“I just want my wife here with me and I’m not going to leave until she is allowed to come, so we can start a life where we can be free.”
After 12 days on hunger strike outside the Immigration Office in Østerbro, Kawa Lassen’s voice has retreated deep into his throat. He is sitting on the pavement beneath an umbrella. Beside him is a poster with a written plea to let him bring his wife to Denmark. It is covered in pictures of the couple together during happier times in Syria.
“I have to go back to work in just over a week, but I don’t think I can. She comes first. I can find a new job, but I can’t get a new wife.”
Lassen belongs to a growing number of Kurdish refugees who have fled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for Europe. He has spent the last six months trying to get his wife into Denmark on a family reunification visa. She currently lives in the ISIS-occupied town Jarabulus in the far north of Syria, 32 kilometres south of the border-town Kobani.
Kobani was one of the first targets of the US-lead airstrikes against ISIS. With the West unwilling to commit land troops, the fighting in Syria has been left to local militia groups. Many of these are made up of Kurds, most of whom belong to the Popular Protection Units, the Kurdish YPG.
A homeless nation
There are over 30 million Kurds, making them the largest nation without a designated homeland. Post-WWI negotiations over the modern borders of Turkey saw the western allies abandon ambitions for a Kurdish homeland.
Today, the Kurdish population is primarily spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, but a large diaspora also lives outside the Middle East. 30,000 Kurds live in Denmark, making them Denmark’s largest minority population. But before the assault on Kobani, few Danes were aware of the Kurdish people and their role in the conflict.
“The fight against ISIS has definitely changed the West’s perception of the Kurds,” explains Ibrahim Benli, the editor-in-chief of the Danish-Kurdish news website nudem.dk.
“I am active in the Danish-Kurdish Culture Centre, where I am responsible for dealing with the press. Just a couple of years ago we would send out press releases to the Danish media and never hear anything back. But around the time of ISIS’ siege of Kobani there were at least twenty live broadcasts from the cultural centre.”
Benli says that the international media wasn’t interested in the story just because the Kurdish militias were willing to attack ISIS. Their attention was drawn to the presence of a relatively democratic and secular force located within a territory often dominated by religion and despotism.
“One of the things that I think was an eye opener in the West was seeing how free the women were. A lot of the attention was focused on pictures of Kurdish women in military uniforms fighting alongside the men, but Kurdish societies embrace many democratic values,” Benli says, adding that Kurdish secularism stems from several different factors.
“One of the reasons is that we converted to Islam a lot later than the Turks or the Arabs. We generally have a more relaxed attitude towards religion and the same is true here in Denmark, although in recent years young boys have been radicalised, but that is not because of their parents.”
Benli is quick to point out that no Kurdish monoculture or unified religion exists. The spread of Kurds across national borders has meant that different cultural, political and religious variations have emerged. For instance, Lassen is an Iraqi Kurd and his wife is a Syrian Kurd while Benli, like most Danish Kurds, descends from Turkey. But now events in Syria and Iraq have begun to change that and give rise to a new brand of Kurdish nationalism.
“Kobani became a common cause for all Kurds. Not only have we been geographically divided since World War I, but we have also been divided mentally – a Kurd from Turkey could not have completely identified with a Kurd from Syria. But during the battle for Kobani an understanding emerged that we have things in common, a common cause to fight for.”
This solidarity has spread throughout the Kurdish diaspora. As Syrian and Iraqi refugees like Lassen arrive, the predominantly Turkish community in Denmark is faced with a new challenge – how to help Kurds from other parts of the world.
“Many of the refugees seek out the existing Kurdish society for help. And the same goes the other way around. For instance the Danish-Kurdish Culture Centre has been down in Rødby and Sandholm to let Kurdish refugees know that we are here to help them.”
The shadow of the Kurdish – Turkish conflict
While many strands of the Kurdish disapora thrives peacefully around the world, the Kurdish presence in Turkey remains checkered by conflict. In modern Turkey they enjoy far greater freedoms then they did during the 20th century – when their language, names and customs were banned. But a festering military conflict between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Turkish government is still firmly entrenched, and prone to outbreaks of violence.
The PKK, formed in 1978, launched an armed rebellion in 1984 which saw the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians until a ceasefire was called in 2013 by the jailed PKK leader and founder Abdullah Öcalan, following negotiations with then-Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
It was short-lived, however, and the ISIS conflict has only facilitated further tensions between the displaced Kurds and the Turkish state
The ceasefire began to falter in 2014 as ISIS laid siege to Kobani, only three kilometres from the Turkish border. When the Turkish government refused to intervene, riots erupted across the country, costing 37 lives.
Tensions continued to mount. In July, 33 youth political activists were killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in Southern Turkey, while traveling to Kobani to help rebuild the border down. Another attack killed 102 people in Ankara in October, during protests against the escalating conflict between the PKK and the government.
In Denmark, opinions are divided on where to point the finger.
“Turkey has either directly helped ISIS, or actively looked the other way,” claims Copenhagen City councillor Lars Aslan Rasmussen (Socialdemokraterne).
“This is a government that denies people basic human rights and we know for a fact that ISIS fighters have been across the border to be treated in local hospitals.”
Rasmussen is of Kurdish decent and is an open critic of the government in Ankara. In October he published a Facebook post in which he openly rejected a formal invitation to attend an event at the Turkish embassy.
Despite Rasmussen’s criticism, Mehmet Ümit Necef, associate professor at the Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, directs blame at the PKK.
“The agreement was that the PKK would lay down its weapons, which they failed to do,” says Necef. “Instead they continued making threats of violence against the government and then right after the Ankara bombings, Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of HDP (the pro Kurdish People’s Democratic Party) came out and blamed the government for the attack, which is absolute nonsense.”
Necef claims that as the PKK grew increasingly confident in their significance as the West’s main ally in the fight against ISIS, they over-estimated the level of global political support they could count on sought open conflict.
“I believe the fight against ISIS made them think ‘why do we need peace with Turkey? We have the West supporting us'”, he says.
“But they failed to grasp the importance of Turkey to NATO and the Syrian Civil War. This importance then increased considerably after Russia became actively involved on the side of Assad’s Syrian government.”
Good guys, bad guys
Kurds are still pressed on both sides and lack adequate international support. Denmark and its NATO allies have actively supported the Syrian YPG and the Iraqi Peshmerga with weapons and supplies, whereas the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) remains classified as a terrorist organization. Allegations that the Kurdish paramilitary YPG are working together with the counter-government PKK means that both groups have been targeted by Turkish shelling operations, undermining the Kurdish efforts against ISIS.
This convoluted political reality also complicates matters for Danes who wish to offer military support to Kuridsh forces by traveling to Syria. Under Danish law it is not illegal to join a foreign militia, as long as the group is not classified as a terrorist organization. Danes can fight for the Peshmerga, the official security forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also fighting in Syria. But through its close association with the controversial PKK, fighting for the Kurdish YPG could lead Danes to face criminal charges.
Joanna Palani, a Dane with Kurdish roots, is affected by new legislation targeting foreign fighters. The law allows police to revoke passports of individuals who potentially threaten national security because of their participation in external conflicts. Palani, who had her passport confiscated in October, has fought alongside the Peshmerga since November 2014, which received Danish military training in early 2015. The police, however, has accused Palani of travelling to and from the conflict-ridden region to fight alongside the YPG.
“That the police are taking such a drastic decision to revoke my passport, based on false information, is simply shocking,” Palani told Berlingske newspaper. “They know I present no threat to national security, and that Denmark is training and supporting the Peshmerga.”
The new legislation belies a fear that returning fighters present a risk to Danish security, although of the hundreds of Danes who have travelled to fight with IS, none have committed terrorism in Denmark.
But there are reasons to be concerned that the Kurdish conflict could spill over into Europe. In September, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that arson attacks had been carried out against the Berlin offices of Turkish left wing political party HDP, and the Hamm office of UETD, a lobby group for the Turkish government.
Community leaders on both sides are preaching caution, but acknowledge the volatility of the situation. The German interior ministry called the situation a “cause for concern” of which “security agencies are aware” in a press announcement.
City Councillor Rasmussen doubts that similar tensions will manifest in Denmark, while Benli fears disputes between the groups may erupt on Danish soil.
“Things in Turkey do spill over into Denmark, you notice that very clearly on social media,” he says and points to a recent incident:
“I was at the Turkish embassy this month to receive HDP voters for the Turkish Parliamentary elections. 400-500 people were waiting to vote, when a man drove up and made a hand gesture used by supporters of the Turkish nationalist party. I noticed he had young children in the car so I went up to him and told him to drive away – I could see that a group of young Kurds were walking towards the car because they felt he was insulting them.”
Between the West’s alliances with Turkey, support for Kurdish efforts against ISIS, and the sizeable Kuridish diasporas dispersed across the continent, Europeans may soon find that the Turkish elections affect them, too. M