The Kurdish Community in Sweden: Organizing a Diaspora
Authors: Luca Pasquale De Cristofaro & Macarena Díez Ortiz de Uriarte
Kurds are one of the largest stateless communities in the world and form an ethnic minority in four different countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. However, although Kurds do not have their own Kurdish sovereign state, Kurds “do not qualify for the position of stateless if statelessness is delimited to lack of formal citizenship” as they hold citizenship in those four countries. This in turn has made it difficult to estimate the number of Kurds residing abroad, as they are registered in official records as Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish or Syrian. Due to the Kurds’ claims for independence and subsequent oppression by the various states, the Kurdish community began their dispersal throughout the world, mainly in Europe and the USA. The most visible and active Kurdish diaspora can be found in Sweden.
Sweden was the first European country to introduce the concept of multiculturalism. Nowadays, a growing number of people see multiculturalism as the cause of Europe’s social problems. A few decades ago, however, an inclusive multicultural society was considered a viable and pragmatic answer to tackle integration issues. In a speech in the mid-1960s, the Minister of Communication, Olof Palme, stated that while it was understandable that immigrants should adapt to society, Swedes could not and should not expect them to behave and act exactly like Swedes. A few months after Olof Palme became Prime Minister in 1975, the “new” Aliens Act was approved in Parliament. The new act embodied the speech on multiculturalism Palme had given a decade earlier and allowed minorities the right to maintain their ethnic and cultural diversity in Sweden.
The favorable immigration laws and institutional support that Swedish municipalities provided to immigrant associations helped Kurdish organizations flourish and organize as Kurds without having to identify with sovereign citizenship. This concept was well explained by an interviewee in Eliassi’s 2016 research: “Kurds have civil and political rights in Sweden which they can not have in the Middle East. Swedish multiculturalism has strengthened the Kurdish identity a lot. Kurds are free to organize themselves culturally and politically. Countries like Turkey see Swedish multiculturalism as a threat”.
In its original meaning, diaspora was applied to the specific case of Jews who were dispersed across different countries and fostered ties to their historical homeland. However, it became necessary to broaden the definition so that other groups of people – expatriates, exiles, refugees or ethnic minorities – could be included under the term. William Safran broadened the definition to include “expatriate minority communities whose members share several of the following characteristics”: the dispersal from the homeland in two or more regions; the collective memory or myth about that homeland; the feeling of being aliens in the host society; the desired return to the homeland; the collective commitment to the prosperity of the homeland; and the consciousness and solidarity among its members due to the direct or indirect relationship to the homeland.
This broadening of the definition has allowed for a comparative analysis of different diasporic groups. The list of common elements developed by most scholars includes: the dispersal from the homeland to at least two destinations, the relationship to a real or imagined homeland and a self-awareness of the group’s identity. Kim Butler adds a further element, namely that a group must be dispersed outside the homeland for more than two generations.
The Kurdish diaspora presents a special case in the study of diaspora. The Kurds are a people, or nation, whose homeland cannot be represented by one nation-state, but by four, namely Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Kurdistan, as such, thus does not exist in the form of a sovereign nation-state. This fact implies that the relationship to the homeland in the case of the Kurdish diaspora must be analyzed in light of Kurdistan on the one hand and the four nation-states on the other.
Kurds, Kurdistan and the Kurdish diaspora
Kurds are considered to be the largest nation without a state. The estimated population of the Kurds is between 36 to 45 million. Kurds are considered the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle Eastern region, and the Kurdish population represents a high percentage of the national population in each of the four states. These numbers vary significantly among the four nation-states, with the largest percentage of Kurds in Turkey. According to 2016 data, the total number of Turkish Kurds is estimated at 15 to 20 million and represents between 19% and 25% of the country's total population. The second largest Kurdish population is found in Iran, between 10 and 12 million Kurds, representing between 13% and 17.5% of Iran's population. In Iraq, there are estimated to be between 8 and 8.5 million Kurds, representing up to 27% of the total population. Finally, in Syria, there are between 3 and 3.6 million, representing between 12.5% and 15% of the total Syrian population. These figures show the significant demographic weight that Kurds have in the four nation-states. And yet, or rather, precisely because of this, the Kurds have suffered exclusion, oppression, and even extermination throughout history.
Given the extent of the territory in which Kurds live, it is wise to accept that they cannot be considered a homogeneous group. In fact, they represent a highly diverse group in terms of culture, religion or language. While the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, other denominations are also represented among them. Similarly, the Kurdish people do not have a unified language, which is an important element of division among the Kurds. Kurdish, while considered their language, is divided into several dialects, the most important of which are Kurmanji and Sorani, which in turn are subdivided into several other dialects. Moreover, the political contexts in which the Kurds have developed their social and political identity vary widely across the four national territories in which they live, and their status as an ethnic minority is not equally recognized in these countries.
The present situation of the Kurdish people as a nation without a state dates back to the decade of the 1920s. The Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920 between the World War I Allies and the Ottoman Empire, established the basis for a Kurdish state. However, in the Treaty of Lausanne, signed three years later, the creation of Kurdistan as an independent state was rejected by the new Turkish state. Since then, the Kurdistan region has been divided into the territories that today belong to Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. During these years, different developments have taken place in each of the nation-states but what they all have in common is that the Kurdish people have been denied the right to have their own state and instead have been subjected to assimilation into each of the national identities.
With the creation of the new Turkish state, the idea of having ethnic diversity was eliminated. The Kurdish language was banned along with other cultural traditions for the sake of achieving a homogeneous and unified national identity. Faced with this reality, the Kurds eventually rebelled against the suppression and subsequent persecution. Among the uprisings and insurrection groups, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is the most well-known organization. The PKK counts sympathizers not only in Turkey but also among Kurds living in the diaspora and in other parts of Kurdistan. The PKK's actions were met with brutal military repression by the Turkish state, which caused more than 35,000 deaths between 1984 and 1999. In addition, this long war resulted in 3 million Kurdish refugees. Cultural rights have somehow improved for the Turkish Kurds and they may enjoy the celebration of certain traditions, but their political demands have not been met.
In Iran, too, the history of the Kurds is filled with episodes of violence, including a "holy war" that was conjured up after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. As in the case of Turkey, the national unified identity does not recognize the existence of the ethnic diversity that exists in Iran. Therefore, the Kurds, along with other ethnic groups, have been subjected to political persecution, arrest and execution.
The case of Kurds in Iraq is slightly different nowadays. In the past, the Kurdish people of Iraq suffered violence from a state that did not even consider the Kurds to be members of the Iraqi nation. This violence included the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish population and the genocide of between 150000 and 200000 Kurds in a period of just one year in the so-called Anfal campaigns. In 2002, after internal fighting between Kurdish political groups, the Kurds achieved the creation of an autonomous region in the north of the country with its own Kurdish parliament.
In Syria the situation of the Kurds has not been any different. In addition to the non-recognition of political and cultural rights, Kurdish Syrians were deprived of Syrian citizenship in 1962, leaving 120000 Kurds as stateless refugees. Currently, the Kurds are denied the establishment of autonomous administrations.
Following the different developments in each of the four nation-states, waves of migration of Kurds to several Western countries have taken place at different times. The first Kurds arrived from Turkey in the decade of the 1960s, while Kurds from Iran and Iraq left their respective countries of origin later after the Islamic Revolution and the Anfal campaigns. In the case of Syria, the number of Kurdish refugees has risen since the start of the war in 2011. Although there is no reliable census that accounts for the exact number of Kurds living in the diaspora, the current Kurdish population in Sweden is estimated at around 85000 to 100000 people.
Kurdish Diaspora in Sweden
The relationship of the Kurdish disapora to the homeland is thus distinct in that it can be analyzed in light of both Kurdistan and the four nation-states. With regard to this relationship, there are several foci of investigation. For example, some authors argue that this has led to multiple identity formation among members of the Kurdish diaspora. Barzoo Eliassi, for instance, suggests that Sweden has allowed many Kurds to develop a Kurdistani identity, away from the national identity ascribed to them by virtue of being nationals of a particular state. Some members of the Kurdish diaspora do not feel represented by the identities of their states of origin, meaning that they do not identify with other Iraqis, Turkish, Iranians and Syrians. Instead, their only identity is Kurdistani, which differs from the term Kurdish. While Kurdish identity is not represented by a specific territory, Kurdistani implies that there is a concrete homeland, even if it is imaginary, called Kurdistan.. This particular difference helps in the construction of a territorial identity that has been central in the demands of the Kurds in the four nation-states. At the same time, it fosters a sense of solidarity among members of the diaspora who do not share the traditional bond of members of other diasporas with a common national identity. Moreover, members of the Kurdish diaspora are exposed to an additional identity, that of the non-European immigrant in Sweden. Eliassi affirms that this is an identity that is imposed by Swedish society and that the Kurds experience in everyday life in Sweden, where their own identity is reinforced.
Eliassi and Alinia explore the differences between older and younger generations when it comes to expressing attachment and sense of belonging. The authors argue that each generation constructs its identity as a member of the diaspora in a different way. On the one hand, the older generation constructs their Kurdish identity in contrast to that of their countries of origin. On the other hand, the younger generation, whose members were born and raised in Sweden, is much more influenced by the Swedish identity in their identity, as they lack “to a great extent such pre-migratory lived experiences”.
Another important question that arises when examining this diaspora is the condition of statelessness of the Kurds. Barzoo Eliassi argues that while statelessness is usually referred to as an individual condition that may need international protection, it can also be applied to nations without a state, which is the case of the Kurdish people. For Kurds, being stateless means being deprived of a political identity. They may be citizens of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, or Iran, but they lack the sovereign identity granted only by nation-states. Therefore, members of the Kurdish diaspora must find their own identity, in contrast to the one imposed by their nation-states, namely that of the dominant groups, Arabs, Turks, and Persians, while defending their right to express their cultural otherness as immigrants to Sweden. Eliassi affirms that Kurds can view the Swedish multicultural model as a recognition of their rights, culture and identity. Having the opportunity to express their own cultural and political demands is what makes the difference to their countries of origin. In addition, those Kurds who hold a Swedish passport feel a sense of freedom and legal security.
Multiculturalism in Sweden
One of the first countries in Europe to introduce the concept of multiculturalism and then implement it in policy was Sweden. In 1965, newly appointed Minister of Communications Olof Palme took the opportunity during a Christmas speech to discuss problems affecting immigrants, stating that Swedes should not expect immigrants to be "like them," although it is understandable to expect them to adapt to the culture of the host society. In 1975, the Social Democratic government of Olof Palme proposed a policy for new immigrants and minorities that was unanimously approved by Parliament on May 14 of that year.  The goal of the law that was passed was to preserve the ethnocultural diversity brought by minorities and to create a positive atmosphere toward the new multicultural Swedish society.
According to some scholars, the very first wave of Kurds migrating to Sweden was in the 1950s, the main reason being the search for a better education. In the following years, however, Kurds from Turkey moved to Sweden as labor migrants as the country prospered economically. In 1971, and then in the 1980s, more consistent waves of Kurds came to Sweden from Turkey for political reasons, following military coups in the country. It is important to emphasize that Sweden did not accept labour migrants in the 1970s. However, the Swedish government recognized the Kurds as “politically oppressed.” During the same period, Kurds from Iraq and Iran applied for asylum in Sweden. From the Iraqi side of Kurdistan, the genocidal campaign called “Al-Anfal” was put in place by the Saddam regime, causing Iraqi Kurds to seek asylum in Sweden.  After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, many Kurds fled Iran and sought refuge in Sweden.
It is difficult to estimate the exact number of Kurds currently in Sweden because the country registers non-natives by nationality, and Kurds are therefore registered as Syrians, Turks, Iraqis, or Iranians.
Kurdish Communities in Sweden
Sweden’s favourable integration and immigration policies have helped the Kurdish community flourish outside its previous borders. The country has a remarkable number of Kurdish novelists, politicians, intellectuals, artists and journalists, so much so that scholars believe the number of Kurdish writers in Sweden has surpassed those in Kurdistan. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is defined as “the only Western country where the most advanced diasporic cultural activities take place among the Kurds”.
Maisel believes that, thanks to Sweden’s policies, Kurds were able to create a positive environment for themselves in the country, as they could be both socially and politically active. Khayati and Dahlstedt emphasize that the Kurdish diasporic community has a keen interest in the political situation in the former homeland, which they manifest in “a variety of transnational practices”. Maisel explains that the first generation of Kurds established organizations to mediate between Sweden and Kurdistan's affairs, organizations such as the National Kurdish Federation (Kurdiska Riksförbundet) and the Kurdish Council (Kurdiska Rådet). On the other hand, the second generation of Kurds, although still politically active, used different methods to promote the “Kurdish cause,” such as organizing seminars, folk dance courses, and concerts. Politically active organizations are a great tool for lobbying, but the use of cultural events is what maintains a “positive environment” and brings attention to the cause.
The particular case study of Sweden as a host society lays the foundation for further research regarding the youngest members of the Kurdish community in Sweden. It has been shown that the Kurdish diaspora is becoming increasingly organized and that the existence of such organizations favors the political mobilization of Kurds, who are given the opportunity to claim their own identity in a "host" society, in contrast to their countries of origin, which have denied any form of ethnic otherness, cultural freedom, and sovereign autonomy.
 Gunter, Michael M. “The Kurdish Question in Perspective.” World Affairs, SPRING 2004, Vol. 166, No. 4,2004, 197.  Ibid.  Eliassi, B., “Statelessness in a world of nation-states: the cases of Kurdish diasporas in Sweden and the UK”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2016, 1406.  Maisel, S., “The Kurds: An Encyclopedia of Life, Culture, and Society.”, ABC-CLIO, 2018, 271.  As a matter of clarity it would have been easier to define it as “their homeland” as some scholars did. However, the whole point is that, if they want independence and declare a Kurdish state, then we believe that Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey are not their perceived homeland.  Maisel, S., Op. Cit, 2018, 271.  Ibid.  Tawat, M. "The Birth of Sweden’s Multicultural Policy. the Impact of Olof Palme and His Ideas.”, International Journal of Cultural Policy”25, no. 4 (2019): 471-85.  Ibid.  Wickström, M., The Multicultural Moment The History of the Idea and Politics of Multiculturalism in Sweden in Comparative, Transnational and Biographical Context, 1964–1975, Abo Akademi University, Finland, 2015, 8-9  Eliassi, B. Op. Cit, 2016, 1411.  Ibid, 1411.  Safran, William. “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return.” A Journal of Transnational Studies, Volume 1, Number 1, 1991, 83.  Safran, Op. Cit., 1991, 83-84.  Butler, Kim D. . “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse.” A Journal of Transnational Studies, Volume 10, Number 2, 2001, 191.  Butler, Op. Cit., 2001, 195.  Gunter, Michael M. . “The Kurdish Question in Perspective.” World Affairs , SPRING 2004, Vol. 166, No. 4, 2004, 197.  Fondation Institut Kurde de Paris website [https://www.institutkurde.org/en/info/the-kurdish-population-1232551004]  Ibid.  Rubin, M., Kurdistan Rising?: Considerations for Kurds, Their Neighbors, and the Region, American Enterprise Institute, 2016, 6.  Ibid.  Khalid Khayati. “From Victim Diaspora to Transborder Citizenship? Diaspora formation and transnational relations among Kurds in France and Sweden.” Linköping University, 2008, 67-68.  Ibid, 69  Ibid, 72  Ibid, 74  Ibid, 75.  Ibid, 76.  Ibid, 77.  Ibid, 78.  Ibid, 79.  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440  https://www.institutkurde.org/en/info/kurdish-diaspora-1232550988  Eliassi, B., “Making a Kurdistani identity in diaspora: Kurdish migrants in Sweden.” In Diasporas Reimagined: Spaces, Practices and Belonging, by N. Sigona, A. Gamlen, G. Liberatore and H. Neveu Kringelbach. Oxford, 2015, 47.  Ibid.  Ibid, 46.  Alinia, Minoo, and Barzoo Eliassi. “Temporal and Generational Impact on Identity, Home(land) and Politics of Belonging among the Kurdish Diaspora.” Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 2014: 73-81.  Ibid, 75.  Ibid, 1403.  Ibid, 1405.  Ibid, 1411.  Ibid, 1412.  Tawat, M. "The Birth of Sweden’s Multicultural Policy. the Impact of Olof Palme and His Ideas.”International Journal of Cultural Policy”25, no. 4, 2019, 471 - 485.  Wickström, M., The Multicultural Moment The History of the Idea and Politics of Multiculturalism in Sweden in Comparative, Transnational and Biographical Context, 1964–1975, Abo Akademi University, Finland, 2015, 7-8.  Wickström, M., Op. Cit., 8-9.  Maisel, S., “The Kurds: An Encyclopedia of Life, Culture, and Society.”, ABC-CLIO, 2018., 271.  Ibid.  Tawat, M., Op. Cit., 471- 485.  Maisel, S., Op. Cit., 271.  Busby, A., “Kurdish Responses to Minority Policies in Turkey and Sweden”, Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Vol. 18, No. 1,1995, 13-17.  Ibid.  Maisel, S., Op. Cit., 272.  Ibid.  Ibid, 271.  Khayati, K., and Dahlstedt, M., “Diaspora Formation among Kurds in Sweden”, Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 4(2), 2014, 59.  Ibid.  Maisel, S., Op. Cit., 273, cursive added.  Khayati, K., and Dahlstedt, M., Op. Cit., 2014, 59.  Maisel, S., Op. Cit., 273.  Ibid, 273-274. see Maisel, S., “The Kurds: An Encyclopedia of Life, Culture, and Society.”, ABC-CLIO, 2018., 273.