One man's crusade highlights Kurdish plight

Sometimes they call several times a day, spitting obscenities and death threats through the telephone.

Sometimes they're bolder, tapping him on the shoulder when he's on the street and warning that today may be his last.

Most recently, they broke into Kani Xulam's Washington office, rifled through his documents, and tried to get into his computer files.

"Maybe they're Turkish vigilantes," Mr. Xulam says. "Whoever they are, they're scary."

But Xulam is on a mission that, for him, outweighs the intimidation he describes.

A wiry man with soft features and a touch of gray in his hair, Xulam is trying to get the world to pay attention to the plight of some 30 million Kurds who are spread out over Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. They're the world's largest ethnic group that doesn't have its own state, and their efforts for independence are often met with brutal crackdowns.

For Xulam, that effort now coincides with a more personal battle - a quest for political asylum in the United States that pits him against powerful Washington forces: the Turkish lobby, the US State Department, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) - which is trying to deport him.

A complicated case

In ordinary circumstances, the danger Xulam would face on returning to his native Turkey might seem likely grounds for political asylum.

But his case is clouded by Turkish allegations that he is a terrorist and the fact that he entered the US under a false identity.

Xulam, who runs an organization called The American Kurdish Information Network, says the US government exerts little pressure for Kurdish human rights - especially in comparison with other suppressed groups, like the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo or the Tibetans of China.

America has given some support to Kurds in Iraq, in the hope of empowering opposition to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But Turkey, by contrast, is a longstanding US ally strategically situated at the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Mideast.

In Turkey, authorities have attacked and razed Kurdish villages in an effort to rid the countryside of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which the State Department calls a terrorist organization. But the PKK does not represent all Kurds, and often crackdowns against the guerrillas are more about Turkish nationalism than about security concerns, according to human rights groups.

Xulam says he does not approve of some of the PKK's methods, but that it is impossible to understand them from here.

"In the Mideast, you are nothing without arms. You only get respect if you fight," he says. "If I had been living in my village and it was destroyed before my eyes, I pray that I would be able to control my anger the way Gandhi would. But I don't know because I never experienced that." (In fact, Xulam's 23-house village, Gavgas, was destroyed, but this happened while he was living illegally in the US in 1993.)

Cultural rights

Kurds in Turkey do not have language or cultural rights, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Leyla Zana, a Kurdish politician, remains in jail for giving a speech in her native tongue, despite a 1997 lobbying effort in which Xulam helped collect 153 Congress members' signatures on a letter asking President Clinton to press for her release.

Moreover, much of southeast Turkey is under a state of emergency, which is akin to martial law. "We've never thought a purely military solution would work with the Kurds," says a State Department official. "The answer is more democracy."

When Xulam came to the US, via Canada, he took a fake name because he thought it would help him to blend in. One reason he left Turkey, he says, was to avoid mandatory military service in the Turkish Army.

But US authorities caught on to him in 1996, when he became politically active and the Turkish government accused him of being a terrorist. (The Turkish Embassy did not return phone calls seeking comment on such allegations, nor would the State Department comment on Xulam's asylum case.)

Still unresolved

The INS arrested Xulam four years ago for assuming a false identity. He was released after 40 days in jail, but his case remains unresolved. Russ Burgeron, an INS spokesman, says the judge will decide the case regardless of any political pressure from Washington or Ankara. He said asylum is granted when one establishes a credible claim to have a "fear of persecution based on race, nationality, religion, political belief, or association with a certain group."

Xulam, however, worries that the State Department, which has pressured the INS in the past to pursue his case, could extend its influence.

"What scares me is the political aspect of this," Xulam says, sitting at a cafe outside his office in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington. "If someone high up meddles in this, something unfortunate could happen."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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