Page last updated at 07:25 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

UK Kurds fight separate battles

Left: Haider Akbaga, Turkish Kurd artist, Kurdish pottery at Day-Mer community centre, R: Shom Shahswar, Iraqi Kurd girl at Western Kurdistan Association

By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News

While Gurdal Yuce was growing up in a Kurdish pocket of Haringey, north London, his two older brothers were fighting for a Kurdish homeland in south-eastern Turkey.

They spent their formative years in Britain, but in the early 1990s they opted for a militant's life in the inhospitable mountain hideouts of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) - a cause they died for.

Gurdal Yuce
Gurdal Yuce grew up in the shadow of the Kurdish Community Centre
The PKK has since been banned in Britain, but in this community his brothers are regarded as martyrs.

"The majority here are sympathisers with the cause. They have family affected, who might even be members," Mr Yuce says.

Aged 26 he is now the oldest member of a youthful and proactive management committee at the Kurdish Community Centre in Haringey, which helps many Turkish Kurds negotiate life in Britain.

Still fighting

As a people divided by the borders between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the Kurds have never quite spoken with one voice.

They might live in Britain, but the hearts and minds of many refugees remain in the homelands they fled. What influence do they have back home and what does it mean for their lives in this country?

Heyam Aqil, 25, says: "The Kurds - we cannot work as one community. We are all looking towards Greater Kurdistan, but in different ways."

Ms Aqil recalls the beating she received protesting for Kurdish rights while at university in Damascus. She knows from personal experience about the divisions that exist between the different Kurdish communities.

"I'm a Kurd from Syria. My partner is a Kurd from Iraq. There are things I consider normal, which are taboo in his culture. We have a different dialect so we communicate in English," she says.

In the UK, it has been the Turkish Kurds who have channelled their anger into armed struggle. Gurdal Yuce's brothers were not alone in leaving Britain to fight for the PKK. Others around London bear battle scars.

And there are reports that small numbers of young British Kurds, particularly women, are still making the journey out to the mountainous Turkish border to seek battle. Many more travel from Germany, experts say.

Heyam Aquil
Heyam Aqil says the Kurds cannot work as one community
The anger and bitterness that compelled their families to leave Turkey now drives them back again. They set off with hardened resolve knowing they may never return.

"They will be camping, moving all the time, walking miles upon miles in cheap tennis shoes, no luxury, no sex, just cigarettes, tea, and getting killed a lot," says Quil Lawrence, author of Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East.

Although it has now given up the call for an independent homeland, the PKK still fights for greater autonomy. The Turkish embassy says the PKK is involved in frequent attacks on Turkish civilian and military targets and argues that most Kurds in Turkey do not support it.

Diplomatic offensive

Jawad Mella was first arrested when he was 17 years old and went on to join the peshmerga militia fighting in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan.

When he came to Britain in 1984, his fight became strictly diplomatic. He founded the Western Kurdistan Association and opened a Kurdish museum, crowded with instruments, costumes and artefacts celebrating Kurdish culture.

Jawad Mella (centre) and peshmerga fighters
Jawad Mella (centre) fought with peshmerga forces in the 1980s
"Maybe politicians here can believe a nation with such a rich culture, language, history should be free," he says.

Turkish Kurds also pursue the diplomatic offensive. Akif Wan of the Kurdish National Congress, which lobbies politicians, says: "We motivate relatives to go back and lobby in south-eastern Turkey, even during elections. People take the week off andů talk to their relatives."

Kurdish groups now make more effort to work together politically. This was not possible 10 to 15 years ago because of intense political rivalries. However, campaigners talk about a "certain tiredness" in the community, perhaps because of the PKK's proscription, perhaps because no one group is strong enough to prosecute its cause alone.

For Iraqi Kurds, the experience of life in exile has lessons for government back home. It is not about lobbying the British system, but using it as a model for the government in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shorsh Haji says: "Coming to this country, you see how different life back home could be. So many things are brilliant. A British person does not see it."

When I first came out of prison, I couldn't even cross the street properly
Haider Akbaga

Mr Haji is now an engineer in London but was once a peshmerga fighter for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

He recalls life in snow-bound villages where shells laced with deadly chemicals fell on to his roof during Saddam Hussein's al-Anfal campaign.

During his time in the mountains he drew up a detailed census of every town, village and hamlet in Iraqi Kurdistan, logging hospitals, schools, the civil structure of his society as Saddam Hussein's regime was intent on destroying it.

"They made people feel cheap. This is why we need proper government - to reverse what Saddam did to society.

"We want more open financial systems back home, to stop corruption everywhere in society," he says.

With other Iraqi Kurds, Mr Haji recently launched the Movement for Democratic Change, challenging the PUK leadership - they have now been expelled from the party.

'Second-class citizens'

Many feel that Kurds still linger at the margins of British society.

There are estimated to be 25 to 30 million Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria
About one million Kurds live in Europe
An estimated 100,000 Kurds live in the UK
Settled mainly in London but also Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow

Source: Kurdish Human Rights Project and Council of Europe
"They live in north London, but not in London per se. They think they are looked down on as second-class citizens. They only do catering and cleaning jobs, expected to work in kebab shops or off-licences," says Taylan Sahbaz, of the Day-Mer community centre.

He points to the significant educational under-achievement of Kurdish youths at school. The Day-Mer centre has set up supplementary schools and various schemes to tackle this issue.

The first generation of Turkish Kurds, community workers say, remain locked between their Kurdish corner of London and their villages back at home.

"Most Turkish Kurds only knew about the 7 July bombings [in London] from Turkish television," says Bektas Yavuz, co-ordinator of the long-established Halkevi centre.

"If people die here, they have their funerals in the village of their birth."

What is now uniting the community is an increasing feeling that a key priority has to be those Kurds who live here and not just those back home.

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