Red, yellow, and green lights on bridge with city in background.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge with the Nashville skyline as backdrop. On October 14, the city lit the bridge in Kurdish flag colors as a show of support for the city's large Kurdish community in the wake of Trump's announcement to change military presence in Syria. Ryan Camp/Northman Creative

Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has angered Nashville’s large Kurdish community. They say the city, Republicans included, is supporting them.  

To hear the mellow twang in the voice of Nashville resident Shirzad Tayyar, you might assume he was born in Music City. Like many of his fellow Kurds, however, Tayyar came to Middle Tennessee from the Middle East as a child, and over the years of public school and community involvement, he has become as much a Nashvillian as anyone.

Or even more so, in his case, because the 29-year-old is so outgoing. He throws gatherings just to meet his neighbors, and led the first food tours of the south Nashville area known as Little Kurdistan. The city’s population of Kurds, estimated at 15,000 to 20,000, is the largest in the United States. Because of that, Nashville is a center of anxiety about President Trump’s surprise decision on October 6 to withdraw U.S. troops from the area, which many believe has allowed Turkey to begin a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds there. After widespread condemnation Trump has amended his decision somewhat, but the Kurdish community in Nashville remains worried.

“This whole debacle threw everyone for a curveball,” Tayyar told CityLab this week. “This kind of sideswiped everybody.” On October 11, less than a week after Trump’s announcement, Kurds staged a protest outside a federal office building in Nashville, the Tennessee state capital, with participants including the city’s Democratic Congressman, Jim Cooper. Joining Kurds and other supporters were members of the local Jewish community, who have made supporting refugees a priority in recent years. “My hope is that we will be planning things with them, moving forward,” Deborah Oleshansky, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Nashville, said of her Kurdish neighbors.

Three days later, the scenic Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge was lit in the green, yellow and red colors of the Kurdish flag, as was the Metro Courthouse. Even area Republican congressman Mark Green joined the majority opposing the military pullout in an Oct. 16 House vote, and Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, a staunch Trump supporter, criticized the move as well.

An October 11, 2019 protest supporting the Kurds in Nashville.  (Harrison McClary/Reuters)

And while Nashville is a majority Democratic city within a majority Republican state, members of the Kurdish community say that people of every stripe have been showing them support. “We’ve received lots of sympathy and love. It was really overwhelming,” said Tabeer Taabur, who spends his days volunteering at the Tennessee Kurdish Community Council. “People are asking, what can we do? We tell everyone, reach out to your representatives.”

Taabur attended Glencliff High School, one of Tennessee’s most diverse high schools, as well as local colleges, obtaining a master’s degree in criminal justice from Middle Tennessee State University. He is married with four children, and says there’s nowhere else he’d rather live. Nashville is home. But the feeling of Kurdish peoplehood is strong, and his voice rises as he describes what is happening 6,500 miles away. His own father was killed by chemical weaponry during the reign of Saddam Hussein, he says. “We need help now. People are getting killed now. They’re using phosphorus weapons now. Things are escalating. Things are changing every hour.”

“When is it going to end?” Taabur asked, referring to a repeating cycle of alliance with the Kurdish military, then betrayal. “Where is human rights? Why can’t we be free like all the other countries? We are afraid of another genocide.”

“Not too long ago, we defeated ISIS on behalf of the world,” he said, but now the world doesn’t care. “Unfortunately, this has been the story of the Kurds. We have this phrase, ‘no friends but the mountains.’”

Trump’s turnabout is generating new conversations among local Kurds, who are known to align with both Republicans and Democrats. Tayyar says that after President Trump took office, life remained stable for Kurds in Nashville. In this city of 670,000, one in six residents is foreign-born. Just last month, the first Muslim was elected to the Metro Council. But now, those who voted for Trump are feeling some heat. Tayyar mentions a Kurdish relative, as well as a close friend who is not Kurdish, whom he’s needled in recent days.

“I think it was a low blow to the Kurdish Republicans,” said Tayyar, who served on the board of the local Democratic party. “It was kind of like a stab in the back, even for him,” he said of his relative. “It didn’t have a good look for us as a group.”

Tabeer Taabur at an annual gathering of the Kurdish community in Nashville. (Courtesy Tabeer Taabur)

In addition to Nashville, other U.S. centers of the Kurdish diaspora include Dallas; San Diego; Moorhead, Minnesota; Harrisonburg, Virginia; New York, and Washington, DC. Although local Kurds say the Middle Tennessee climate and landscape are reminiscent of Kurdistan, and they enjoy Titans football, Predators hockey, and Centennial Park as much as anyone, these attractions are not why they first arrived in Nashville.

According to Holly Johnson, state coordinator of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, there is an accidental quality to where foreign asylees and refugees are resettled: it has to do with what locations have the ability and capacity to help them. But once a particular national or ethnic group becomes associated with a place, the population tends to grow, like the sizable Somali population in Minneapolis. “They go where they have friends and family, good jobs, affordable housing,” Johnson said.

According to the Kurdish Community Council, the first wave of Kurdish migrants arrived in Nashville “in the 1970s, after the collapse of a Kurdish uprising in Iraq. Countless others arrived after the first Gulf War as refugees. Recently, yet even more have fled Iraq after the War in Iraq.” In recent years, the largest groups of refugees in Tennessee have come from Congo, Bhutan and Myanmar, Johnson said. Trump has proposed that the U.S. admit a total of 18,000 refugees for the federal fiscal year, which began October 1, but that has not been finalized.

As for Trump’s supporters in Nashville, Tayyar says many whom he knows are struggling in light of what they see as the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria: “They’re torn between, do I still support this guy? —and also feeling really bad that everything turned out the way it did.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story misstated the size of Nashville’s Kurdish population. Is is the largest in the United States.

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