symbol of their fight for freedom.
Öcalan's portrait is flanked by two big flags: the Kurdistani banner and the Russian tricolour, a very symbolic gesture in the Kurdish House, the meeting place of Moscow's Kurdish diaspora.
"My ancestors lived in Northern Kurdistan, which is now Turkish territory," said Vazir Kashakhi, editor-in-chief of the Kurdistan News website. "In 1915, fleeing the persecutions, they moved to Russia and settled here. I was born, studied and have lived here, and obviously I’m Russian. But I’m also a Kurd."
Kashakhi used to work in a bank but gradually became involved with the diaspora and then began working full-time at the Kurdish House.
According to a 2010 census, more than 60,000 Kurds live in Russia. However, some members of the Kurdish diaspora do not trust the census. According to Kashakhi, many ethnic Kurds live in Russian under Armenian and Georgian surnames, which is why the real figure may be much higher.
Historically, Kurds moved to Russia from Turkey and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, from Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were engaged in a war between 1992 and 1994. For this reason, Kurds generally live in the south of Russia. According to that same census, most Kurds live in the Krasnodar Territory (840 miles south of Moscow).
Kurds are divided not only by distance, but also by religion. Some of Russia’s Kurds are Muslim and some are Yazidis (an ancient religion with roots in northern Mesopotamia). The Yazidis are forbidden from marrying members of other religions, which is why it is difficult for them to assimilate in Russia. Muslims, on the other hand, sometimes marry out of the community, but not very enthusiastically.
“In general,” said Kashakhi, “Kurdish men marry Kurdish women in order to preserve the national hearth."
Russian Kurds take the war in the Middle East close to heart:
"Even though we moved to Russia, most of our relatives remained there," explained Kashakhi. "Everything that is happening to the Kurds in the Middle East concerns us also."
He is convinced that his people are playing an important role in the fight against terrorism. "The Kurds are a barricade that is protecting the world, including Russia, from the Islamist invasion,” he said.
The diaspora pays a lot of attention to culture.
“We try to organize meetings and cultural events as often as possible. Musicians from all regions come and perform," said Farkhat Patriev, chairman of the Council of Kurdish National-Cultural Autonomy.
The Kurdish House celebrates both Muslim and Yazidi holidays and organizes conferences.
The issue of preserving their language is particularly important for the Kurdish diaspora in Russia.
"Among ourselves, wherever we live and whatever religion we practice, Kurds speak Kurdish," says Kashakhi.
Patiev, meanwhile, talks about the necessity of developing education in the national language.
"To educate Kurdish children we need books in Kurdish, but Russia only has primers,” he said.
Despite being in the vicinity of the Middle East with its plethora of problems, the Kurdish diaspora is fully integrated into Russian society.
"There are Kurdish businessmen, deputies, scientists," says Kashakhi. "We are a people who succeed in everything. Everyone finds his own path."
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