Sazan Mandalawi is soft-spoken and very welcoming, a common trait among Kurds. She smiles apologetically and excuses herself: “I’ve just moved into this new office, it’s a bit messy.” The room is still bare, and there is hardly any clutter.
Mandalawi has become a point of reference for many Kurds who have faced exile and have chosen to return. Her book, My Nest in Kurdistan, is an open invitation to make the journey back to the homeland and help shape Kurdistan.
The author’s family was forced to flee the region in 1997, following years of violence at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Regime.
“My dad was writing a lot about the central government. I remember people intruding into our home, with guns. It was between life and death, we made a decision, and fled.”
While her father waited in Turkey, the remaining family members attempted to make their way across the border.
"It had been so difficult for a man who’d been a Peshmerga for 30 years of his life to be in Australia"
Mandalawi speaks quickly and colourfully, describing every instance in detail, her tone rising and falling.
She talks about the long journey to safety, filled with border police, fake passports and a seemingly endless road towards Turkey, where the family of four had been accepted as asylum seekers by the United Nations.
“My mum, my brother and I were caught with fake passports at the border with Turkey. We walked back, and my mother threw the luggage off the bridge into the water. She was so tired and depressed.”
The family was eventually reunited in Turkey, where they spent a year as asylum seekers. In 1999 they found refuge in Australia.
Like many children of exiled Kurdish parents, young Mandalawi and her brother were not allowed to speak English in the house: “There was a tally, and every time we spoke English we’d get a mark, and we were punished,” she says, amused.
While they had found safety, it was never home: “When you’re so culturally brought up, it’s hard to be part of a society where what is being preached inside your house is not being practiced outside.”
The question of identity is troublesome for many diaspora Kurds. There often exists a push and pull between their roots and their adoptive culture.
Although Australia never replaced home, the young returnee is adamant that she would not be who she is today, were it not for Australia.
“At a time where my nest was not safe, Australia gave me an opportunity and if it wasn’t for that period of time I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m thankful to Australia for giving me a second home,” she says.
During her time in Australia, her memories of Kurdistan were not those of a happy childhood: “I remember being told to hide under the stairs if rockets fell, and gun shots being aimed at our home.”
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As a result, she coped with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a child: “When you have people breaking into your house, gun shots, and your mum faints on your lap. I was only five, these things live on with you,” she explains.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 changed everything: “I was walking back from school with my brother, we heard loud noises from the house, it was not normal,” she says with a smile.
“We went in and I saw my father dancing and my mother screaming, it was so funny! My dad was spinning me in circles, and all I could see on TV was the statue of Saddam being pulled down. We call it liberation, others call it invasion.”
For the Mandalawis it was not a question of whether they would return to Kurdistan, but when they would return: “My dad went back to visit. It had been so difficult for a man who’d been a Peshmerga for 30 years of his life to be in Australia, he didn’t fit in at all.”
In 2006, the entire family moved back to Erbil, where the young author was forced to face her childhood demons.
“It was very difficult at the start, but with time I gave it a chance and discovered my surroundings. I met different people, the people of the land,” she says.
Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, has changed considerably since the family returned seven years ago. Places of leisure like malls or coffee shops did not exist: “Now you can have a social life, mix with people. You can drive and no one talks,” Mandalawi explains.
She is steady in her belief that Kurdistan’s youth can build a better future
Returnees and the increasing level of investment are two reasons behind these changes: “We have tall buildings, and fancy roads, but we still have an education system that needs to be fixed, women in shelters, honour killings, self immolation. We still have so many social issues we need to work on.”
“This progress has modernised Kurdistan,” she adds, “but we can’t forget that we still have many challenges.”
According to Mandalawi, those who return from the diaspora have a big role in solving these crippling issues.
She tells me about her volunteering work, and her recent trip to a refugee camp, where thousands of Syrian Kurds have been forced to relocate, due to the ongoing civil war.
“Once upon a time I was a refugee, now I’m back in my own country teaching refugee youth life-skills,” she says.
She is steady in her belief that Kurdistan’s youth can build a better future for the scarred region.
“All of the Kurds who have come back are making changes: strong youth activists, TV presenters, those who come back and write about Kurdistan to the world. Like I’ve said before, if you’re abroad and you’re a Kurd, pack your luggage with all the languages you know, all the education and all the experiences you have and come back, because there is a lot you can do here.”
“Of course” she adds with a smile, “There are those who come back, stay two weeks and say ‘I can’t live here!’”
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