Tour the American city where Kurdish sounds and flavors thrive

The World
Head to the back of Nashville's Azadi International Food Market and find a Kurdish bakery, complete with a tandoor oven. Drost Kokoye, a Kurdish American who grew up in Nashville, remembers when there was just one bakery catering to Kurdish tastes. “It was just one little small, hot closet,” she says.

Monica Campbell

Nolensville Pike. It’s on Nashville’s south side and it’s one of the city's most international strips. There’s even a cuisine tour that runs down the road. Stores and restaurants specialize in all-things Mexican, Indian, Chinese. The usual suspects in a fast-changing city.

But there’s one area off the Pike, at Elysian Fields Road, that stands apart: Little Kurdistan.

It looks like a drab strip mall. But it’s far from that. “You have the mosque here in the center, and to the right you have bakeries, shops and markets, and jewelry shops,” says Remziya Suleyman, a 29-year-old community organizer who grew up in the area. “I remember when it was just the mosque and that was all we had.”

Suleyman refers to when she first arrived here as a small child in the late 1980s, after her family fled the Kurdish region of Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s genocide. They were part of several waves of refugees from Kurdistan to be resettled in Nashville — an affordable place, with entry-level jobs, and ties to non-profits like Catholic Charities, which assisted Suleyman’s family when they arrived.

And the city’s Kurdish community only grew, as more war created more flight from Kurdish regions, including from Iran.

Now, Nashville houses the largest Kurdish community in the United States, totaling about 13,000.

When I visit, it’s Friday. Suleyman and I go to the mosque during afternoon prayer. While the imam delivers the sermon to the men in the other room, a flatscreen television transmits his service to the women in a separate room, where kids run around too.

After, people catch up and go eat. A Kurdish man sells watermelons, which he farmed himself, from the back of his truck for $5 each.

Suleyman and one of her childhood friends, Drost Kokoye, show me the Azadi International Food Market. There’s a gem tucked away in the back: a bakery, where one wall is lined with ovens, including a tandoor, a large, drum-shaped oven. Several workers are kneading dough into long flatbreads. It’s tough work. Bakery shifts start at 4 a.m. One woman kneads for hours, and gestures to a large plastic bucket filled with dough near her station. “It’s heavy,” she says, in Kurdish. She then sticks one of the dough balls to the sides of the tandoor to bake, and then uses tongs to pull the bread off the sides of the oven once it begins to puff.

Customers stream in and out, picking up the warm, soft bread.

Kokoye, who came to Nashville after her family left the Kurdish region in the mid-90s, remembers when the only bakery like this around was crammed into a tiny space. “It was just one little small, hot closet,” she says.

Sabri Abdullah runs the bakery and market and talks to me while ringing up customers non-stop. He got here in 1993, and tells me that he spotted opportunity, something from home the growing Kurdish community here missed. “I was the first one, and now we have several bakeries trying to do the same thing,” he says.

In the market next door, there's another tucked-away spot, in a tiny side room. It’s where Ibrahim Tahir sells jewelry, and it’s clear what is in demand: gold, for weddings, anniversaries, as an investment. Necklaces and bracelets glitter and golden belts have coins that jangle.

Suleyman pulls one of the belts against her waist. She’s tiny and the belt looks outsized.

“It’s also known as the WWF championship belt,” Kokoye jokes

It’s $15,000, if you’re interested.

Tahir, the shopkeeper, says some Kurds here still like buying gold. It feels safer than putting savings in a bank, he says.

“The gold—you can carry it, and you’re going to need it one time, one time in your life. So you better have it with you.” He adds how little he trusts the banking system back home, “in Kurdistan or Iraq.” He’d never put money in their banks, he says.

After a while, Suleyman and Kokoye tell me more about their journey to the United States, and life in Nashville.

Kokoye’s family first fled Iraq, to Iran, in the 1990s, escaping Hussein’s wrath. They were sheltered in Guam for three months, in a five-bedroom house, with one family to each room, she says. “So it wasn’t so much like the camp type of thing. It was a US military base,” she says. “I had no idea what was going on. You’re from Kurdistan, a landlocked nation, and here we are on an island that’s refreshed every couple of weeks with hurricanes. It was frightening!”

Eventually, they were resettled in Arizona, but heard about Tennessee's large Kurdish community and moved in 1997.

Suleyman remembers being on the move for years with her family, heading to different refugee camps, until settling in the US. When she was studying at Tennessee State University, her life turned toward community organizing when local lawmakers introduced a bill that threatened to make it illegal to practice Islam in the state. That got defeated, but the (ultimately unsuccessful) push for other laws, including an English-only law, only convinced Suleyman to become a full-time advocate. Kokoye recently joined Suleyman's staff.

Days after I left Nashville, tensions rose in northern Iraq. I gave Suleyman a call. It was all hitting home. She’s already attended memorials in the community for loved ones, peshmerga fighters, who have been killed back home.

"There is definitely mourning," she says. "I think our community is on the edge. We are concerned about the safety and security of all of our loved ones. But I think it's difficult that we are so far away and we can't be there."

She's leading a call for volunteers in Nashville to help sort and pack donations for a humanitarian aid campaign. It's called "All for Kurdistan."

So what takes you back home? Is there a certain food, ingredient or sound that reminds you? Let us know below in comments or on Twitter with the hashtag #JustLikeHome.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.