Ismet Tastan: Pillar of the Australian Kurdish Community
Interviewed by Dr. Hawzhin Azeez
Ismet Tastan is one of those rare Kurds whose tireless efforts for the Kurdish people deserves detailed attention and praise. I have known Ismet for well over a decade and can say with confidence that his selfless passion and unending love for the Kurdish cause served as one of my inspirations and my own political involvement following the rise of ISIS in 2014 and their attacks on the Yezidi people as well as in Kobanê. Ismet is a pillar of the Kurdish community in Australia and has been the Sydney branch co-chair a number of years running. Not a protest or rally is held, a hunger strike or other symbolic events, meetings with MPs, various communities, awareness raising campaigns and so on in Australia – without Ismet being present and leading the events in some capacity.
I wanted to have this interview with Ismet to honor his unending, Herculean efforts at supporting the Kurds both at home and in the diaspora, for inspiring the Australian Kurdish community and younger generations to be more involved in the Kurdish cause, and for his unfailing integrity and commitment to our community. The rare souls like that of Ismet deserve a special place in the heart of the Kurdish communities and should be honored and valued for a lifetime of work whose rewards are not seen in monetary or official accolades, but in the love and respect the community holds towards them. Ismet’s story teaches us that life in diaspora can further fuel and propel our passion for Kurdistan and its liberation rather than extinguish it. His Australian-Kurdishness story is a heartwarming narrative of courage, strength and resilience.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your childhood, and where you grew up.
My name is Ismet Tastan, and I was born in the northern part of Kurdistan known as Bakur. I was born in the region of Qerekose (Agri), which is part of Bakur (North) of Kurdistan occupied by Turkey. I was part of a big Kurdish family in our village called Ezdo, where I was the 5th child out of 8 siblings. I spent the first 12 years of my life there, which housed just 125 families and was historically from a single tribe. Local myth claimed that the village had originally been a Yezidi one, hence its name. However, due to the harsh living conditions and the pressure from the government my family was forced to move to a larger city of Gihdin (Diyadin).
Even as children we were not safe from government abuses. At the primary school where I boarded we were regularly faced by police and security violence. Systematic and weekly raids and control of the school would occur. Many of the Kurdish children felt extremely unsafe and were deeply traumatized by the ongoing presence and violent nature of the police forces. Many of the families of the children were involved in Kurdish politics, many family members of my school friends were arrested, in prison, disappeared or joined the Kurdish Freedom Movement due to the intense state violence and discrimination through the police and security forces.
My school years were deeply traumatizing and a painful introduction to the nature of Kurdish existence in Bakur of Kurdistan. Our teacher at school was a Turkish neo-nationalist and Islamist. His name was Ali Tarhan. He was especially abusive. He created an environment in the classrooms where we were terrified of each other and our siblings. We thought our classmates were spying on each and reporting the smallest details, including us speaking Kurdish at home to our parents to the teachers. For months, my sisters thought I was spying on them and I thought they were spying on me, so we were terrified at home and forced to speak Turkish with our parents. My parents, of course did not speak Turkish at all and still do not. This issue created a deep psychological trauma that splintered family relations and created an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. This continued for months. Eventually, my uncle who had just been released from jail visited us and he educated us about this issue.
Every morning the school day would start with the Turkish national anthem, which we Kurdish children did not understand or know how to sing as we did not speak a work of Turkish. Most of us would make mistakes and he would publicly humiliate us through physical violence including slaps and kicks, forcing us to stand on one leg for hours, constant verbal abuse and other forms of humiliation.
He also terrorized us towards increased Islamisation. Friday was the worst day of the week, where the entire day would be devoted to religious studies. He would pressure us to memorize the Quran. Most of us had no idea how to read or speak Arabic so we would often mispronounce words and that would result in further punishment. The little girls, including my little sisters, were forced to wear the hijab.
We were deeply frightened of each other as a result of the ideology of the state and the teachers at school. We were terrified to even speak to each other, dance, sing or play Kurdish games or show our Kurdish identity. This really affected our childhood which was fraught with fear, trauma and violence. I feel that we as Kurdish children we missed out on having a childhood at all due to the discriminatory anti-Kurdish policies of the Turkish state.
Needless to say, like many other families around us, my family as also heavily politicized due to their experiences of discrimination at the hands of the state. In 1990 we left Ezdo and we moved to Gihdin (Diyadin). My parents supposed that we would be safer in a larger city and would be able to blend in better. Yet, we felt the presence of the military and were subjected to even further racial attacks and discrimination due to being Kurdish. Every 3-4 months our house was raided by the police. Following the 1982 military coup my uncle was arrested because of his political views. This arrest intensified police aggression towards my family, which continued on for years. As a result of the political and economically second class status of the Kurds, including my family I had to leave school to support my family. I engaged in agricultural work as well as worked as a shepherd. I helped my mother with the household chores as well as helping to raise my younger siblings.
You left Bakur of Kurdistan many years ago to go to Istanbul. What struggles did u face as a Kurd living in Istanbul at the time?
When I was 15 years old I couldn’t handle the living conditions and the ongoing government interference in the region which had caused deep psychological and physical scars. I left for Istanbul at the age of 15 in March 1993 to start a new journey. Some struggles I and my family had faced which resulted in this decision included our houses and cars would constantly be raided. This aggressive policy wasn’t just against my family but all Kurds in the region faced security and police violence and abuses, especially if they were political. Making life hard for the Kurds was the main goal of the government. Additionally, our living standards and economic means of existing and earnings were heavily restricted and obstructed. However, I faced more disappointments and discrimination once I arrived in Istanbul. In Istanbul too, the government was still heavily discriminatory against the Kurds and other minorities, and there was almost daily verbal abuse.
Furthermore, applying for jobs and finding an earning was one of my biggest challenges due to the colour of my skin and identity. Like many Kurds I faced much discrimination in the work force due to my obvious Kurdishness. The economic conditions were so dire that I resorted to becoming a shoe cleaner at the age of 15. The positive side of this was that now I was self-employed. Despite this I was consistently being attacked by the police and a heavily racialized public who were against my Kurdishness. Mentally it was very difficult for me to endure. My years in Istanbul were some of the hardest of my life. There was no equal opportunity, and society was heavily divided along ethnic and religious lines with minorities such as the Kurds being at the very bottom of this oppressive system.
By 1992 onwards the Turkish government was even more violent and repressive towards the Kurds. There was a curfew and state of emergency imposed on the Kurdish regions and political individuals and families were routinely and almost nightly arrested. One defining memory is when my neighbours, who was very political and was a high school teacher, was forced out of his home and shot at 5 am in the morning in front of the entire neighborhood including his children. Witnessing daily raids, arrests and police violence took a huge toll on me. I had to leave.
The accumulated trauma further politicized me which resulted in me joining the Kurdish youth movement in Istanbul. My first activism was protesting the 1988 Halabja massacre of the Kurds in Basur (South) of Kurdistan. In March 1993 to commemorate the Halabja tragedy we held a rally protesting Saddam’s aggression against the Kurds. I was arrested and tortured so severely that they broke my arm. Yet they prevented me from receiving any medical help and detained for 9 days. This resulted in me not being able to use my arm for almost 9 years as the arm was not set properly due to the late treatment.
In 1997 I was arrested again for 45 days due to attending the Newroz protests. In 1998 I was arrested again for 25 days along with 15 other family members including uncles and cousins. An informant had reported the activism of my family. For the 25 days we were detained, every day and night we were beaten and abused non-stop. Before I was detained I was 70kgs. 25 days later on my release I was 58kgs. Nevertheless I continued my pro-Kurdish activism, even though deep down I feared that one day I would be killed by the regime for my work.
Eventually I met my wife Liz who was an Australian travelling for holiday to Istanbul. We formed a deep bond, which resulted in Liz staying on and then marrying me in Istanbul. After close to three years of marriage and life together in Istanbul we moved to Australia permanently in order to allow our first born child a better and safer life there.
How has your experience of being a Kurd affect your life in Australia?
When I had arrived in Australian the year was 2005. I wondered if the same experiences back home would be repeated here and that I would be discriminated against here too. I also had external challenges such as the language barrier, adapting to the lifestyle and starting a new career here. I had always felt very isolated as finding a Kurdish community here had been a struggles and worried if I would ever find one. I was still deeply traumatized from my experiences back home at the hands of the Turkish state. On arrival I immediately felt deeply isolated and alienated. The close network of family, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends that carried me through the harsh years of life back home were now hundreds of miles away.
It took me 8 months to find the first Kurd and through them the Kurdish community. Back then there was no social media or the internet. One day I entered a Kebab shop which I had frequented previously and I heard Kurdish music. They had told me they were from Ankara and so I assumed that they were Turkish. My shock at hearing the Kurdish music still did not propel me forward. I didn’t trust them and stayed silent, until I heard them speak Kurdish. I was in tears with joy. Through this family I was invited to the Kurdish community center and where I met over 200-300 Kurdish people and families who embraced me. I joined the community and since then I’ve been a part of the Kurdish community and have held a number of leadership roles and worked with the other leaders to continue our work as activists for the Kurdish cause.
Once you arrived in Australia you could have started an entirely new life. Why did you decide to get involved again in the struggle for Kurdish human rights in Australia?
My family’s fight for human rights had always been a passion for me and I couldn’t be quite against all this injustice. As I arrived in Australia I wanted to be a voice and provide some relief to my people back home. My mission was to spread awareness and gain support from the politicians and organisations here on the illegal human rights violations imposed on the Kurds. Three major events had played a decisive role on me continuing the Kurdish struggle. They were the killing and displacing of over 40,000 Kurds in Bakur, the 1988 Halabja massacre which was the gassing of Kurds in Bashur of Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein, and the 2011 Roboski massacre. These events had stuck with me throughout my life and was the reason for me to continue my human rights activism as I didn’t want anyone else or another community to be in the same situation.
Tell us about the work you’ve done for the Kurds over the years? What has been your biggest achievement?
My first aim was to introduce the Kurdish immunity here in Australia to the Australian politicians and the parliament, and to integrate our people with the Australian society and values.
During the Rojava revolution I was part of the committee raising awareness of the events in Rojava with the Australian politicians to help be a voice for us. This led me to connecting and meeting many politicians and inviting them to our community centre, and events which resulted in very close connections and networks with a number of politicians from the Greens, Labor and Liberal party.
I had the privilege to help organize the very first Newroz event in the NSW Parliament which enabled over 15 MPs to attend. As a result our Kurdish identity and culture were introduced and presented to a wider, influential audience.
I had always been part of organising many rallies and protests and events for the Kurdish struggle. As human rights violations occurred we would immediately engage in community wide awareness raising campaigns. Events such as the 2014 Yezidi genocide at the hands of ISIS, the historical struggle for the liberation of Kobane from ISIS, the occupation of Afrin in 2018 and so on were such examples. We would also organize rallies with the support of politicians, the media and human rights groups and NGO’s.
In the year 2020, myself and other volunteers from the community worked on renovating our centre, which led to a big morale boost for our community. We had the honour of the current prime minister Anthony Albanese and current NSW senator David Shoebridge formally opening our centre, which was another additional morale boost for our community.
My other mission for the Kurdish struggle was more social and cultural in nature. Therefore myself and my colleagues Mira Ibrahim, Baran Sogut and other youth had come together to create a youth group where they can learn their Kurdish culture, language and history. We created dance classes, language classes, music classes etc. This was the aim of uniting our youth to learn their Kurdish identity. Our community and its members had shown full support for this project.
My colleagues and I also formed a Kurdish diplomacy group where we assisted other Kurdish communities in other states to be more involved in the Australian society and its politics, and to help bring awareness to the Kurdish struggle and voice.
We also had the privilege of connecting our Kurdish community with other communities such as Armenian, Tamil, Greek, Korean, Palestinian, Assyrian, Cambodian and so on in an effort to increase multicultural ties of our community. This also created a platform to exchange culture, music and history with each other. In 2019 a public gathering including a public prayer for Rojava was held at Ashfield Church where the then leader of the Labor party, and current Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese joined and led the prayers.
Overall my biggest achievement was being a candidate for the NSW Greens upper house election in 2023.
In your opinion, what struggles do the Kurdish communities face in the diaspora counties like Australia?
There are a number of issues our Kurdish people face in the diaspora including: Due to the ongoing attacks and oppression towards our people, Kurds in the diaspora feel the emotional impact and feel deeply powerless to do something to change events back home. Due to the fear and traumas of the Kurds and their lived experiences, when they arrive in the diaspora they often neglect or distance themselves and their children from the Kurdish cause which creates new generations alienated from their identity. Further, being constantly called a terrorist and having that term weaponized against the Kurds is a widely experienced reality. The unjust presence of the PKK on the terror list contributes heavily to this label. Due to the illegal imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish people feel further discriminated against as there is little news or concern for his situation.
You recently ran as a Green candidate with the Greens party in the Australian general elections. What was your experience like in this regard, and how did your Kurdishness affect the policies and ideas you presented as a candidate?
In 2016 I met Jamie Parker, the NSW Green’s member for Balmain. Since then he has been one of the biggest supporters of the Kurdish community. His friendship and support for the Kurdish community has been immeasurable especially for the Rojava situation as well as the ongoing detainment of Abdullah Ocalan as well as the occupation of Afrin. He isn’t just a Politian but a true friend and supporter of the Kurds. He was a huge supporter of my activism and encouraged me to run in the elections.
My candidacy in the year 2023 provided me with a larger voice for the Kurdish community. Still, being a very long active Greens Party member this candidacy came as a huge surprise for me. Just like the Kurdish principles, the Greens principle connect the three pillars of the environment, equality and democracy. Therefore this candidacy give me the chance to be a voice for not just the Kurds but also other minorities and showing them that they can also be a part of Australian politics. During the candidacy I felt deeply welcomed within the Greens Party, from the leadership to the council members everyone opened hearts to me. This was an important event and collective success for the Kurdish community in Australia. Even though we failed to gain the necessary numbers, I did not see it as a failure but rather this experience inspired me greatly. The Kurdish community had shown full support for me during the election time; and they viewed my candidacy as a big morale boost, and for them to see a Kurdish person being a representative on their behalf.
This weekend the Greens will be holding a NSW State Delegates Council (SDC) meeting at the Kurdish community center which is the first time a political party has held an official meeting at our center.
Tell us about your hopes for the Kurdish communities in the diaspora and for Kurdistan
My hope for the Kurds in diaspora is that one day they can go back to their lands with their vision of a free independent Kurdistan realized and to live or travel there without the worry of being discriminated against. Wishing the new generation to come to gain a deeper awareness and love for their heritage, and to be good citizens in both their adopted homes and back in the homeland. For the younger generations to not forget their history, culture and mother language. To be so active and involved in the liberation of greater Kurdistan- and not just one section of Kurdistan, such as just Bashur or Bakur or Rojhilat but all of Kurdistan- that we achieve this collective and long denied dream of ours.