There have been four waves of Kurdish refugee resettlement directly to Nashville, Tennessee. Each wave of Kurds came from different geographical areas, with diverse social backgrounds, tribal connections and religious beliefs. Various waves fled unique conflicts and had different experiences in their journey to Nashville. In addition to the four waves, many Kurds came to Nashville from within the US. Families frequently moved here from other destination cities after hearing about better living conditions, to be closer to friends and family, or to join the growing Kurdish community in Nashville. It is hard to know the exact number of Kurds living in Nashville today. Some estimates run as high as 11,000 and as few as 8,000.
Kurdish refugees first came to the United States in 1976. According to Catholic Charities, Nashville resettled the first Kurds in the US. Refugees from the 1976 wave fled a failed revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds have struggled in various movements for an autonomous Kurdistan since the end of World War II. The revolutionary effort that ended in 1975 had begun 14 years earlier in 1961, and had been supported by both the United States and Iran. That support was eventually withdrawn due to agreements made between Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled to Iran after the collapse and eventually a few were accepted to come to the US. Some of the Kurds who came to Nashville in 1976 held positions of authority within the Kurdish military, called the Peshmerga. Together, the Kurdish community stood at around 200 at the end of 1976.
While some Iraqi Kurds continued to arrive in 1977, they were joined by Iranian Kurds fleeing a failed autonomy movement in Iran in 1979. The Kurdish community in Nashville remained relatively small until the mid 90’s.
The third and largest wave of Kurdish resettlement in Nashville represents Kurds who fled Saddam Hussein’s 1987-1988 genocidal campaign. Hussein authorized chemical attacks against Iraqi Kurdistan, destroyed nearly 4,500 Kurdish villages and killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. Some have also called the Kurdish genocide “gendercide” because male Kurdish youth and adults from ages 15-70 were explicitly targeted for execution. During 1987-1989, tens of thousands of Kurds fled to neighboring Turkey and Iran. Many Kurds remained in those countries for years in refugee camps, and a few thousand were resettled in the United States in 1991 after the end of the Gulf War.
The last significant wave of Kurdish refugee resettlement to Nashville came in 1996 and 1997. In 1996, Saddam Hussein threatened the lives of Kurds working with organizations that had received financial support from Western agencies. This group represented highly educated members of the Kurdish leadership, many of whom had some form of relationship with the United States. In 1996 almost two thousand Kurds fled overnight to Turkey and were immediately relocated by US armed forces to Guam. They remained on US military bases in Guam for three to six months, while sponsorships could be arranged for resettlement in the US. Many of these Kurdish refugees, called the “Guam Kurds” were resettled to Nashville.