"Since I was a child," Kasar Abdulla says, "I've wanted to help those who are suffering." Director of advocacy and education at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), a local nonprofit, Abdulla is no stranger to suffering herself. Her given name, Kasar, is a Kurdish word meaning "sad" or "brokenhearted" — an homage to an uncle who died the year she was born.
Abdulla was 6 years old during the first Gulf War, when the Kurdish village where she lived was destroyed. She and her family fled by foot, eventually reaching a camp in Turkey where they lived with hundreds of other refugees in tents. Armed guards patrolled the camp, sometimes sexually harassing girls and physically torturing young boys. At one point, they were given poisoned bread.
After four years, her family applied to be sponsored, and in 1992 was transported to yet another harrowing locale: Fargo, N.D. In addition to adjusting to the cold and a new culture where she says she often felt "mute and deaf," Abdulla was soon being taken out of school regularly to translate for her parents, who struggled to find work and navigate the city's social services. "It was very difficult," she says. Then the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing prompted a backlash against Fargo's small community of Kurdish immigrants that she says "came out of nowhere." After hearing of the large Kurdish population here, her family relocated to Nashville in 1996.
By age 15, Abdulla was working full time to help support her family. By 18, she was toiling in a factory to help pay her way through TSU, where she eventually earned a bachelor's degree in sociology. ("In Kurdistan, education is available to everyone — 100 percent free," she says. "Here, it's a business. I don't think education should be kept from anyone.") Though her parents wanted her to pursue medicine or law, she still felt the pull of community issues. "I'm a born organizer," she says. As a refugee, she had marched to protest Turkish cruelty against the Kurds, and as a college student during the cultural aftermath of 9/11, she realized the gaps in cultural understanding were vast and many. So she set out to bridge them.
"After graduation, I wanted hands-on experience," she says. When she encountered TIRRC, she says she was struck immediately by its mission to empower and educate. There, she works to reform immigration law, which she calls "outdated," and to both counsel and advocate for immigrants, while also educating Nashvillians about their new neighbors — a job that sometimes requires her availability around the clock. Abdulla calls it "the most difficult job I've ever done in my life."
But the rewards are real. Her work to help defeat the proposed English-only law not only prevented a serious setback to our city's social progress, it also convinced her parents that maybe community organizing isn't such a bad thing for their daughter to be involved in after all. Someone who will quote Mahatma Gandhi, the Quran and Martin Luther King Jr. over a cup of coffee, Abdulla is as direct as she is determined, as committed as she is compassionate. "You have to learn to stand up for yourself, or you will be stepped on," she says. And for any newcomer to this country who wants to learn, her door is always open. —STEVE HARUCH
Photographed by Eric England at Salahadeen Center of Nashville.