NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Nashville State Community College began offering Kurdish language and culture classes in late October to help Nashville residents better serve and relate to the significant Kurdish community in Nashville and allow Kurdish speakers to continue learning their native language.
"Nashville is the largest community of speakers of Kurdish outside of Iraq. So the second largest community in the world, which is enormous. The number isn't huge, it's about 20,000 people. But, if you think about 20,000 people in a couple of zip codes, that's a high concentration. And that is a solid community," explained Nashville State Community College English Humanities and Creative Technologies Dean Dr. Patricia Armstrong.
Armstrong said the College was approached by Indiana University to start a few Kurdish courses.
"Indiana University (IU) has a excellent reputation for the instruction of languages," said Armstrong. "And my understanding is since 2002, they have had a series of Title VI grants that have funded the development of curriculum for languages that are not frequently taught."
After a visit to Nashville to meet leaders in the Kurdish community, months of developing curriculum, delays from a pandemic and the end of the war in Afghanistan which required translator resources, IU handed Armstrong the curriculum for language and culture classes in Nashville.
"All we are asking of our students is to come in to be engaged, and then to go out into the community and use their newfound knowledge and ability to strengthen ties with the [Kurdish] community," explained Armstrong.
Students in the first classes came from all walks of life, including one person who is married to someone from the Kurdish culture and wanted to understand their roots, as well as several elementary school teachers who said they hope to form a stronger bond with their Kurdish students.
Paragon Mills Elementary School 2nd Grade Teacher Sherrye Phillips explained, "In our school we have, I would say, at least 15% of our students speak Kurdish. And this is a way that we can also like bridge a gap, you know? With the students, we have staff, and of course, our families."
Alex Uczekaj, a special education teacher at the same elementary school, expressed a similar longing as her reason for taking the free night course.
"I just want to connect with my kids more. I want to get to know them more and, you know, be relatable to them and show them that I care about their culture, just like they're learning to care about ours," said Uczekaj.
After only three weeks of classes, she said she was already able to better relate to her students.
"I have been able to kind of communicate with some of my students that I've had formally and currently even with just like, ‘How are you?’ And they get so excited that their teacher knows a little bit of Kurdish and then they're trying to teach me Kurdish!" explained Uczekaj.
Armstrong explained the first large group of Kurdish speakers moved to Nashville because, "In the late 70s, with the the upheaval in Iran, that led to the deposition of the Shah, and the age of the Ayatollah."
Secondly, she said, "Around 2000, of course, the war in Iraq and Desert Storm, and all of that led to a large displacement of Kurdish speakers from Northwestern Iraq. And, of course, they came here where they already had family members and friends... what's so important for these communities is that they can find groceries and goods that are from their home, and that remind them of home."
The classes are free to whomever wants to attend them but fill up on a first-come-first serve basis all with the goal of building stronger relationships with the Kurdish community in Music City.
"There's a lot of gaps. And in order to bridge and we have to learn something about another culture. And language is one of those ways to bridge the gap to me," explained Phillips.
Uczekaj agreed, "When you put yourself in a box, you get stuck in that box and if you're not willing to branch out and look outside of it then you're going to limit yourself to friends, to people that you can get to know, to new experiences, [and] great food."
To learn more about the courses and check for open classes, click here.